In less than a year after victory of the revolution in February 1979, the new regime managed to consolidate its base, build new institutions, and eliminate its contenders for power. It conducted a referendum on the change of regime to an Islamic republic, ratified a new constitution, elected a parliament, elected a president to office, and established revolutionary courts, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Guardian Council, and the Assembly of Experts. All the while the newly established republic was engaged in major domestic and international crises that threatened its very existence. In the eighteen months between February 1979 and September 1980, it faced serious challenges from the left, significantly from the Mojahedin-e Khalq and the Fada’iyan-e Khalq; a brief but bloody confrontation with the autonomy-seeking movements in Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and the Turkmen region of the northeast; a powerful face-off with the rival Muslim People’s Republican Party; a major international row with the United States over a hostage crisis that lasted for nearly fifteen months; a military coup in the making; several assassination attempts against revolutionary leaders by the shadowy Marxist-Islamic Forqan group; and finally the Iraqi invasion of Iran, which led to a protracted and ruinous war that lasted eight years.

Moreover, internal divisions between moderate and radical wings of the revolution led to resignations, clashes, arrests, and defections. A little over seven months after the founding of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini dismissed Mahdi Bazargan, the prime minister of the provisional government who had facilitated the birth of the new regime. Less than two years later, hard-line supporters of Khomeini not only forced out the relatively moderate first president of the Republic, Abol-Hasan Banisadr, and his allies but also wiped out nearly all the forces of the left. The republic, moreover, banned or marginalized all moderate clerical and secular voices and purged, jailed, or executed real or imagined supporters of the old regime. It forced hundreds of thousands of members of the middle classes into self-imposed exile. Conducting a “cultural revolution” of its own, the regime purged thousands from universities and research institutes and tried to redefine education and cultural discourse on its own terms. By all accounts, this was an impressive performance, irrespective of how oppressive and violent it turned out to be.

What was behind the Islamic Republic’s apparent success, and more specifically, how was it that the influence of Khomeini and his cohorts did not wither? Contrary to the wishful predictions of the Pahlavi sympathizers, the intellectuals on the left and other early optimists, Khomeini and his associates managed to frame a new order, put it in place, and sustain it against all odds. It was quite possible, given Iran’s earlier experiences in the twentieth century that the popular mandate supporting Khomeini could have evaporated once it reached a peak. The revolution’s Islamic fervor also could have subsided. Once the regressive features of the Islamic revolution were fully exhibited, they were prone to criticism, and even ridicule, at least by conventional standards. Charismatic leadership, too, often seen as Khomeini’s innate asset, could have dissipated or been diluted, despite propaganda that trumpeted the “demi-prophetic” (payambar-guneh) qualities of the “Imam” as guardian of the Islamic nation. Yet popular support remained strong, and his personal appeal did not degenerate. The powerful Shi‘i paradigm of sacred leadership no doubt was at work. Yet contrary to its basic premises, Khomeini was neither martyred nor persecuted. On the contrary, his proved a story of unparalleled success. Perhaps no other prophetic figure in the course of Iran’s religious history, not even Isma‘il I, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, was as triumphant.

A convincing explanation for this success is perhaps to be found in the very dynamic of the revolution and the way powerful energies erupted to resolve enormous contentions in favor of Khomeini and his republic. The hostage crisis gave the new regime a much-needed propaganda tool to claim triumph over a superpower now labeled as the source of “universal arrogance” and the “Great Satan.” The Iraqi invasion, in contrast, rallied the Iranian public behind the regime and enabled it to wage a patriotic war, at least in the early stages. The Islamic Republic also thrived all along by confronting its domestic contenders, especially when it produced martyrs from its “committed” (mote‘ahhed) ranks. The assassinations of prominent figures such as Motahhari and Beheshti offered the regime a chance to appear victimized while giving it license to act more vehemently.


The first to face the thrust of the revolutionary violence were “collaborators” of the Pahlavi regime. These “idol worshippers” (taghuti), a substantial number of former ministers, senior army officers, deputies of the Majles, senators, associates of the Pahlavi court, and senior government officials, as well as prominent businessmen, industrialists, and professionals suspected of having ties with the former regime, were rounded up and brought before the Islamic revolutionary courts. Though there are no reliable figures, by 1983, four years into the revolution, there were upward of sixty thousand prisoners in the capital alone.

In the chaos of the postrevolutionary days, any affluent, secular member of society was a potential suspect. The distance between suspicion and accusation was short, and not much farther from arrest and imprisonment—the latter often for a long duration without trial. A thick “Islamic” beard or even a week of stubble could help for a while to cover past “un-Islamic” lifestyles, especially if worn along with a threadbare buttoned-up white shirt over tattered pants, unkempt appearance, and plastic slippers. For women such an overnight metamorphosis was not optional but mandatory and with dire consequences. Soon cries in the streets of “either cover or suffer” (ya rusari ya tusari) forced women to adopt “Islamic attire,” a large scarf knotted under the chin over a shapeless, ankle-length overcoat in “modest” dark colors (which came to be known as Islamic overalls, or manteau). Those who resisted were harassed, arrested, and lashed (fig. 15.1).

Soon revolutionary committees (komitehs) and revolutionary courts, and their members, intruded deep into many private lives and laid their hands on many houses and properties, personal belongings—even women’s lingerie—family heirlooms, book collections, and family photo albums. Everything was up for grabs, and everything was evidence of betrayal if one happened to be on the wrong side of the revolutionary divide. The komitehs that soon popped up in every neighborhood, in government departments, airports, factories, and business offices carried the self-assumed task of “defending” the revolution. In reality, these were sorting houses for a crude revolutionary justice and even cruder redistribution of wealth. Vigilantes from all walks of life who joined revolutionary komitehs were hardly answerable to anyone but the local mullah, who served as honorary head, or an overnight convert to the revolution with shady credentials.

Some komiteh members, including young seminarians and adventurous youth, were sincere in their sense of duty toward the revolution and content with the thrill of holding Kalashnikovs and wearing trench coats. Revolution empowered them and made them tolerably reckless. There were also thugs and racketeers who saw an opportunity to control the komitehs; relics of the lutis of the older days, perhaps, but certainly minus their chivalry. They soon began to act as police and security forces, and in the absence of both they controlled neighborhoods in the name of revolutionary justice. Confiscating and coercing, arresting and beating on behalf of the “disinherited,” was not an uncommon occurrence.

