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79/11, Tehran or Tunis | Part 1: The Fork in the Revolutionary Road


11 Oct 2012 22:21Comments

Two different militaries, and one calculated destruction of constitutional order.

Dr. Iraj Omidvar teaches English at Southern Polytechnic State University, Marietta, Georgia. Any opinions expressed are the author's own.
[ series ] As a Fulbright Fellow in Tunisia in 2007, questions I posed about domestic politics would often elicit silence, which spoke volumes about the police state that Tunisia was back then.

But this May, I noticed that the silence had given way to the sound of Tunisians talking about a wide range of issues -- domestic and global politics, religion, women's rights. The discussions are often heated because they are about momentous decisions with far-reaching consequences not just for Tunisians but, as they recognize, for every country in North Africa and the Middle East, including Iran.

My conversations with Tunisians were eye-opening for me, not just about their revolution but also the 1979 Iranian one, which I experienced as an adolescent.

As I listened to Tunisians talk about their revolution, I was often surprised by some of the topics that preoccupy them: the rule of law, freedom of the press and media, the quality of deliberations in the Constitutional Assembly, and government transparency and effectiveness. These topics represent priorities that are different, in significant ways, from what I remember and later learned about the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Although the priorities are different, they are in fact related because Tunisians from across the political spectrum are very much aware of the revolution that produced the Islamic Republic of Iran. That awareness is influencing and, in some cases, framing the decisions being made in Tunisia. And perhaps not surprisingly, many Tunisians I spoke with were eager to know more about the Iranian Revolution, queries that prompted me to dig more deeply into facets of that revolution I had overlooked.

In this and the following two entries in the series, I will outline what I have learned about the 1979 Revolution in Iran as I tried to understand the Tunisian revolution, which set off the Arab Spring and is changing the terms of discussion in the region about a wide range of issues, including democracy, religion, and liberation struggle.

The two revolutions are really marked by their differences. There are, of course, a couple of obvious similarities that are often mentioned. For example, in both countries, the dictators left in mid-January. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to leave Tunisia on January 14, 2011. And Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi left Iran on January 16, 1979. In each case, as well, a prominent, popular religious figure stood opposed to the government. Each had been exiled, and each returned to his respective country a little more than two weeks after the dictator's departure. Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi came back to Tunisia on January 30 last year. In Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned on February 1.

But the major similarities decidedly end there.

Perhaps the most significant difference is that after Ben Ali was ousted, Tunisia's constitutional framework did not collapse. Instead, the offices of president and prime minister and cabinet posts were gradually filled with less tarnished politicians under the watchful eyes of an alert and active Tunisian public. The opposition was regularly consulted and gradually incorporated into the government, and a great deal of thought was put into how to go about creating the next constitution and the next fully legitimate, representative government.

In Iran in 1978-79, Khomeini was determined to bring down the constitutional framework. On the very day of his return, he made this statement:

We are saying this man [the Shah], his government, his Majles are all illegal. If they were to continue to stay in power, we would treat them as criminals and would try them as criminals. I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government in the mouth. I shall determine the government with the backing of this nation, because this nation accepts me.

Khomeini could dispense with the existing framework because the monarchy and its military had discredited themselves the previous year. The Shah's top generals had overseen heavy-handed enforcement of martial law that had resulted in the death and injury of thousands of their fellow Iranians, alienated the military rank and file, and led to mass desertions.

This process of discrediting had been completed in late 1978 during General Gholam Reza Azhari's disastrous two months as interim premier. He had sent tanks into Tehran and troops to occupy industrial installations where workers were striking. He had also made absurdly bellicose and delusional speeches to parliament. In one, he claimed that nightly anti-regime chants from the rooftops were emanating solely from loudspeakers installed by subversives. Even as an adolescent, I knew he was lying since family and friends were chanting from the rooftops every night. Azhari's performance merely served to present the state as beyond the reach of rationality.

By the end of Azhari's premiership, the reputation of the military and of the monarch who controlled it was wrecked. So was, unfortunately, the credibility of the next government led by Dr. Shapour Bakhtiar, an intelligent social democrat who did his best to avoid the complete constitutional collapse that Khomeini was trying to bring about.

In Tunisia, matters were different. Generals such as Rachid Ammar refused to order the killing of fellow Tunisians and in fact deployed troops to prevent the depredations of the police and security services. Seen as heroes, the Tunisian armed forces have emerged as the ultimate guarantor of security. This role was particularly important during the uncertain months leading to last year's elections for the Constitutional Assembly.

In Iran, the discrediting of the security services and the military eventually led to a power vacuum that was filled by popular but undisciplined revolutionary neighborhood committees, which were gradually purged and transformed into the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps by Khomeini and his network of radical clerics. The Revolutionary Guards were later used to great effect to terrorize and silence Khomeini's opponents.

Collapse of the constitutional order

In early January 1979, Bakhtiar made sincere overtures to Khomeini, then in the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Château, to meet to resolve the problems facing the country. But Khomeini refused to see him.

