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Iranians Have Paid Dearly For Fateful Misjudgment

A tank with a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the Niavaran Palace in Tehran on February 12, 1979
A tank with a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the Niavaran Palace in Tehran on February 12, 1979
Iran's Islamic Revolution didn't start on February 1, 1979, when the shah left Iran and exiled Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini returned home from Paris. Nor did it begin nine days later, when the shah's regime was formally declared overthrown and the provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan took over.

It actually started at least a year or two earlier with demonstrations and strikes, the distribution throughout the country of tapes of Khomeini's speeches, and countermeasures, sometimes harsh and brutal, by government forces. As the strikes and the anti-shah slogans became increasingly frequent, millions of people -- men, women, the elderly people, teenagers, children, factory workers, bazaris, unemployed, and finally soldiers and officers -- took to the streets with a single demand: The shah must go!

By 1979, such universal discontent had developed into something none of us could have imagined, even those who considered themselves educated individuals who cared about the fate of their nation. Intellectuals, students, writers, teachers, and opposition groups were all involved in some sort of activity directed against the shah's regime. The main reason was the lack of freedom and democracy, and the arrests and torture of political opponents. But once those whom you didn't expect to protest first became sympathetic to the idea of, and later demanded, regime change, everybody -- bazaris, government employees, and finally even officers of the royal army -- understood that the situation was serious. It was not just a few hundred, or even a few thousand, people: Millions came out on the streets, every week and every other day. The shah had no alternative but to quit.

And that was everyone's main demand. Not an ideology, not a political system, not religion, but just: The shah must go! With his charisma and relentlessly anti-shah position, and as thousands of mosques and tens of thousands of mullahs signaled their support for him, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the symbol of the anti-shah movement, a national leader whose words, once he arrived in Tehran, immediately acquired the force of law.

Wolf In Sheep's Clothing

To be sure, the main force carrying out Khomeini's plans and orders were the mullahs. But everybody else -- from leftists to nationalists, from those ayatollahs and Islamist groups who privately criticized Khomeini to activists representing minority ethnic groups, from nonpartisan small-business people and government employees afraid of political involvement to the marginalized rural poor -- all became united in one thing: Khomeini is the symbol, the leader who has to finish the job -- "and then we will see."

Those of us in the West shared that view. Most of us assumed that the mullahs didn't have the aptitude for (or interest in) the complex business of government, which requires experience, skills, and Western-style educations that the mullahs lacked. We thought Iran had enough educated, intellectual, secular, modern-thinking, democracy-minded men and women not only to prevent the mullahs from usurping power, but to take over from them. The Khomeini camp, with universal public support, still had to force the showdown. The new elite would then take over.

Or so we thought. But as soon as he took the reins of government, Khomeini started to renege on the promises he had made while still in exile: that he would return to the holy city of Qom to devote himself to his religious duties and leave politics to politicians, and that Iran would become a democratic country where all political forces could operate freely and compete within a harmonious system where all ultimately contribute to the nation's independence and prosperity.

Most high-ranking officials in the shah's government had already fled. In the weeks and months before and after February 1979, you could see them -- and many others, wealthy businessmen, bureaucrats, and technocrats -- hastily selling their houses, emptying their bank accounts, and leaving the country by the hundreds and thousands.

Most of those few-hundred senior bureaucrats and army officers and mid- and low-level officials who remained were detained and executed. Most members of non-Muslim religious communities such as Jews, Baha'is, and Christians had to flee for their lives.

'Death to...!'

Khomeini staged a referendum on the future political system under the slogan "An Islamic Republic -- Nothing Less and Nothing More!" People overwhelmingly voted for it -- and for a hastily formulated constitution -- even if they did not understand the implications. And they have suffered the consequences of that unquestioning approval for the past 30 years.

The new constitution established a supreme leader -- Khomeini himself -- as the ultimate authority on everything from military and justice to foreign policy and the media, from education and elections to trade and agriculture. The supreme leader is not elected by the people but chosen by a Guardians Council whose members are appointed by the supreme leader himself.

In our ignorance, we continued to hope for the best, despite increasing pressure and persecution that only intensified in the wake of Iraq's aggression against Iran, the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and the ensuing hostage crisis. The revolutionary government was being transformed into a dictatorship led by a group around Khomeini that liquidated all perceived opponents and gradually and systematically concentrated all power into their own hands.

Any group or personality, any way of thinking or acting not closely associated with the inner circle of Khomeini supporters was condemned as anti-Islamic, anti-revolutionary, pro-American, liberal -- and eliminated.

New Depths

The next wave of reprisals targeted leftist and nationalist organizations. Thousands of their supporters were jailed, tortured, and executed.

Then it was the turn of those moderate Muslim groups and political figures who had joined the first revolutionary government. Those influential ayatollahs who had initially supported Khomeini, but were against the new political system, were pressured. Their "aba" (religious clothing) was confiscated and they were imprisoned or placed under house arrest. Khomeini's own first prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, was ousted and placed under house arrest, while his first president, Abolhasan Banisadr, fled the country. And Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whom Khomeini had initially picked as his preferred successor as supreme leader, was later put under house arrest.

That reign of terror lasted for 10 years. It was only after the Iran-Iraq war ended, after the death of Khomeini, and after Ali Khamenei's machinations to succeed him (all other potential candidates for supreme leader having been eliminated) that new groupings began to emerge from within the inner circle of the early hijackers of the revolution: pragmatists, principalists, reformists.

Today, 30 years later, we have an Iran ruled by an unelected supreme leader who is unaccountable to anyone and a henchman-cum-president who is hand-picked by that same leader then "elected" by the people; an Iran with no freedom or liberty; an Iran isolated from the developed world; an oil-rich country that imports 40 percent of its gasoline; an official unemployment rate of 12 percent and official annual inflation of 17 percent, with people running from one work shift to another just to make ends meet, tired and fearful of any new revolution and concerned solely about trying to survive without forfeiting their dignity.

Let's face it: We were responsible for what happened. Perhaps we deserved it. But it is still up to us to change things for the better.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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