Figure 15.1. Women protesting the imposition of the hijab at Tehran University, March 1979.

Maryam Zandi, Enqlab-e 57 (Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 206.

From the perspective of the victims, those who were harassed and detained, and whose belongings were confiscated, komitehs were synonymous with terror and intimidation. Rumors were rife of komiteh chiefs taking kickbacks, small and large, in exchange for currying favors. Punishments were a stark reality, including lashes, severe beatings, and extortion, inflicted often for such unproven charges as failure to put on proper hijab, drinking or smelling of alcohol, and appearing to be affluent or therefore “antirevolutionary.” The behavior of the komitehs, of course, was not unknown to the revolutionary leadership, though they quickly realized their inability to fully check their unruly conduct; nor was it to the advantage of the evolving leadership of the revolution, especially the clergy, to do so. In the volatile environment of the time, any attempt to curb the activities of the komitehs, even serious criticism of their conduct, ran the risk of jeopardizing the revolutionary credentials of the leadership. These spontaneous grassroots cells facilitated clerical ascendency and served as a voluntary arm of the revolutionary courts. Some mullahs were behind komitehs’ egregious conduct, and others partook in their spoils. The komitehs soon provided fertile ground for a more organized force in service to the revolution, and to the displeasure of moderates, Khomeini did not hesitate to endorse them.

The launching of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Islami) in May 1979 was a shrewd move to tap into the energies of the youth sparked by the revolution and especially into the still-decentralized komitehs. The Revolutionary Corps was organized not only to purge membership of the komitehs of the undesirable elements of the lefts but also, more important, to act as a counterweight to the regular Iranian armed forces, or what was left of them. The Khomeinists in power, being distrustful of the army and fearing a coup of some sort, needed a loyal force to counter not only the perceived threat of the royalists but also an assortment of the armed militias controlled by or loyal to the left.

The new Revolutionary Guards Corps was crudely organized and inexperienced. Yet by late 1981, it had proved its worth when it managed to quash the Mojahedin opposition in the earliest street clashes in the capital. By 1983, hundreds of young Mojahedin, male and female, were killed and thousands more were arrested, tortured, and executed in the prisons of the Islamic Republic. The symbiosis of the mullahs and Revolutionary Guards also worked well in the course of the war with Iraq, whereby the latter served as a parallel force to the regular army, however unprofessionally. In return, a vast treasure trove of “nationalized” industries and confiscated land and properties of the Pahlavi state and its elite soon came under the control of the Revolutionary Guards. The conglomerates of agricultural estates and other economic resources kept them content and in comportment with the wishes of the ruling mullahs. Even after the war, the Guards served as the single most effective guarantor of the regime’s survival.

Parallel with the Revolutionary Guards and complementary to their mission of combatting so-called antirevolutionary forces, the Islamic revolutionary courts (dadgahha-ye enqelab-e Islami) were established immediately after the victory of February 1979. They were presided over by clerical judges appointed in most cases by Khomeini and functioned under the close supervision of his clerical allies. With singular ferocity the revolutionary courts exercised their version of the Islamic justice. “God’s vengeance,” by which they often legitimized their verdicts, was clear and simple, irrespective of the complexity of the cases before them or a complete lack of viable evidence. Independent of Bazargan’s provisional government, the mission of the revolutionary courts was to eliminate the “enemy,” imprison, confiscate, intimidate, and quash the “antirevolution,” which meant any voice or force deemed to be against the regime’s hegemony.

In nearly all cases, the judges were acting also as prosecutors. There were no juries or defense lawyers, due process was almost nonexistent, procedures were chaotic, and summary verdicts were often final and irreversible, at least in the earlier years. Charges were vague and unsubstantiated, and at times mere accusations brought forward by a dubious “revolutionary” party and members of the “disinherited” class. The unwritten code of conduct behind erratic judgments, if there was one, consisted of the judges’ own interpretations of arcane and uncodified Shi‘i penal injunctions. The carefully crafted civil and penal codes of the Pahlavi era were categorically thrown out, to be replaced by “pristine justice,” presumably, from the time of ‘Ali’s caliphate. Yet if compassion—what traditionally is associated with ‘Ali’s image as a just ruler—was missing in the courtrooms, there was plenty of folly and vengefulness to turn judges into the most callous face of the Islamic Republic. If other acts of lawlessness and violence could be attributed to the chaotic climate of the postrevolutionary era, the verdicts of the revolutionary courts became the most deliberate means of legitimizing violence and sustaining the regime’s coercive conduct.

The victims of the courts were as diverse as the judges were monolithic. The first to be brought before a makeshift tribunal were a group of senior officers of the armed forces. They and a host of other victims during the first few weeks were executed by firing squad on the roof of the building adjacent to the ‘Alavi school, where Khomeini had first made his residence and headquarters. In the early hours of the morning when he was setting his dawn prayers, he must have heard the shots from the nearby building. Later in the day when he was waving listlessly from a small window to thousands of visitors who came to pay their homage to him, the corpses were taken down and sent off to the city morgue to be photographed and publicized in national dailies. Almost simultaneously, during February 1979, some three hundred generals, the entire senior officer corps of the Iranian armed forces above the rank of lieutenant general, were forced to retire by Khomeini’s order. Many later found themselves in the Islamic Republic’s jails. By early 1980, some 7,500 military personnel had been purged, and by the beginning of the war with Iraq that figure reportedly had exceeded 12,000.

It took a little while before reality dawned on the thousands who in the following months and years hoped for justice, if not mercy, from the revolutionary courts. One example was the summary trial of Amir ‘Abbas Hovayda, the shah’s premier for thirteen years. He had been detained during the Azhari government and reportedly refused to escape his detention in the chaotic hours following the fall of Pahlavi rule. He seemed to have had misplaced faith in revolutionary justice when in April 1979 he appeared before the revolutionary tribunal. It was presided over by Sadeq Khalkhali (1926–2003), the notorious judge and head of the revolutionary courts (dubbed by the Western press as the “Hanging Judge”). Hovayda even prepared a reasonably detailed defense against an array of charges that included treason, corruption, mismanagement, and repression. He declared innocence, arguing that he was merely a diligent statesman, not responsible for the repressive conduct of the shah’s security police. His defense did not even receive a summary response from the judges. After several days of hearings, unusual for Khalkhali’s courts, the court delivered a verdict of execution but out of public sight. Reportedly, though, even before reaching the firing squad, a firebrand cleric, Hadi Ghaffari (b. 1950), known for his volatile rhetoric as much as for his love of the machine gun, approached Hovayda from behind and shot him twice in the head with his revolver.

