tehranbureau An independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora

79/11, Tehran or Tunis | Part 4: The Final Capitulations to a Clerical Takeover


04 Nov 2012 23:25Comments

Part 1: The Fork in the Revolutionary Road | Part 2: The Long Shadow of Iran's Summary Executions | Part 3: The Abandonment of Democratic Principles

replacingshahphotoiran.jpg How "democrats" like Bazargan and Bani Sadr helped pave the way to dictatorship.

Dr. Iraj Omidvar teaches English at Southern Polytechnic State University, Marietta, Georgia. All opinions are his own.
[ series ] In Tunisia, no draft constitution drawn up in secret by one political faction was imposed on the country's people. On October 23, 2011, more than eight months after Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's departure, a largely free and dynamic election campaign culminated in the vote for a 217-seat Constitutional Assembly.1 After the election, the interim government duly ceded power to the newly elected, fully empowered assembly, which represented a spectrum of political perspectives.

From before the election, An-Nahda, a moderate Islamist party, vowed and at every step demonstrated its commitment to democratic principles. After winning a strong plurality of 41 percent of the seats in the assembly, An-Nahda warily formed a coalition with two equally wary secular parties. The coalition gave itself a year to complete deliberations about the constitution. Those deliberations aired regularly on radio and television, and were discussed and debated at length in the broadcast and print media and online by a broad cross section of the Tunisian society.

The preamble to the constitution was approved several weeks ago by one of the most important committees of the Constitutional Assembly. Much of the debate that led to it had to do with the role of Islam and sharia in politics. In the compromise language of the third paragraph, the constitution is said to be "[f]ounded on the fundamentals of Islam and its open and moderate aims, and on the lofty and humanistic values inspired by the civilizational accomplishments of the Tunisian People."

Every side in the debate had to pay a heavy price for this compromise language. The moderate Islamists disappointed their conservative adherents by not stating unequivocally that the constitution is merely a modern garb for the sharia. Secularists bemoan the reference to Islam, even though it does not name a privileged school of interpretation or define a professional priest class with a monopoly over the interpretation of religious texts.

Iran's current constitution was not examined in a constitutional assembly. On August 3, 1979, the Islamic Revolutionary Council decided to have elections for a deliberative body to debate the draft constitution. The goal was neither to cede power to this elected body, nor to elect a constitutional assembly. Rather, the goal was to create an Assembly of (legal) Experts with the narrowly predetermined goal of debating and approving Mehdi Bazargan's draft constitution. Referencing Bazargan's earlier referendum for an Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini and fellow clerics argued successfully that the most credible legal experts for an Islamic republic would be experts of the divine law -- that is, clerics. But not to leave matters to chance, Khomeini partisans demanded and ensured an extremely low number of deputies, 75, divided among the country's regions with the transparent goal of weighting the assembly against population centers and in favor of conservative rural areas. Bazargan had wanted a constitutional assembly, but he accepted the Assembly of Experts idea proposed by a fellow moderate Islamist on the Islamic Revolutionary Council. The elections were riddled with gross irregularities at every level and succeeded in producing a comfortable majority of 55 clerics in the assembly.

Final touches: American hostage taking and referendum on new constitution

This unrepresentative Assembly of Experts was given a mere two months to debate the draft. However, having "won" an absolute majority in the assembly, Khomeini partisans decided to do away with the subtleties of Bazargan's draft constitution. And shortly after the first meeting of the assembly, it was unceremoniously discarded with the goal of composing a new constitution from scratch, without changing the time frame.

The brand new constitution composed by these experts took the antidemocratic ideas of Bazargan's draft to their logical conclusion and imposed a crude Shia form of caliphate on Iran, worked out in Khomeini's writings on the rule of the jurisprudent. According to Khomeini's version of this idea, the person best qualified to rule is the leader of the people's self-appointed betters and guardians, who are also self-authorized monopolist interpreters of the Jafari Shia school of Islam. In the draft, not only is the parliament, or Majles, subject to extensive oversight by a beefed-up Guardian Council, but a supreme jurisprudent becomes the ultimate authority of the state.

