COVER STORY

KHOMEINI Keeping the world at bay

Marci McDonald December 10 1979
COVER STORY

KHOMEINI Keeping the world at bay

Marci McDonald December 10 1979

KHOMEINI Keeping the world at bay

COVER STORY

Marci McDonald

In the chill dawn of Ashura, the day of atonement when the prophet’s grandson Husain was hacked to death in the desert at Karbala 13 centuries ago, black rain clouds rolled in over the Elburz mountains, setting a sinister backdrop. Across the unaccustomed early-morning silence of Tehran, thousands of copper cymbals and crepedraped funeral drums exploded in a measured dirge.

Slowly, in time to the relentless tattoo, the streets swelled with a wailing human tide advancing in a frenzy of self-flagellation.

Four million of Iran’s Shi’ite Moslems celebrating Husain’s martyrdom cried “Allaho Akbar. “God is great”—as they lashed themselves with fat, steel-link whips in rhythm across the shoulders. Some had cut squares in their bereavement shirts the better to display their torn flesh. Others had swaddled themselves in the white linen shrouds of the o dead, splattered with a Koranic verse in blood-red read¿ ing: WE ARE READY TO BE | MARTYRS. o

For five hours, the impas| sioned cortege staggered | through the city under the stern, black-turbaned countenance of the man whose portrait has become a banner of their stubborn faith and whose message to the West for nearly a year now has been the same litany— “We seek out death, for to die is an honor for us”— that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had intoned to a journalist from his seat in the holy city of Qum before closing himself in a thunderous silence at the start of the Moslem month of mourning called Muharram.

“If Carter attacks, our young will fight with tooth and claw. We will annihilate the enemy and let ourselves be

killed,” he said, and in the double-sided sword of that oath lay the cutting edge of righteous martyrdom which Khomeini has forged into his most potent weapon. Inspiring his followers with the belief that even death cannot keep them from their divinely ordained ends,

he has united his shattered and divided country in a renewed surge of self-abnegating revenge and succeeded in holding at bay the angered might of the world’s most powerful nation. Last week, as events made clear, the United States once more misread the single-mindedness of the ayatollah’s wrath, and the gap of mutual incomprehension and hate between the two countries was threatening daily to widen into an unbridgeable chasm.

On the eve of his presidential campaign announcement, Jimmy Carter tried to sooth the inflamed pride of his countrymen with talk of United Nations Security Council negotiations and World Court appeals. But in Iran, Khomeini’s unflinching new hard-line Foreign Minister Sadegh Gotbzadeh*, the deceptively elegant former head of broadcasting, thumbed his nose at the international niceties and declined the UN invitation. Iran, he made clear, did not intend to be upbraided for not abiding by the rules of a game from which it had already dropped out. As the crisis entered its fifth week, the sickly shah became the pale, ravaged symbol of the bitter test of wills.

While Carter stood by his public position that the shah was a former friend deserving of America’s charity, Iranians deepened their rage at a criminal they consider akin to Hitler, displaying his Savak torture chambers to Western journalists with invocations of the ovens of Auschwitz. When the Americans seemed about to bundle the shah back to his padded exile in Cuernavaca, Khomeini’s threat to begin the trial of the 50 embassy hostages immediately brought them too late to the realization that only as long as the shah remained on U.S. soil could they buy the hostages time.

That realization may have had more than a little to do with the Mexicans’ apparently abrupt reversal of their welcome mat. At week’s end, as the stalemate seemed even further from solution

* A former student and activist editor of the campus newspaper at Nelson, B.C. ’s now defunct university, where he earned a BA and a reputation as a clever charmer who admired Robert Kennedy but upset his tutors with his forcefully and interminably expressed political views.

and American citizens were being quietly evacuated from 11 other potential Islamic tinderboxes—including Kuwait and the Philippines, where Moslems marched on United States embassies— the nation’s solidifying fury found an unexpected spokesperson in Carter’s mother, Miss Lillian. If she had a few extra million at her disposal, she de-

clared, she would have Khomeini shot.