Hovayda’s life indeed had come to an ironic end. A literary dilettante, once a member of Sadeq Hedayat’s circle of friends, his long journey from Beirut’s lycée français and Parisian intellectual circles in the 1940s and 1950s to the inner circles of Pahlavi politics in the 1960s and 1970s could not have ended more tellingly than in Sadeq Khalkhali’s court. A quintessential militant mullah, Khalkhali came from the opposite end of the Iranian social spectrum. He was a former student and devotee of Khomeini of humble village origin and a typical product of Qom’s radicalized climate (fig. 15.2). Unlike Hovayda, he dabbled not in André Gide and André Malraux but in dry texts of jurisprudence and Arabic grammar. His political credentials included an affiliation with the Fada’iyan-e Islam and some years of internal exile by Savak. His vengeful verdicts in the early years of the revolution gave him a reputation as a psychopath with a clownish demeanor and a devilish sneer. Personality aside, he symbolized the revolution’s rapid tilt toward systemic violence.

Figure 15.2. Sadeq Khalkhali in his office in the Islamic Revolutionary Courts.

Sadeq Khalkhali, Khaterat, 2nd ed. (Tehran: Sayeh Publishers, 1379/1990), 528.

Khalkhali’s victims ranged far and wide, from former Pahlavi officers and officials, whom he invariably stamped as “corrupters of the earth,” to all shades of the left, as well as secular nationalists, ethnic nationalists, the Baha’is, and other nonpolitical victims who fell pray to revolutionary courts. In the first twenty-two months of the revolution, he sent before firing squads hundreds of autonomy-seeking Kurdish and Turkmen activists, all condemned with the one-size-fits-all charge of “corrupting the earth and combatting God,” a charge of Qur’anic origin. When the wife of one of the victims of his summary executions in Kurdistan complained to Khalkhali that her husband was utterly innocent, he cynical responded: “If he was guilty he would go to hell; if innocent, he would end up in heaven.” The victim was one in a group of eight executed before the general hospital on August 28, 1979 (fig. 15.3).

Figure 15.3. Kurdish dissidents before the Islamic Republic’s firing squad after a thirty-minute trial, Paveh, Iranian Kurdistan, August 28, 1979.

© Jahangir Razmi/Magnum Photos, 1979 (NYC67478) (RAJ1979006W00001/01). First published in Ettela’at, Tehran, August 29, 1979.

Khalkhali’s domain soon extended beyond “political” prisoners to include alleged or real drug dealers, female and male prostitutes, and homosexuals and other moral “deviants” whom he duly dispatched to the firing squad or to the gallows, whichever was more terrifying to the Iranian public, who followed with horror the latest of his exploits. It is difficult to believe, as he repeatedly stated in later years in his memoirs, that Khalkhali’s verdicts against the enemies of the revolution, including executions of ranking officers and Hovayda, were carried out without the full approval of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khalkhali was no less active in the realm of cultural hatemongering. In his vast catalog of corrupters of the earth, he reserved a place for rulers of Iran’s pre-Islamic past. He wrote an essay condemning Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire of the fifth century BCE, accusing him not only of being a despot and liar but also of being a sexual pervert. In the early days of the revolution, Khalkhali intended to bulldoze Persepolis and other ancient Iranian monuments of the pre-Islamic era. His campaign was stopped, miraculously, because of local resistance. Reportedly, even Ferdowsi’s tomb made it onto Khalkhali’s demolition wish list. Yet he managed only to muster enough mob support, and backing from Khomeini, to destroy the mausoleum of Reza Shah, the archnemesis of Khalkhali’s teacher and patron. Completed in 1950 near the shrine of Shah ‘Abd al-‘Azim south of Tehran, the massive structure designed in the modern style was a fine example of Iran’s contemporary architecture. It invoked a message of secular grandiosity, holding at its core Reza Shah’s embalmed remains encased in a glass casket. With great difficulty the edifice was razed to the ground, thanks to dynamite and the immense horsepower of bulldozers. Khalkhali’s intent was to build in its stead public lavatories, but the location was eventually devoted to an Islamic seminary, part of the shrine complex.


By the summer of 1979, through months of chaos and conflict, four interrelated themes began to emerge that helped shape revolutionary Iran. First and foremost was the rise of the pro-Khomeini clergy and their lay supporters to the top of the revolutionary pyramid, sanctified by a deeply Islamicized constitution. The Khomeinist bloc was built on a cult of personality, held at its core an old sense of Qom solidarity, backed by the newly established Revolutionary Guards and was in alliance with other pro-Khomeini forces in the bazaar and elsewhere. It shared an acute sense of survival at any cost. Second, a decisive turn toward greater militancy, encouraged as much by the Islamic regime as by the radical left, drove moderates out of the political process, eventually dismantled the bourgeoning press and closed down most political parties. Third, an outburst of anti-Western sentiments that culminated in a hostage crisis and vilification of the United States as the Great Satan created a much-needed hostile Other in Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric and in its dealings with the outside world. Finally, the creation of an ever-growing state economy through expropriation and nationalization increased the power of the revolutionary regime beyond proportion.

The forging of the Islamic constitution (qanun-e asasi) helped bolster the regime’s institutional tenacity and move toward greater monopoly of power, even though at the outset such intentions were not fully evident. In the early months of the republic, Khomeini, mindful of earlier promises, was content with a draft of the constitution prepared by Bazargan’s aides. He reportedly only altered two points: he barred women from judgeships and from the presidency. The rest, mostly a revision of the 1906–1907 constitution, with changes inspired in part by the French presidential model, did not attract much of his scrutiny at the outset. There was a large-enough dose of homage to Islam as its guiding principle to make the essentially secular document palatable.

