Iran Must Confront Its Past To Move Forwards: Khomeini Has Become A Symbol Of What Went Wrong With Iran's Wayward Revolution
22 February 2015
By Amir Taheri
Over the past week the Iranian authorities have marked the 36th anniversary
of the Khomeinist revolution by deploying the heaviest propaganda artillery
at their disposal. The official narrative is that Iran, under its ''Supreme
Guide,'' has the most perfect political and economic system known to mankind
since the advent of Islam fifteen centuries ago. The only problem, official
propaganda claims, is that ''vicious powers'' are trying to undermine the
Islamic Republic by fomenting internal dissent combined with economic and
However, while cymbals of self-congratulation are crashed, voices could also
be heard demanding a realistic assessment of the past decades. Nations that
have experienced a revolution have often used the entry into the fourth
decade of the new regime as a good point to take stock. In most cultures
three decades is regarded as the lifespan of a generation, a vantage point
from which a new generation can examine the record of the preceding one.
That self-examination, or self-criticism as Marxists have it, is not aimed at
settling past scores with players who have either died or faded into
oblivion. The aim is to achieve a better understanding of an experience that,
because of its very nature, included tragic aspects. A revolution's
self-criticism does not always come in the same manner. Nor does it produce
In the case of the French Revolution the Thermidor episode just two years
into the new era proved to be just a flash in the pan. France had to wait
until the July Monarchy in 1830 to conduct the genuine self-criticism it
needed. In Russia, the exercise took the shape of the 20th Congress of the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956, in which Nikita
Khrushchev exposed Stalin's ''personality cult'' and announced measures to
undo some of the worst atrocities committed in the name of the revolution.
Thanks to de-Stalinization millions of people, including whole nations such
as Chechens and Crimean Tatars, were allowed to return home after years of
exile in Central Asia and Siberia.
In Communist China, the break came in the plenum of the party's Central
Committee in July 1972. There, the blame for all that had gone wrong,
including crimes committed in the name of revolution, was put on Lin Biao who
had conveniently died, or been liquidated, in an air crash. By admitting the
folly of such policies as the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian
Cultural Revolution, the party opted for de-Maoization while keeping Mao
Zedong, the chief architect of the tragedy nominally in place.
Cuba had a similar experience in 1980 when the ruling Communist Party
conducted its own version of de-Stalinization without jettisoning Fidel
Castro, the man most responsible for the tragic mistakes of the regime.
However, the ''correction'' enabled Cuba to disentangle itself from wars ''to
export revolution'' to Latin America, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It
provided a slight opening of the political space by recognizing the right of
other parties to exist, though not to govern. It also ended the wave of
executions that had marked the new regime since 1959.
Does Iran need its version of de-Stalinization? Many Iranians, including some
within the regime, say ''yes,'' at least in private. Instead of burying its
head in the sand of self-delusion, Iran would do well to carry out a serious
examination of the past three decades, a move that could be labelled de-Khomeinization.
A decade ago, some had hoped that newly-elected President Muhammad Khatami
would trigger such a process. He did not. His successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
toyed with the idea but never went beyond rhetorical pirouettes. Both men
lacked the courage to tackle the demons of the past. Though he lacks the
stature and the charisma of Khatami and Ahmadinejad, the current president,
Hassan Rouhani, faces the same challenge. If he leads a process of de-Khomeinization
he might succeed. If he does not he will fail as his predecessors did.
In Iran, no-one can ignore the tragic record of the revolution. Over the past
three decades some six million Iranians have fled their homeland. The
Iran-Iraq war claimed almost a million lives on both sides. During the first
four years of the Khomeinist regime alone 22,000 people were executed,
according to Amnesty International. Since then, the number of executions has
topped 80,000. More than five million people have spent some time in prison,
often on trumped-up charges. In terms of purchasing power parity, the average
Iranian today is poorer than he was before the revolution.
De-Khomeinization does not mean holding the late ayatollah solely responsible
for all that Iran has suffered just as Robespierre, Stalin, Mao, and Fidel
Castro shared the blame with others in their respective countries. However,
there is ample evidence that Khomeini was the principal source of the key
decisions that led to tragedy. He triggered the wave of executions with
little or no trial, often in writing as testified by the late Ayatollahs
Sadeq Khalkhali, the Iranian version of Fouquier-Tinville, France's Judge
Khomeini's erstwhile successor and later adversary, Ayatollah Montazeri, has
also released documents showing that the self-styled Imam was responsible for
triggering the eight-year war with Iraq and the seizure of American diplomats
as hostages. It was also Khomeini who insisted that a draft constitution be
re-written to enshrine absolute rule by a mullah, meaning himself.
Memoirs and interviews and articles by dozens of Khomeini's former
associates—including former Presidents Abol-Hassan Banisadr and Hashemi
Rafsanjani and former Premier Mehdi Bazargan—make it clear that he was
personally responsible for some of the new regime's worst excesses. These
include the disbanding of the national army, the repression of the
traditional Shi'ite clergy, and the creation of an atmosphere of terror, with
targeted assassinations at home and abroad.
Khomeini has become a symbol of what went wrong with Iran's wayward
revolution. De-Khomeinization might not spell the end of Iran's miseries just
as de-Stalinization and de-Maoization initially produced only minimal
results. However, no nation can plan its future without coming to terms with
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated
in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily
Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the
Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a
contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall
Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the
French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus.
Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt.
Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20
languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's
latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and