That sentiment was widely shared in the West. But it ignored the fundamental question: whether the ayatollah himself still pulled the strings of events in Iran. As Khomeini told Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci three months ago: “Iran is not in my hands. Iran is in the hands of the people because it was the

people who handed the country over to the person who is their servant.” His interior minister has admitted that the government only learned of the students’ seizure of the embassy after the fact.

There are those who speculate that the ayatollah is in his own way as much a prisoner of the volatile street mobs who once defied his orders to turn in their guns as the hostages themselves. But the irony may be that the ayatollah is nevertheless the only figure still with any control over the explosive divisions that burn just below the bubbling Iran-

ian cauldron. Without him, the country could well plunge into anarchy and, eventually, even more tragic civil war between youthful Marxists and the Mosque.

Khomeini crystallizes a half-century of Iran’s pent-up rage at the excesses of the shah’s Pahlavi dynasty. But this week, as Carter settles in over his bedtime reading—a thin, green-covered, state department pamphlet entitled Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran: His Personality and Political Behavior — it becomes clear that, in the 11 months since the frail 79-year-old toppled one of the world’s most awesomely armed tyrants with nothing more than the righteous fury of his rhetoric, he remains as much of an enigma as ever to the West.

On the one hand, London’s Daily Telegraph denounces him as a “stupid vindictive old man.” On the other, American analysts portray him as a malignant tactician who engineered the hostage-taking to divert Iran from gathering economic chaos and unite it in support of Monday’s referendum for his new Islamic constitution. The truth may lie somewhere between those extremes. For a “mad mullah,” Khomeini has shown astonishing lucidity in his interviews, and even the bellicose Fallaci came away confessing: “It was the first time that I have ever felt charisma.”

Again, for a supposed case of senility-accused of dragging Iran pell-mell back to the Dark Ages—Khomeini has shown remarkable savvy in manipulating the manufactures of the Western progress which he scourges. His recorded calls to holy arms from exile in an apple orchard outside Paris sped through Iran on a tape-recorder-tele-

phone network which even the dread Savak was unable to frustrate. Now, when he moves from Qum, he rises over tue Iranian skyline with the levitational power of helicopter blades and, spurning the traditional byways of international diplomacy, has taken to communicating with Carter through the speedier channel of TV interviews, occasionally bumping one correspondent for another who claims higher ratings.

American journalists who sat awestruck at his exiled feet in Neauphle-le-

Château, feel betrayed by the unfulfilled promise of his Westernized advisers such as Gotbzadeh that a new Islamic Iran would be a regime of reason and democratic liberalism. Part of that misunderstanding comes from the fact that then, as now, the ayatollah spoke in riddles. As a revolutionary council spokesman in Qum acknowledges: “Our principal problem is the constant interpretation we must make of the imam’s words. Everyone understands in his own way and that creates many scattered centres of decision.” Recently deposed foreign minister Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who was twice preparing to pack for the United Nations before being informed his trip was cancelled, seems to have fallen into that quagmire.

But the major reason behind the West’s shock may simply be a difference in vocabulary—caused not so much by language as by two seemingly irreconcilable sets of values. As Khomeini made clear when Fallaci attacked him as undemocratic, democracy to him was merely a semantic convenience signifying one thing for the United States, another for the Soviet Union. “The word Islam does not need adjectives such as democratic,” he said. “Islam encompasses all.”

Given that embracing world view, the perspective shifts from present-day headlines to the 1,400-year history of intrigue and persecution that has plagued Islam’s minority Shia sect since the Prophet died without appoint-

ing a successor in 632. Regarding themselves as descendants of Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law who was passed over as caliph, then stabbed in office (as were his two sons Hasan and Husain), the Shi’ites reacted as many a religious minority had done before them: they wove a distrust of authority and foreigners into their traditions and raised the intransigence of martyrdom into a saintly virtue.