Two influential advisers to the Imam preferred a plebiscite for acquiring a popular mandate. Banisadr, an advocate of his own brand of egalitarian Islamism, and Mohammad Beheshti, the brains behind the clerical bloc, were momentary allies. The idea of a referendum, however, met resistance from the Bazargan government and its allies who, honoring their earlier promises, insisted on convening a constituent assembly. The radical left, too, with their predictable blind spot for moderation, deemed the draft document a product of the liberal bourgeoisie and therefore inherently “unprogressive.” Demanding an elected constituent assembly, they entertained the naive hope that through a popular vote they would control the assembly and refashion the draft constitution to their own liking, which they equated to the “will of the masses.”

An Islamic constitution was a relatively recent concept, especially in the Shi‘i political context. Advocates of the mashru‘eh at the time of the Constitutional Revolution, for instance, viewed shari‘a as an all-encompassing corpus unfettered by human legislation. In the 1950s and 1960s the idea of an Islamic constitution raised some clerical interest, often tracing the origins for it in such documents as the Prophet’s “Constitution of the Medina” and ‘Ali’s letter of instructions to Malik al-Ashtar al-Nakha’i, his appointed governor of Egypt in 657 CE. At no time, however, in the history of Shi‘ism did followers (moqalleds) perceive the idea of electing mojtahids to any collective body. Nor did Khomeini’s own writings anticipate the forging of an Islamic constitution or constituent assembly.

Despite initial uncertainties, the Assembly of Experts (Majles Khebrehgan) was nevertheless elected in August 11, 1979, to draft a new constitution. Despite Bazargan government’s promise of a free and fair election, during the contested election, a number of candidates from among the left and the liberals were virtually barred from campaigning, and some twenty parties and groups boycotted the election altogether. Out of the total of seventy-three seats, sixty were captured by Khomeinists, of whom eighteen were ayatollahs and twenty of the lower clerical ranks (fig. 15.4). Earlier, the first draft of the constitution had acknowledged Khomeini as the leader of the revolution but did not mention the guardianship of the jurist as an office, let alone elevate the clerical establishment to a theocratic elite. The ultimate authority rested with a popularly elected president whose executive function was delegated to a prime minister. Yet the deliberation of the Assembly of Experts, dominated by candidates of the newly founded Islamic Republican Party, took a very different approach by producing a document much more authoritarian in substance than the first draft, Islamicized in language, and patriarchal in orientation. It recognized the supreme authority of the guardian jurist and in effect ratified the primacy of the clergy above all others (fig. 15.5).

At the core of the new draft, ratified in November and overwhelmingly approved in a plebiscite on the December 3, 1979, was the supreme authority of the guardian jurist, an office above the president and above the Islamic Consultative Assembly. Though he was to be designated by the clergy-dominated Assembly of Experts, he was not accountable to any other elected body—a free agent with almost a divine mandate. Article 5 asserted that in the absence of the Hidden Imam, “in the Islamic Republic the guardianship of the cause [of God] [welayat-e amr; i.e., the authority to rule] and leadership of the community are assumed by a jurist who is just, virtuous, conscious of the [needs of the] time, valiant, capable and astute.”1 Article 57 initially granted the guardian jurist the authority to “supervise” the three branches of government while leaving “coordination” among the three branches to the president of the republic. Such a blurred division of labor, echoed in other articles of the constitution, resembled inconsistencies about the prerogatives of the monarch in the 1906 constitution. The constitutional revision of 1989, upon Khomeini’s death, conveniently resolved that problem by granting the guardian jurist “absolute guardianship (welayat-e motlaqeh) over coordination of three powers and resolving their differences.

Figure 15.4. A cartoon in the pro-Tudeh satirical journal Ahangar lampoons the election of the Council of Experts. Banisadr, along with Qotbzadeh and Yazdi, is at the front of the club-wielding thugs, labeling the left as “antirevolutionary” and “hypocritical.” Bazargan wistfully observes, and the clergy are entirely absent.

Year 1, no. 15, 9 Mordad 1358/August 1, 1979. Courtesy of Siavush Ranjbar-Daemi.

Figure 15.5. The future president Abol-Hasan Banisadr (left) with Mahmud Taleqani on the floor of the former Iranian Senate, where the Assembly of Experts held its sessions in the summer of 1979. The two moderates reluctantly abided by the constitutional article that recognized the supreme authority of the guardian jurist.

Pars News Agency, Tehran, Iran (now dissolved). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Banisadr_and_Taleghani.jpg.

Article 110 also included among the guardian jurist’s responsibilities the appointment of the Guardian Council (shura-ye negahban), responsible for overseeing Majles legislation and compliance with Islamic shari‘a, and the head of the judiciary. As commander in chief of the armed forces, the guardian jurist also would appoint the chiefs of the three forces, the police, and the Revolutionary Guards. He was further granted authority to declare war and peace, to endorse the elected president of the republic, and—if need be—to dismiss him at his own behest. As if this were not sufficient for defining a highly authoritarian office, when article 110 was amended in 1989, it further granted the guardian jurist power to define and supervise all general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran (as well as appointing the head of the national government-controlled broadcasting service).

The preamble to the constitution left no doubt about its theocratic grounding: all institutions of the state, the whole “community” of Iran, was to be ideologically Islamic (maktabi). Here, the term Iranian community (ommat-e Iran), with obvious Islamic universalistic overtones had replaced the familiar and explicit Iranian nation (mellat-e Iran). With the “Imam” at the center, the new constitution asserted, the “militant clergy” led an Islamic movement that first ignited in June 1963 against an “American conspiracy” called the “White Revolution.” The Islamic Revolution, it went on to claim, left behind sixty thousand martyrs and at least one hundred thousand injured and invalid. (These, of course, were hugely exaggerated figures.) The objective of such a sacrifice, the preamble declared, was to establish a “united universal community” of the “disinherited,” who by reembracing Islam would vanquish the “arrogant” hegemonic global forces. In a “movement toward Allah” they would create an “exemplary society” that would give substance to doctrinal principles of revolutionary Islam and support for Islamic movements worldwide. In this society only those who are morally merited would conduct public affairs under the severe and sustained supervision of the guardian jurist and the “just jurists” who are guarantors against deviation from Islamic duties.

In this highly authoritarian and indoctrinated constitutional framework, the economy is not an objective but a tool: an “Islamic economy” that seeks equal opportunities for work and for distribution of benefits. Women who were exploited by the corrupt consumer culture of the Pahlavi regime, the document declared, would be restored to their virtuous standing so they could perform their sacred “motherly duty.” Only in such an order would humanity’s “sublime virtue” manifest itself. Bureaucratic obstacles would be cast aside, the committed armed forces and the Revolutionary Guards would discharge their ideological mission of jihad in the path of God, the judiciary would preempt any ideological deviation, and the mass media, under the continuous watch of faithful officials, would advocate a thriving Islamic culture free from “un-Islamic” blemishes.