On January 12, more than two weeks before he returned to Iran, Khomeini formed what came to be called the Islamic Revolutionary Council to advise and help him direct the masses of his followers. This secret council, as the name suggests, was composed of clerics and civilian Islamists in Khomeini's circle of contacts. Although women as well as secular and independent religious groups were fully active in the Revolution and were coordinating their activities with Khomeini, they were not represented in the council, which was initially chaired by Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, a Khomeini disciple, and from May until its dissolution the following February, by moderate Islamists Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani and Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who later became president.

On February 5, four days after his return to Iran, Khomeini issued a decree appointing the moderate Islamist Mehdi Bazargan,1 a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Council, to lead an interim government in parallel to the existing constitutional one.

Bazargan and associated moderate Islamist groups, who claimed to have successfully synthesized their Islamic and democratic political outlooks, represented the most modern, democratic face of Islam in 1979. And the democratic hopes and dreams of many Iranians, secular or religious, were pinned on them.

However, as the historical record shows, Bazargan and his ideological and organizational associates did not understand rudimentary principles of democracy, nor did they appreciate the landmarks of Iran's democratic heritage. They were instrumental in creating Iran's current autocratic clerical theocracy, which serves as the background to what is happening in Tunisia.

Significantly, Khomeini's unconstitutional decree appointing Bazargan prime minister was grounded first in his "sharia right" and only then in what he claimed was his "legal right" based on the "vote" of the people as demonstrated on the streets.2

Bazargan, who was aware of and intimately involved with Bakhtiar's overtures to peacefully resolve the national crisis, nevertheless agreed to run Khomeini's parallel government.

This decision, which discarded the constitution Iranians had wrung from their absolute rulers in 1906 after decades of struggle, had catastrophic legal and political ramifications.3

One immediate consequence was that it turned the secretive Islamic Revolutionary Council into an unconstitutional and unelected legislative branch, which granted itself the power to make decisions for all Iranians even though it unapologetically excluded women, secularists, and others not in Khomeini's network of close contacts. In other words, Bazargan's decision granted what was effectively the central committee of Khomeini's party the right to legislate and, outside any kind of constitutional framework, often to engage in governance.

Typical of the abysmal performance of prominent Iranian politicians of the time, Bazargan expressed no objection to the bluntly theocratic explanation that Khomeini gave Iranians in his presence the day after Bazargan's appointment as prime minister:

I [have] received my guardianship from the sharia.... [Thus] the person I have appointed must be obeyed. The nation must obey him. This is not a normal government. This is a sharia government. They [people] must obey him. Opposing this government is opposing the sharia. Rising up against it is rising up against the sharia. Rising up against a government based on the sharia has its punishment in our laws, in our Islamic jurisprudence. The punishment is very severe.... In Islamic jurisprudence rising up against the divine government is rising up against God.4

On February 11, Bakhtiar's constitutional government collapsed.

In Part 2, I will revisit the horrors that followed the collapse of the constitutional order in Iran and try to explain how Tunisians have, so far, spared themselves a repeat of those horrors.


1. Amir Arjomand, Said. "Constitution of the Islamic Republic," Encyclopaedia Iranica. Originally published December 15, 1992; last updated October 28, 2011. The Iranica article characterizes Bazargan and his group as "liberals and Islamic modernists." However, the conduct of Bazargan and his group in 1978-79 clearly defines them as moderate Islamists.

2. My translation of Ruhollah Hosseinian's "Why and How Bazargan Became Prime Minister," Center for the Islamic Revolution Documents.

3. Members of the National Front, including its leader, Dr. Karim Sanjabi, were also afflicted with abysmal judgment. Before Khomeini returned to Iran, Sanjabi was accepted (as a second-tier functionary) into Khomeini's camp only after he disgraced the National Front by issuing an announcement that seemed to reject (a) the existing constitutional framework in its entirety, (b) therefore, the possibility that the National Front would be open to forming a constitutional government under any circumstances, and (c) the principle of the separation of state from organized religion. The National Front subsequently further contributed to the demolition of the constitution by expelling Bakhtiar from its ranks when he agreed to accept the premiership from the Shah. Finally, Sanjabi and other National Front members joined the Bazargan government even after they were told by Khomeini that Bazargan was appointed to head a theocratic government.

4. My translation. The original phrase that I have translated as "the sharia" is "Shaare'e Moghaddas." This literally translates as "the Sacred Legislator," which in the specialized language of Iranian Jafari Shia jurisprudence refers to what constitutes the sharia as a whole, God and his commandments in the Qur'an as well as the deeds and words/commandments of the Prophet and the Imams.

Photo via Flickr.

End of Part 1 | Part 2: The Long Shadow of Iran's Summary Executions | Part 3: The Abandonment of Democratic Principles | Part 4: The Final Capitulations to a Clerical Takeover

This article was first published here on July 20.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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