Khomeini the Politician

With such an exhaustive discussion surrounding the former Supreme Leader and father of the Islamic Republic of Iran there is little left to be said about Ruhollah Khomeini. His life has been dissected, analyzed, and criticized from almost every angle by scholars, historians, theologians, and politicians alike. Regardless if you love him or hate him, there are certain aspects of his career that cannot be dismissed; for example, his charismatic qualities as a leader which enabled him to rally the masses leading up to the 1979 revolution, his theological brilliance, and his political shrewdness. With that said, this paper will highlight specific moments in Khomeini’s political career as it is presented in parts of Nikki Keddie’s book Modern Iran: roots & results in revolution. The goal, therefore, is to first explain that in spite of the polarizing effect Khomeini had on the world this should not cloud one’s judgment when evaluating his political resume. Secondly, the argument will be made that Khomeini was more politically oriented, at times compromising Islamic values for political gain which created an increasing resentment towards Islam by many of the Iranian youth.

Khomeini’s political expertise was evident during the 1960’s when he clashed with the Shah but his true talents came to the forefront within the first five years (1979-1984) of the new government. Khomeini played the political scene with calculated precision, thus positioning himself at the apex of the Iranian government. In chapter ten of Modern Iran, Nikki Keddie discusses the political make up of Iran from 1979 to 1989. She outlines all the political parties that were active during the rebuilding process and how Khomeini and his followers (she calls them Khomeinists) were able to slowly and methodically gain complete control of the government. It is this relationship that reveals Khomeini’s charisma as well as his political aptitude.

One way Khomeini was able to build a coalition, gain the nation’s trust, and increase his influence and strength within the government was by communicating on a need-to-know basis. The level of information he would reveal at any given time depended on the audience, the nation’s overall disposition, and the extent to which progress (as he measured it) – in the sense of government and nation (re)building – was made. For example, earlier in the revolution Khomeini did not discuss his vision of an Islamic state with a velayat-e faqih, or supreme leader. Nor did he reveal his plans for the clerical institutions he envisioned, or the political branches that would be occupied by clerics. Khomeini concealing his true objectives and saying what the people wanted/needed to hear is no different than any other politician. However, his actions came as a much bigger shock because of his religious authority and the level of trust that came with such a title (up to that point, the majority of Shi Muslims in Iran respected, revered, and trusted their clerics).

When speaking to the masses Khomeini spoke in generalities about social injustice, nationalization of resources, anti-imperialism, and anti-Americanism. His rhetoric and vocabulary in the beginning was very similar to his political rivals therefore inviting his future enemies to be his short term allies in order to achieve his long term goals. Keddie provides one example of how Khomeinists worked with the left (a sincere adversary) in order to weaken the Provisional Revolutionary Government and how that tactic further strengthened Khomeini’s grasp over the government. At his juncture it is important to note that Khomeini’s political rivals were not as organized, united, recognized, or embraced by the Iranians as he was and this played a vital role in Khomeini’s political success. And while his rivals were occupied with internal problems, Khomeini began to develop a number of governmental branches where he appointed members of his coalition.

Keddie also provides an example of Khomeini’s broad stroke statements and a need-to-know approach. When the people were able to vote on what type of government they wanted the question at the ballot box asked, do you want an Islamic Republic yes or no. Because of Khomeini’s ambiguity, the nation, and many of his political rivals, was unaware and unprepared for what the Islamic Republic came to be. Also, after the constitution’s first draft, Khomeini’s opposition requested additional discussions for potential changes which allowed Khomeini to add the velayat-e faqih, incorporate further Islamic laws, and gain more power for the clerics. Had the opposition not made such a request the Islamic Republic might have looked a lot different. Throughout the early process of rebuilding Iran’s government, Khomeini did not push or enforce his ideas or plans, he played the political and social scene as he saw it and waited patiently for the right time to make his next move.

But the more power and control he gained the more merciless he became. In the initial years of the regime Khomeini cooperated with his opposition in order to gain strength, but towards the end arrests were made, individuals who posed a threat were exiled, and at times executed. Furthermore, Khomeinists would rig elections and propagate their ideology through media censorship, and education reform. Once again these actions are nothing new within the political arena; every government has performed, to some degree, acts of an immoral – and at times illegal – nature. Regardless of one’s opinion of Khomeini it is difficult to refute the argument that his political IQ was a major factor in the success of the Islamic Republic. However, one aspect of this government appeared to have been severely compromised during this political process – Islam.

Grand Ayatollah Khomeini stood on an Islamic platform even when he spoke little of it in the beginning of the revolution. Those who heard his speeches in the 1960’s and early 1970’s knew of his views and beliefs. He was a well-educated theologian and philosopher with the highest Shi title of Grand Ayatollah. He had thought provoking ideas on how to marry Islam and politics together but as he became more entrenched into the political scene it was Islam that was compromised. And for the Shi community within Iran, their understanding of Islam was – and to a certain extent still is – what they have learned through their government and what they see through their religious leaders. Therefore, when the nation’s most famous, knowledgeable, and trusted cleric performed his political duties at a high level but it was Islam that suffered as a result, many Shi-Iranians did not see Islam in a positive light.

And today, much of that same demographic does not believe in Islam because of the way it is represented by many of the clerics whose primary career is politics. Two quick examples come from my most recent trip to Iran; the new generation of parents are naming their children authentic Persian names with no lexicographical or historical ties to Islam (and subsequently Arabic), and some from this same generation are declaring themselves Christian (without actually converting) in spite of Islam. Even though Khomeini believed he had good intentions, all the work he did in trying to help his people become better Muslims was in vain. His political agenda superseded his religious agenda for a span of about five years in order to secure the Islamic Republic’s future but at the cost of hurting Islam and alienating it from the vast majority of the Iranian population.

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