Despite the full theocratic grounding of the constitution, affirmed by the clerically dominated Assembly of Experts, ample contradictions pervaded the text. Article 4, for instance, grudgingly fulfilled the long-desired Islamic supervision over all legislations of the Islamic Majles: “All civilian, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic principles. . . . Determining this issue (i.e., compatibility with Islamic principles) is upon the jurists of the Guardian Council.” It was bestowed with the authority to veto any legislation it deemed un-Islamic and contrary to the shari‘a. This meant that an uncodified corpus of Shi‘i opinions, prone to wild interpretation by the council, was to serve as the standard for endorsing or rejecting any piece of legislation. Other articles further buttressed the monopolizing power of the guardian jurist and the Guardian Council.

Article 6 of the constitution recognized the Islamic Consultative Assembly, a replacement for the National Consultative Assembly (Majles) of the past, as a popularly elected body whose deputies were to be representatives of the people and its laws the manifestation of the will of the nation and the source of all laws of the land. Articles 3 and 9 allowed for “political liberties within the law,” “equality before the law,” and inalienable “legitimate freedoms.” Under no circumstances could these be suspended or removed. In reality, however, such lofty statements seemed utterly hollow, given the Islamic Majles’s incapacity to pass legislation contrary to the wishes of the guardian jurist and the Guardian Council.

A contrast between theocratic and democratic features of the constitution was undeniable, and perhaps irreconcilable. The evident supremacy of clerical authority over the legislature and over personal and political liberties were too manifest to be missed by the framers of the constitution. More likely, it reflected the revolution’s inner tension between the long-denied democratic aspirations of the Iranian people and the theocratic authoritarianism of a new elite. The legalist culture grounded in the concept of ejtehad, or making legal opinions by means of deduction from principles of the Islamic law, made it quite permissible for the politicized Qom-trained ideologues to view their own understanding of the constitution as superior to that of the general public.

Superiority of Shi‘i Islam was visible in other areas of the constitution as well. Article 12, for instance, not unlike the 1906 constitution, declared Shi‘ism as being “eternally” the official creed of the country, thus recognizing its supremacy over other religious beliefs: “Iran’s official creed is Islam of the Twelver Ja‘fari [Shi‘i] school and this article is eternally unalterable.” While the same article recognizing Sunni schools of Islamic law, article 13 recognized only three religious minorities as “official”: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity, excluding most significantly and predictably the Baha’i faith. Iran’s largest non-Muslim community was destined to remain “heretical” and a “despicable sect” (ferqah-ye zallah) and would face dire consequences. Conveniently, the Islamist-dominated legislators accepted the old regime’s discriminatory laws. The “reformed elections law” of 1911, for instance, similarly recognized the three official religions at the expense of the others.

Article 14 made it a duty to display “noble conduct,” equanimity and justice toward all non-Muslims, and respect for “human rights” (hoquq-e ensani). Likewise, pledges for equal rights of all ethnicities, equal protection before the law, and protection of life and property of all citizens against illegal intrusions of all sorts (articles 19, 20 and 22) proved sheer rhetoric when thousands were illegally arrested and imprisoned on flimsy charges and their properties confiscated by order of the revolutionary courts. The ethnic Kurd, Turkmen, and Arab minorities were harassed, and many were persecuted and fell victim to the regime’s denial of their demands.

Rights of women, which received some attention throughout the text, revealed familiar features of male superiority, as evident particularly among the clergy. The preamble to the constitution, which devoted a section to women, promised that “because in the idle-worshiping regime women sustained greater oppression, reclaiming their rights deserves a priority.” It is in the framework of the family, it further specifies, “that women will no longer be objects or tools disseminating consumerism and exploitation.” By “rediscovering their critical and precious duty of motherhood, women will be forebears in the active field of life [giving] so as to produce together with their male fellow warriors ideologically committed [maktabi] humans.” Discharging this duty “in Islamic perspective enjoys highest value and blessing.” The trendy revolutionary language aside, the clerical framers of the constitution here defined women’s “function” essentially the same as in traditional Shi‘i jurisprudence where women primarily recognized as reproductive unites. Article 21 furthermore obliged the state to prepare suitable grounds for realizing all aspects of women’s rights “according to Islamic guidelines.” Among these rights, “qualified” women were granted custodianship of their children only when no other “legal guardian” could be appointed, so as to avoid women’s mental agony. In reality, this invariably meant giving priority to the divorced husband or male relatives of the deceased husband.

Numerous articles (23, 24, 26, and 27) of the constitution also meant to safeguard civil and political liberties and freedom of expression, even though, in one way or another, all of them were burdened by compliance with “Islamic values” (article 26). Soon even compliance with Islamic values did not guarantee immunity from the state’s long and repressive arm. Character assassination of political figures, routine intimidation, unqualified intolerance of any criticism of militant mullahs and their violent means, attacks by club-wielding “Hezbollah” mobs on political rallies and political party headquarters, and forced closure of nearly all organized political and civil activities further undermined the lofty civil liberties provisioned in the constitution.

Likewise, there were provisions prohibiting torture (article 38) and demanding humane treatment of all detainees and prisoners (article 39). Yet in practice, from the outset these provisions were routinely breached in the sprawling prisons and secret detention facilities of the Islamic Republic. Real and mock executions, all manner of torture and rape of prisoners, prolonged detention without credible charges, psychological and ideological pressures for political prisoners to “confess” and “repent,” televised show trials, and public confessions of the repentants—all made a mockery of the constitution. These violations were often made with full knowledge of the “experts,” who had pontificated on such articles in the Islamic constitution.

