:: Article

Reflections on the Revolution in Iran

By Max Dunbar.


Con Coughlin, Khomeini’s Ghost, Macmillan, 2009

Follow anyone you like, anyone except Khomeini. For following Khomeini shall lead you knee-deep in blood.

– Rumoured last words of the marja Borujerdi, quoted in Khomeini’s Ghost, p100

Reviewing this biography in the Observer, Dominic Seabrook castigated its author for his insufficient respect for the Ayatollah Khomeni, claiming that Con Coughlin ‘never really explains why Khomeini’s ‘all-pervading influence’ has lasted so long’. He went on to say this:

We have all heard the stories of middle-class dissidents and educated liberals, but it would be fascinating to hear from the working-class Iranians who benefited from the revolution, the kind of people who support President Ahmadinejad and venerate Khomeini’s legacy. It is a shame that Coughlin is too busy banging his battered war-on-terror drum to find out why they still admire him, and why despite all the travails of the last 30 years, his extraordinary brand of politicised religion still appeals to millions of people in one of the oldest and culturally richest societies in the world.

In fact, Coughlin isn’t the neoconservative that Seabrook makes him out to be. His prose is clear of bias and even inflection: he writes with the sturdy neutrality of the telexed dispatch. Objective almost to the point of banality, the reader sometimes wishes for Coughlin to make some kind of judgement, or get carried away – fans of Iranian writing will be used to the defiant prose of Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. However, there are occasional laugh-out-loud moments, as when Coughlin tells the story of a US delegation to Tehran, bearing weaponry and an iced cake and a Bible, ‘to highlight the historical relationship between Christianity and Islam’. Unfortunately, Khomeini banned any of his ministers from meeting the delegation, with the result that the Americans were ‘kept waiting unceremoniously at Tehran airport for several hours while a group of young Revolutionary Guards ate the cake’.

Indeed – and this is why Seabrook’s caricature is so unfair – Coughlin’s book is also a history of the West’s shameful entanglement with Iran. We all know that the US contributed vital war intelligence to Saddam’s regime during the 1980-88 war, and of its sorry machinations during the arms-to-hostage affair, but in a series of dramatic revelations Coughlin pinpoints just how close America was to declaring war on Iran (apparently it identified Tehran as the main axis threat only when its army had got seriously bogged down in Iraq). Coughlin also traces the interference of British colonial forces, which strangled every attempt at Persian parliamentary democracy.

Yet the most gripping passages in the biography are those surrounding the revolution of 1979. The parallels with the Bolshevik revolution are astonishing: they had the initial euphoria and grand vision, the Stalin-style purges and forced confessions and show trials (because so many revolutions eat themselves) the rigged elections, the Shah’s SAVAK secret police replaced by Khomeni’s religious police in the form of the Revolutionary Guards, the deterioration in living standards, the schools turned to madrasses, the brain-drain exodus as anyone with spirit and sense is either shot or exiled. There is even a Kerensky of sorts: the hapless Bakhtiar, ‘who opposed both the Shah’s autocratic style of government and Khomeni’s fundamentalist Islamic agenda,’ appointed to keep a lid on the riots while the Shah escaped to Paris.

Seabrook points out that ‘[c]ommunist and socialist groups, for example, were instrumental in the riots of 1978 that led to the revolution’. What he doesn’t tell you is that the clerics had most of them killed after they had outlived their strategic usefulness. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about coming of age in the Islamic Republic, there’s a panel in which the child Satrapi is listening to her father and uncle argue about the uprising. ‘The revolution is a leftist revolution,’ Mr Satrapi exclaims in brutal incredulity, ‘and yet the republic wants to be called Islamic!’ Uncle Anoosh assures him that things will be fine. ‘In a country where half the population is illiterate you cannot unite the people around Marx,’ he explains. ‘The only thing that can really unite them is nationalism or a religious ethic.’ But, he emphasises: ‘The religious leaders don’t know how to govern. They will return to their mosques. The proletariat shall rule!’

You can’t really blame the Iranian leftists for their naivety. While today’s Islamists make no secret of what they believe and what they want for the world, Khomeni was a duplicitous opportunist. People backed him because he was the first to oppose the Shah, not because they wanted an Islamic theocracy. Khomeini declared a ‘struggle for freedom of conscience and the way of democracy desired by all clear-minded Iranians.’ He spoke of ‘progressive Islam’ and a possible future female president. As Seabrook wrote, Khomeini styled himself as ‘a simple man of God who wanted to restore ‘democracy’ to his native land.’ A leftwing activist fighting the Shah’s elite in 1978 recalls that ‘[Khomeini] realised there was a different political climate taking root in Iran from the one he wanted, and he was determined to take advantage of it, even if it meant keeping quiet about what he really wanted.’

Although Khomeini did not outlive the writer he sentenced to death, his evil still reverberates. The Tehran-backed militias in Iraq, the terrorist organisation Hezbollah which was formed by the Revolutionary Guards, even the nuclear programme: all bear the smears and whorls of the ayatollah’s bloody thumbprint. His revolution has descended into black farce, with its current guardian declaring that there are no gay people in Iran, calling for Israel to be wiped off the map and hosting an international conference on Holocaust denial.

Yet there may be grounds for optimism. Student protests and trade union strikes have increased; Iran is predominantly young and restless and knows exactly what it’s missing. As the London-based Iranian immigrant Azarmehr wrote on his blog, on the republic’s thirtieth anniversary:

There are many things which are hindering the Iranian nation however, whereas thirty years ago it was the Iranian Left who helped the Ayatollahs to take over the power, now it is the international Left which is helping the clerics remain in power, the ‘useful idiots’ and the spineless Western leaders who see no further than their short term interests, the proxy terror groups in the region and the unscrupulous turncoats are all desperately hand in hand trying to keep this antiquated regime on its life support but it will be all in vain. Iran will survive and Iran will come through victorious as it has throughout the past.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 22nd, 2009.