Iranians had been given no say in the secret initial drafting of Bazargan's constitution; nor were they given a say in the composition of the assembly or its mandate, those decisions having been made for them by Bazargan and fellow members of the country's interim parliament -- the central committee of Khomeini's political organization, the Islamic Revolutionary Council. Many potentially popular candidates were prevented from participating in elections according to rules and rulings Khomeini's various Islamic revolutionary bodies were able to make up as needed in a constitutional vacuum; some of the very few independent people elected to the assembly were disqualified, again, in the same constitutional vacuum that permitted the Islamic Revolutionary Courts by October 14 to execute more than 600 people.2

The experts in the assembly, under tremendous pressure to be done with the process, churned out the brand new constitution within the allotted two months because they knew time was against them. Even as early as March 1979, Iranian civil society was showing signs of alertness and cohesion. The forced veiling of women in government bureaucracies "suggested" by Khomeini and enforced through intimidation, the undemocratic passages of the draft constitution, and the closure of dozens of popular magazines and papers like Ayandegan were protested, sometimes by very large crowds.

Although critics were muzzled and terrorized, and protests were regularly met with brutal attacks by armed thugs, opposition to the new constitution was spreading, beginning to organize, and becoming louder.

It was at this critical juncture, right before the constitution was put to popular vote, that on November 4, militant Islamist students affiliated with clerics in Khomeini's circle occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took the diplomats and staff hostage, ostensibly to protest the Shah's admission into the United States for medical treatment.

In a catastrophic decision serving his short-term opportunistic goal of eliminating secular and other political opponents and of guaranteeing the passage of the constitution in the upcoming referendum, Khomeini first tacitly and then forcefully sanctioned the hostage taking.

Bazargan's service to Iranians

Until this point, each of Khomeini's attacks on democracy was led and facilitated by Bazargan and his Freedom Movement, moderate Islamists on whom many Iranians had depended to help navigate the country toward democracy. On streets around the country in 1978-79, Iranians had given voice to their desire for freedom from tyranny so that the nation's policies would reflect their will. In other words, they wanted democracy, the ability to rule themselves. During the Revolution, Khomeini had given forceful expression to what Iranians wanted: an end to dictatorship. But Khomeini had no democratic credentials and needed those of the National Front and Bazargan's Freedom Movement, an Islamic off-shoot of the National Front.

Without the blundering policies of the National Front in 1978-79, which offered unconditional support to Khomeini during the most critical period of the Revolution,3 and certainly without the Freedom Movement's collusion with Khomeini, which extended for nearly a year after the fall of the Shah, his bigoted worldview would have likely met immediate resistance or at least would have been recognized more clearly and much sooner by a wider swath of society.

By gratefully accepting Khomeini's appointment to head an interim government, Bazargan not only delivered the fatal blow to the existing constitutional order, thereby removing all constitutional checks on the power of Khomeini, who gave his sanguinary partisan clerics carte blanche to kill and terrorize with impunity. By accepting the appointment, Bazargan also accepted its theocratic basis: Khomeini's claim that, as a high-ranking Jafari Shia cleric, he had "guardianship of the sharia" and therefore a divine right to rule and appoint rulers in the absence of the last Shia imam.

Having demolished the constitutional order, Bazargan and his interim government were in charge of the executive branch, with the Islamic Revolutionary Council -- the central committee of Khomeini's political organization, formed earlier in France -- acting as interim parliament. Bazargan's democratic sensibilities did not compel him to demand the formation of a representative national congress in the absence of a legitimately elected parliament, and he saw no moral impediment to working in a council making national decisions that was closed to women and the entire range of political perspectives in Iranian politics aside from those of Khomeini partisans.

These initial attacks on the sovereignty of Iranians were followed within two months by Bazargan's yes/no referendum on an unknown form of Islamic theocracy, a referendum he had the effrontery to present to Iranians as democratic. Subjected to the news of executions in the hundreds and other horrors unleashed by the Islamic Revolutionary Courts operating in a constitutional vacuum of Bazargan's making, the "referendum" deprived Iranians of a chance to form and organize a semi-functioning civil society before they could review and understand what they were voting on.

Bazargan then offered the country a draft constitution in which the subjection of Iranians, in principle and in practice, to the will of their self-appointed religious betters in a Guardian Council was codified into law, thereby dishonoring perhaps the most important precedent of the 1907-1909 Constitutional Revolution and a landmark achievement of Iran's difficult journey to democracy.