Of some consequent gravity for Iran’s future were articles concerning the perceived Islamic economic model for the Islamic Republic. Most palpable was an unresolved tension between a centralized and bureaucratized state-dominated economy with quasi-socialist characteristics, on the one hand, and a free market economy supposedly adherent to principals of Islamic law, on the other. Also palpable were the influence of the left and its demands, even if its candidates were largely barred from the Constituent Assembly. Eastern European and Chinese models of centralized economies seemed to have influenced the framers of the Islamic constitution. Article 43 prohibited any form of economic “monopoly”; in clear contrast, article 44 called for state ownership of all heavy and “mother” industries, foreign trade, mining, banking, insurance, energy, dams, irrigation, mass media, communication, airlines, shipping, and railroads. Vast and unchecked monopolies were granted to the state at a time when, in the late 1970s, state-controlled economies had already proved elsewhere, even in the communist bloc, to be inefficient and outdated. Beyond state monopolies, “cooperatives” were to control the remaining parts of the public sector, a provision largely abandoned at the outset of the republic. The private sector, the third and most inferior in the constitution’s economic scheme, was to engage in farming, animal husbandry, small industries, trade, and services. To add to the state’s vast economic control, the constitution also allowed for “expropriation” (mosadereh) of all properties of the “usurpers,” such as usurers, corrupt contractors, and uncultivated and unclaimed land. In reality, as in most totalitarian regimes, the state’s vast constitutional power meant appropriation of any property that it wished to possess, including industries, businesses, and residential properties.

On the whole, the constitution of the Islamic Republic proved ideologically too burdened, conceptually too inconsistent, and practically too nonfunctional to guide, oversee, and regulate the emerging institutions of the state. It was stillborn, it can be argued, offered by the “experts” to the high altar of the guardian jurist. As article 56 asserted, with a puzzling rationale, since God has “absolute authority” over the universe and over the humanity, therefore humanity in effect has sovereignty over its own social destiny. This inalienable right was to be implemented only through “absolute guardianship” (welayat-e motlaqeh) of the divine cause by the Imam of the community (article 57). The tortured language of this article demonstrated the framers’ semantic juggling to confine human rights by the shackles of autocratic theology. Remarkably, the revised article 57 (in 1989) clarified any such ambiguity by granting the guardian jurist “absolute guardianship” over all affairs of the state and, by implication, any other article of the constitution.

It was a sad irony that less than a year after the collapse of the Pahlavi regime, dubbed in revolutionary lingo as “idol-worshipping tyranny,” Iranians were to be subjected to a theocracy with far broader constitutional powers compared to what assigned to the monarch in the old constitution even after the 1948 amendment. Now in power, the clergy replicated an autocratic model that they long had opposed, at least rhetorically. As much as they employed means of modernity, first to shape and then to convey their revolutionary message, they also utilized the constitution and other democratic trappings to give the illusion of an Islamic utopia, as if it were impossible to cast off a political culture that had long honored authority by means of control and coercion. A leap from the shah’s “Great Civilization” to the Islamic Republic could be achieved only through an even stronger state, now adorned with a new veneer of sanctity.


Debate about the constitution carried on amid domestic turmoil, with crucial international repercussions. Under pressure the Bazargan government undertook a grave initiative with lasting, and largely disastrous, effects on the weakening Iranian economy. Responding to the radical mood of the time, persistent demands of the radical left, and backed by a constitution that essentially called for a state-run economy, in July 1979, on the spur of the moment, the provisional government “nationalized” (or more appropriately, confiscated) fifty-one of Iran’s largest private industries, businesses, and agricultural conglomerates. All banks and insurance companies were also declared nationalized. More an act of desperation than conviction, Bazargan’s government inherited these businesses almost by default. Owners of major industries either had left the country or were languishing in prisons or simply had disowned the entities for fear of confrontation with workers or arrest by the revolutionary committees. Strikes and labor unrest, intimidation and threats to management, shortages of raw materials and of spare parts and electricity, and a breakdown of the production network put many industries in a state of hibernation, if not closing them down entirely. Maladies of the earlier years—the price stabilization campaign, the oil glut, and overreliance on foreign technologies and skills—further aggravated the postrevolutionary crisis.

Workers’ demands for better wages, benefits, and work conditions added to the mix. The absence of genuine labor unions and professional organizations had quickly turned the shop floor and office space into recruitment grounds for the Fada’iyan, the Mojahedin, the reinvigorated Tudeh Party and Islamic associations. Claims of “collective” management councils (shura’i) and communal ownership, inspired by the Bolshevik model, were rife and alluring. The councils empowered the workers, technicians, and low-ranking management of larger factories, especially the labor-intensive textile mills, and medium-sized workshops, offering them an agency they never had under the previous regime. Yet the dream of collective management proved fleeting, not least because the revolutionary regime did not remain favorably disposed toward such potentially dangerous experiments. The regime soon moved in, bolstering the competing Islamic associations and appointing so-called Islamically committed managers. Though often inexperienced and inept, these managers had the backing of the Mostaz’afan Foundation and similar revolutionary institutions.

Founded by Khomeini’s decree in March 1979, the Mostaz’afan Foundation grew into a giant enterprise in charge of hundreds of public and private properties, ranging from the assets of the defunct Pahlavi Foundation, the Pahlavi family and the state-owned industries to privately owned manufacturing and industrial entities, businesses, agricultural conglomerates, transportation, insurance and communication firms, houses, plots of privately owned land, banks and financial institutions, bank accounts, bonds and stocks, and any other asset, small or large, summarily confiscated by the revolutionary courts or appropriated by the revolutionary committees. Overnight, the foundation turned into Iran’s second-largest economic entity (after the Iranian National Oil Company) and soon after became one of the largest enterprises in the Middle East. By 1989 it “supervised” at least 1,024 entities with an estimated value of $20 billion. The companies under its control included some 140 factories, 470 agricultural businesses and farms, 100 construction firms, 64 mines, and 250 commercial companies. Although its proceeds were earmarked for the support of the “disinherited,” in reality it provided vital sustenance for the new regime and its associates, and especially the Revolutionary Guards.

Entrusted with this instantaneous megawealth, and obviously caving under its weight, the foundation came to be known for its wasteful and inept management and for its nepotism. In the years immediately after the revolution, many of the manufacturing industries and large agricultural concerns under its tutelage fell into decay or were entirely ruined. Poor management, low morale, and low efficiency turned numerous factories into industrial wastelands, with cannibalized machinery, dilapidated buildings, derelict infrastructure, a discontented workforce, and cynical management. Industries in the vicinity of the sprawling cities, in particular, soon fell victim to land speculation and makeshift housing projects that aimed to accommodate the extraordinary population growth but also to line pockets of the new regime’s cronies. The emerging elite were in the main children and relatives of the ayatollahs, relatives of ministers and ranking officials, affiliated bazaari activists, soon the Iran-Iraq War veterans, and men with a convincing-enough Islamic lineage.

