Why we lost the battle during the 1979 Iranian revolution

In a moving essay in the Washington Post last week, Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s preeminent human rights champion and Nobel laureate, wrote a heart-felt apology to her children and their generation for her initial support for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution in 1978. This is an apology many Iranians of her generation are making, including my own parents, who were deeply involved in the revolution and like Ms. Ebadi, soon found themselves in opposition, under attack by the security establishment, and in and out of prison and house arrest.

Like Ms. Ebadi, my father remained in Iran to fight for democracy, and was fortunate that there were brave lawyers like Ms. Ebadi willing to risk imprisonment to defend him. Thousands like them, brave men and women, young and old, remain inside Iran and in exile and continue that fight.

In her essay, Ms. Ebadi, like many in her generation, ascribes the misery that descended on Iran to Khomeini’s guile, to the naiveté of Iranians of her generation, and to her and others unfamiliarity with Khomeini’s writings. They miss a critical point about that fateful year, 1979, one that is important to see if Iran’s next opportunity for democratic change is to have any chance at success.

The point that is missed is this: 1979 was a battle for the soul of the Iranian Revolution. One side, an undemocratic ultraconservative clerical faction, won that fight and since 1979 have cemented its iron rule over Iran. It is an injustice to blame those who joined in the revolution to fight for liberal democratic ideals because they lost that fight in 1979.

Why did the conservatives win? The reason was not the naiveté of elites or the lack of familiarity with Khomeini’s views, because Khomeini’s philosophy and beliefs were not the main drivers of his decisions or the direction of the revolution. His views on Islamic government were poorly supported even among other clerics, and he had already demonstrated in Paris that he was willing to throw centuries of conservative clerical thinking to the wind and take liberal positions when expedient for the success of the revolution.

The Provisional Government he established right after the victory of the revolution was headed by Mehdi Bazargan, with Ebrahim Yazdi — my father — as his Foreign Minister, and was populated by other democratic nationalists, who modelled their draft of Iran’s new constitution on that of Belgium. But sadly, other like-minded nationalists like Abulhassan Bani Sadr, through his perch as owner of the popular newspaper “Islamic Revolution,” and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, head of Iranian State TV, were the Provisional Government’s shrillest enemies.

Another sad example occurred on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1979. Shocked at aggressive moves by clerics to force all women to cover their hair in public, tens of thousands of Iranian women took to the streets of Tehran in protest. Radical conservatives reacted as expected — with insults and violence. But the most harmful reactions came from Iranian liberal and leftist groups, who, with few exceptions, admonished women to not raise this “minor issue in the face of more serious ones.”

These liberal and leftist Western-educated elites treated 1979 as if it were a Democratic Party primary. As they sniped at each other and undermined the Provisional Government and other liberal causes, they were oblivious to the looming threat from anti-democratic forces.

In that fateful year of 1979, Iran was in turmoil. Immediately after the February victory of the revolution, inter-ethnic fighting broke out across Iran. As weapons flooded the streets and turmoil swept most provinces, Khomeini, in his home in Qom, looked out at the political landscape. Who had the power to save the revolution?

Would it be people like my father and Bazargan, who were not even supported by other liberal democrats, or the 100,000 strong army of clerics who are able to rally masses of dedicated followers to fight and die for the revolution?  Khomeini decided to take the revolution out of the hands of the liberals and place it into the hands of the radical clerics. This was an act of pure revolutionary pragmatism.

If Iran’s democratic thinkers and leaders in 1979 had seen the common threat they all faced and united as a strong front, along with like-minded sectors of Iranian society, and if the majority of Iranians backed them rather than the conservative clerics, the battle of 1979 would have ended differently. Autocracy was never inevitable.

The year 1979 was a trial-by-fire for Iranian liberal and leftist elites. Some sold out to the clerics, some fled, some succumbed to petty personal agendas, and some, like Ms. Ebadi, fought the good fight and continue to do so today.

A window of opportunity for political progress in Iran will open again. Next time, will more Iranians back liberal democratic slogans rather than conservative ones? The answer is clear: Iran today is not the Iran of 1979. While Iranians of all faiths remain deeply spiritual, the percentage who respect Shia clerical dogma has fallen sharply. Iranians have also experienced autocracy first-hand, both royal and religious varieties, and have found them lacking.

The unknown is this: Will those who care about a free and democratic Iran be able to work together, instead of undermining each other as they did in 1979? The rulers of Iran today certainly hope not.

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