Bazargan further disenfranchised the country's citizens when he ran the elections not for a fully empowered and representative constitutional assembly of people's deputies reflecting the diversity of Iranians, but a small Assembly of Experts -- by which was meant clerics who saw themselves as monopolist professional interpreters of Islamic law -- with a crash two-month mandate to create a theocracy.

However, even Bazargan understood that Khomeini's tacit and then forceful endorsement of the embassy hostage taking was not just an act of war and an attack on the very idea of diplomacy, endangering fundamental national interests and with the potential to provoke a retaliation that would bring unimaginable suffering upon the Iranian people. He understood, as well, that it was designed to create an acute national crisis that would allow Khomeini and his partisan clerics to arrogate unbridled emergency powers to go after undesirable political groups.

So two days after the embassy seizure, on November 6, Bazargan resigned, arguably making his only service of national importance to Iranians after the Revolution.

This "service," of course, came at a price. The resignation was internationally perceived as a humiliating insanity plea for Iran as a nation. It succeeded in presenting the hostage taking not as an aberration in the operations of a functioning state representing the will of its people through its deliberative bodies, but as the mindless act of frenzied forces that had usurped state control.

After Bazargan's resignation, the Islamic Revolutionary Council, now led by Abolhassan Bani Sadr, another moderate Islamist, took overt charge of the government.4 The council put the draft constitution to another ill-conceived, hasty referendum, whose execution evidenced even less concern over electoral integrity than its predecessor. And while the country was preoccupied with the possibility of a cataclysmic war, the constitution was approved -- just as the Islamic Republic of Iran itself had been -- by 98 percent of the vote.5

This formative revolutionary period set the stage for the commission of heinous act after heinous act, a record of inhumanity that has left deep scars on all Iranians, at home and abroad.

In Tunisian Constitutional Assembly, opponents debate and deliberate

As I write this, Tunisia is in its formative revolutionary period. And although the Tunisian experience bears no resemblance to how in 1979 democracy was subverted by Iranian leaders, many Tunisians with whom I spoke were frustrated with all the parties in the Tunisian Constitutional Assembly: An-Nahda and its secular partners and the opposition. Some argue, quite persuasively, that the different parties are unclear or inconsistent.

But, again, looking through the lens of the Iranian Revolution, I remain very hopeful. Tunisia's political groups are in uncharted territory, and they are groping their way, which is more or less the slow, messy way democracies work. An-Nahda and Islamists on the one hand and the secularists on the other are, perhaps for the first time, talking with each other and learning to see themselves through the eyes of people with whom they disagree. In other words, Tunisian Islamists and secularists in a country with a long Islamic cultural tradition are having critical discussions of the sort that Islamic-majority societies have rarely had the chance to have.

Thirty-three years ago in Iran, Iranian politicians -- specifically, moderate Islamists and secularists who claimed allegiance to democracy -- failed abysmally to create conditions for such a conversation. Instead of deliberation, force and terror were allowed to determine issues. And Iranians have been reaping the painful fruits of those failures in vision and leadership.

In the meantime, neither nationalist religious groups nor secularists in Iran, or abroad, have engaged in honest self-examination and clearing of the air through the kind of intense but respectful communication with opponents that is taking place in Tunisia.


1. If this figure is extrapolated to Iran, assuming a population of 39 million in 1979, it should have had a constitutional assembly with no fewer than 700 members.

2. "Report on massacre rejected Khomaini calls a halt to executions," Globe and Mail, October 19, 1979, p. 3.

3. The leaders of the National Front, under Karim Sanjabi, joined Bazargan's government. They resigned in mid-April 1979 and finally began distancing themselves from Khomeini.

4. Bani Sadr may have played the greatest role in the collapse of the constitutional order in 1979. He was involved in negotiations that led to Sanjabi's three-point declaration associating the National Front with Khomeini in ways that violated the organization's fundamental principles and stands out as the single greatest error in its history. If he is to be believed, Bani Sadr was one of the most effective voices against a meeting between Shapour Bakhtiar as prime minister and Khomeini. And finally, Bani Sadr was an author of Bazargan's draft constitution.

5. Bakhash, Shaul, "Chapter 1: Historical Setting," in Iran: A Country Study, 5th ed., edited by Glenn E. Curtis and Eric Hooglund, p. 56 (Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 2008; available online).

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

@TehranBureau | TB on Facebook

SHAREtwitterfacebookSTUMBLEUPONbalatarin reddit digg del.icio.us
blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.