The massive shift of the private wealth of the Pahlavi era to state ownership or to semipublic entities, and to individuals with ties to the regime, was barely admissible by even a radical interpretation of the provisions of Islamic law or the constitution of the Islamic Republic. The revolutionary courts that were supposed to uphold the spirit and the letter of the Islamic law in their judgments barely bothered to substantiate their rulings with textual evidence of Shi‘i jurisprudence. Such a task would have been particularly arduous, if not impossible, given the sanctity of ownership in Islamic law. Centuries of Shi‘i jurisprudence, and scrutiny over the details of property laws, were astonishingly overlooked—violated—by revolutionary judges. Revolutionary fervor and ideological turpitude quickly overcame any concern for restraint (ehtiyat), a principle often emphasized in Islamic law, especially with reference to people’s lives and properties.

Amassing new wealth, though nominally earmarked as charity for the benefit of the underprivileged and the poor, had the noticeable effect of making the clergy financially autonomous from their traditional sources of income. In doing so, it helped loosen old ties with the bazaar, its major source of economic support, or income from the charitable endowments. As the bazaar continued to lose ground to the street and become marginalized, more so in the decades to come, its economy transformed. It primarily housed a network of wholesalers and small-scale retailers. The Islamic state, however, moved to the economic center stage, not only intervening in the national economy but also shaping it even more drastically than its Pahlavi predecessor had. The bazaar’s grass roots continued, at least for a decade or two, to produce dependable manpower for the Islamic Republic’s sprawling bureaucracy, but as a vibrant economic space, it no longer carried any significant weight with the country’s new masters.

The public sector controlled not only all the infrastructure and service industries, including energy, water, communication, and transportation, but also, in the fashion of socialist centralized economies, it owned and operated a wide range of industries, from steel and petrochemicals to food, distribution networks, and retail. Predictably, the Islamic state in return promised a range of services and welfare schemes to its underprivileged citizens, at times completely devoid of planning or mindful of long-term repercussions. A case in point was the promise of free amenities, including electricity, water, and gas, to all citizens of Iran—a wishful commitment first promised by the Imam in the early days of the revolution, but one that soon had to be withdrawn when the cost and potential for such a generous offer became apparent. Subsidies for petrol and basic food items, however, continued for decades, placing a huge burden on state expenditures and causing serious setbacks in the performance of a national economy addicted to subsidies.

More detrimental to a manageable pattern of urban growth were the Islamic Republic’s promises to provide free housing for the poor, a remedy to the sprawling shantytowns that had grown around the capital and major provincial centers in the 1970s. Presided over in the early days of the revolution by two fiery mullahs, two self-styled housing organizations laid their hands on a vast number of privately owned houses, apartments, and plots of land in large cities. The seizure had no legal grounds, having occurred even before any ruling by the revolutionary courts. They invited the disinherited to apply for ownership and subsequently settled hundreds of thousands into confiscated properties. The prospect of free housing proved an incentive for the poor and lower middle classes to migrate to larger cities. Far more than could have been realistically accommodated, there were so many applicants that the free housing scheme turned into a fiasco. Even the Revolutionary Guards were wary of how to maintain order and security. Multitudes of unlucky applicants had to settle for less in the poor neighborhoods that quickly swelled in the capital and provincial centers. In a short span, overenrolled schools, pressure on utilities, congested traffic, and air pollution became a fact of postrevolutionary urban life. Unregulated building permits granted to speculating building contractors aggravated the sprawl.

Dismantling the Pahlavi business and industrialist class and the associated secular and semisecular middle classes, however, did not instantly result in a new class of the same size and financial acumen. For years to come the state remained the powerful economic player, to the detriment of private sector, which continued to haphazardly operate within an inefficient economy. Even more than in the Pahlavi era, the new business sector was subject to the whims and wishes of the state and its fickle economic behavior, which often revolved around cronyism, connection, or extortion.

Beyond holding to the amenities and vital services, the new regime gradually adopted a haphazard privatization practice, whereby it parceled out some of its profitable assets to people with connections in very favorable terms as a reward for their loyalty; individuals and families the regime considered as its own, the insiders (khodi). The most obvious candidates were ayatollahs’ offspring and their cronies. The closer to the center of power, the better their chances were for building new business empires, ranging from manufactured goods, textiles, and food industries to banking, shipping, heavy industry, auto manufacturing, and import-export. Also favored as insiders were former members of the Revolutionary Guards, veterans of the Iraq-Iran War with notable loyalty to the regime, and families of the war martyrs who became clients of the powerful ayatollahs. The shady fashion in which wealth and property transferred from government hands to private hands, at times in several stages, was the state’s easy solution to cover up its managerial ineptitude in handling the enormous wealth it had confiscated from the Pahlavi elite. Redistributing resources, especially after 1989, was an informal means of rewarding loyalty rather than concerns for managerial skills and economic expediency.


By early 1980, despite the regime’s consolidation, economic turmoil and revolutionary disarray had not subsided. The hostage crisis of November 1979, whereby sixty-six diplomats and staff of the American embassy in Tehran were held captive by revolutionary students for nearly fifteen months (they were later released in two stages), was the final straw for the provisional government. Its resignation on November 3, 1979, was a turning point. It illustrated the failure of the liberal Islamist narrative, a legacy of the National Movement of the earlier decades, in harnessing the revolution’s contentious forces. Within the volatile environment of the time, these forces were to soon erupt, leading to clashes within the regime and outside it. The election of Abol-Hasan Banisadr in January 25, 1980, as the first president of the Islamic Republic appeared to be a step toward stability. The immediate power struggle that came in its wake, however, proved otherwise. Six months later in September 1980 a fierce Iraqi invasion across the southwestern and western borders shattered Iran’s defenses and took the nascent Islamic Republic completely by surprise. The combination of the hostage crisis, the ongoing power struggle in the regime, and the Iraqi invasion posed a severe ordeal to an infant regime already suffering from international isolation. In retrospect, these crises helped further solidify the hard-liners’ hold over the revolution and its emerging organs of coercion and control.