If Khomeini is seen as an unredeemable fanatic now by the West, it is a fanaticism that ought not to cause surprise. Fuelled by the ancient resentments of his Shiah faith, his life has been a 79-year testimony of unrelenting opposition to the shah and his regime.

Born Ruhollah Hendi in the central Iranian village of Khomin from which he eventually took his name, his father, an ayatollah before him, was killed while opposing civic authorities who

were believed to have been agents of Reza Shah the Great, the shah’s own father. In the years which followed, as he grew from a militant young theological student to patriarch of Iran’s 34 million Shi’ite Moslems, he was nourished by tea, prayer and the bitter heritage of his hate.

His opposition never faltered and, in 1963, ignited by the shah’s “white revolution” which stripped the mullahs of further influence, as well as land holdings, he was the only one of Iran’s six grand ayatollahs who did not compromise his wrath in the face of the army’s bloody vendettas in the bazaar. His refusal to submit earned him exile in Turkey and, later, for nearly 14 years in Iraq.

When his oldest son Mustapha died there, reportedly of a heart attack, his followers blamed the perfidious long arm of the shah and the new wound fes-

tered with the old. It was the shah’s decision to discredit him with an article planted in a Tehran journal two years ago that set off the riots which eventually ousted the monarchy.

Americans’ surprise at his violent reaction when they belatedly embraced his old enemy this fall can only be taken as evidence that they had never listened to his warnings. Nearly a month before the hostage-taking, he disassociated himself from a mullah’s incitement to murder the shah abroad. “I want him here, here,” he trembled.

The excesses of his 11-month domination of Iran have all been as predictable as the social chaos that swirled in the wake of a man who had never claimed administrative skills. The sermons of his Iraqi exile brimmed with evidence of his sentiments toward Israel—“from its very inception, Islam has been afflicted by Jews”—the comportment of

the female sex and of his particular revulsion for Americans. As recently as last March, when he withdrew to Qum to make way for Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s government, he warned Eric Rouleau of Le Monde: “We are going to destroy the vestiges of the West, which ruined us.”

Those who criticize the idea of a reigning theocracy in his new constitution do not understand that the supreme veto power of the mullahs is an ancient and integral concept of Islam where, in theory, there is no distinction between sacred and secular power. Indeed, as Bazargan discovered when he resigned, complaining of the ayatollah’s interference, to quibble with the word of Allah’s temporal shepherd was to question the holy writ of the Koran.

To some Islamic scholars, the most fascinating—and frightening—change in Iran has been the transformation of a black-turbaned ayatollah into a virtually deified “Imam.” There have been no imams for nearly 1,000 years. The 12th and last—successor to Ali, Hasan and Husain—vanished mysteriously and Shi’ite Moslems have always believed that the 12th “hidden” Imam would one day reappear as a longawaited messiah to usher in a new Islamic age. Khomeini has not claimed the title. “I cry, I laugh, I suffer,” he defended himself against Fallaci, with shadings of Shylock. “Do you think I’m not a human being?” But he has not refused it either and in tacitly accepting the throng’s homage as Imam he has opened the way to his own martyrdom, for like all saints he must die to claim his victory. When Khomeini rumbles that death holds no sting for him, he may in fact be inviting it—not merely in the tradition of Shi’ite martyrdom— but as the fatal stab destined to put him on a par with Mohammed. And the United States’ flexing of its military muscles could well play into that design.

Indeed, some observers feel that understanding Khomeini’s thirst for martyrdom may help Jimmy Carter see better than any psychological biography why he has not yet been able to wrest a tactical advantage from the man who holds America in resentful thrall. The invoking of international conventions will not work against a person who regards himself as the voice of divine righteousness, and it is seldom possible to negotiate with someone who fears nothing—even death itself.

In the streets of Tehran, Khomeini’s foot soldiers hail him as they beat themselves into trance-like joy. But each blow of the lash only makes it clearer that the scars from the acrid passion play which pits Iran against the Occident will long outlast the wounds of Ashura.