With a mandate of eleven million votes, more than 75 percent of the voting public, and Khomeini’s blessings, who then was recovering in hospital from a mild heart attack, Banisadr’s presidency seemed to be trouble-free. Yet from the outset he faced systematic, albeit covert, opposition from a wide spectrum of radical Khomeinists, clerical and lay, centered primarily in the newly established Islamic Republican Party. Founded by Beheshti and Rafsanjani, among others, the party’s objective was to consolidate the Islamic Republic’s grass roots. It enjoyed Khomeini’s blessing, too. Yet contrary to the monolithic model of the communist bloc, the creation of a regime-sponsored Islamic Republican Party was bound to clash with a president who was neither endorsed nor tolerated by the hard-line bloc. The clash between the two interpretations of the revolution soon rose to the surface, despite Khomeini’s early efforts to reconcile the opposing parties. In effect, it showed that the hard-liners, and especially the clerical bloc within the Islamic Republican Party, had enough clout to undermine a popularly elected president and even go against the wishes of the leader of the revolution.

Though Banisadr was a longtime supporter of Khomeini, in his own right he was an advocate of a peculiarly utopian outlook that fell between Islamic activism and liberal nationalism with a socialist coloring. Born to a clerical family, he witnessed in his youth the turbulent years of the National Movement and was inspired by Mosaddeq’s struggle. Later, as a university student in the early 1960s, he was active in the second National Front, and during the June 1963 uprising he was arrested and briefly imprisoned. Later in voluntary exile in Paris, he joined the Confederation of Iranian Students and became a vocal critic of the shah’s regime. Taking some courses in economics at the Sorbonne toward a doctorate degree, which he never completed, his time was spent mostly in the isolation of his apartment articulating what he defined as “unitarian” economics (eqtesad-e tawhidi). An Islamic take on socialist economic theories popular in the 1960s, his pièce de résistance was to reject profit making as prime motive for human economic activities.

When he returned to Tehran in February 1979 alongside Khomeini, the radical Khomeinist clique viewed him from the outset as a power-hungry outsider and treated him with suspicion. Khomeini viewed him with a kinder eye. An alternative to Bazargan’s now-defunct step-by-step approach to accomplish the revolution’s objectives, Banisadr promised a revolutionary makeover with a democratic face but also ample Islamic veneer. As a civilian capable of articulating a vision, he seemed to Khomeini to be a viable choice having still been concerned with the future of the revolution and fearing public resistance to clerical monopoly (pl. 15.1).

In his frequent public talks, press conferences, and interviews, Banisadr came across as sincere and forbearing, yet loquacious and self-congratulatory. A political loner, his odd mélange of Islamic ideology, the by-product of years of self-absorption, advocated an Islamic society in which “committed” citizens strive for the sake of God, rather than for their own personal gain, to improve the lot of others. Economy, he believed, was a path to salvation and service to God and that modern socioeconomic quandaries worldwide were to be resolved only through Islamic devotion to others and self-sacrifice. Ambiguous and self-assured, he came across as obsessed with categorization, often excessive, and with ready-made solutions to everything large and small, from unemployment to military strategy and from Western ideologies to history of Islam. He contested the unrestrained ambitions of his clerical opponents and at times even was reluctant to shower unqualified adulation on the guardian jurist. Readily engaging his opponents on the left in television debates and in his newspaper’s columns, he was more of an intellectual with an Islamic bent than a Qom-oriented insider with a network of devout supporters.

Once Banisadr failed to take advantage of the momentum of the first month or two of his presidency, when he still had a chance to turn the popular tide against the stifling political space, he became a target of many justified and unjustified attacks. Soon he appeared more like the leader of a rowdy and dissatisfied opposition party than the president of the republic. With so many urgent issues to tackle, his chances for success appeared slim. Unrest in Kurdistan and Azarbaijan—turning almost into a civil war—provocations of the left on shop floors, in universities and in government offices, revolutionary courts averse to any government control, and the demands of a revolutionary-ridden economy required acumen and resolve. Lacking coherent organization and grassroots support, he could only rely, beyond Khomeini’s quivering support, on long-winded public speeches and a small but devoted staff of aides and advisers, unmatched in number to the multitudes of his enemies.

The election of the first Islamic Consultative Assembly in March 15, 1980—with the majority of deputies unfavorable toward the president—deepened the rift between Banisadr and the hard-liners. Of the total of 243 deputies who were confirmed (out of the total of 270), 115 were independents, 85 belonged to Khomeinists’ grand coalition, 33 were from a coalition of Banisadr supporters, and 20 belonged to the Freedom Movement coalition. Secular parties were intentionally sidelined. Only 3 percent belonged to the National Front and 4 percent to the Tudeh Party. Supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalq were entirely excluded. Following the highly contested election, a commission was set up by the Revolutionary Council to address a wave of protest by political parties and candidates who alleged widespread fraud. The commission examined 40 out of 173 cases and annulled the election results in 24 of them. Yet fearing loss of control, the clerics of the Revolutionary Council sought and received Khomeini’s help. He decreed that the election complaints should be the affair of the Majles itself, “of which the majority of elected members so far are, God be praised, Islamic and committed.” The commission was thus overruled, the protests were ignored, and the complaints were shelved.

Shortly afterward in a meeting with the newly elected deputies, Khomeini tried to mend fences between the majority hard-liners from the Islamic Republican Party and minority supporters of Banisadr. “If we want victory for our country and for Islam,” he cautioned, “we should stop bickering. We should all have one voice. Guidance is one thing and backstabbing is another. . . . If the president undermines the Majles, he would collapse before the Majles does. If some in the Majles weaken the president, and those who are in the executive (branch), they too will be weakened. And today this is not expedient. . . . Today this is a major crime.” Turning the sharp edge of his criticism toward the “nationalists,” by whom he meant the members of the National Front, he continued: “From these nationalists [melliyun] we haven’t seen anything except sabotage. Not a single one of them I have seen to be correct and Islamic.”2 This was an ominous response to the protests lodged by the National Front, whose handful of deputies was disqualified by the Majles hard-liners. It was also a warning to Banisadr to distance himself from the National Front, whose future seemed increasingly gloomy, and to return to the Khomeinists’ fold.

The bone of contention, soon after the Majles was in session, was in the appointment of a prime minister, who, according to the constitution, was to be nominated by the president and ratified by the Majles. In the months that followed, the tug-of-war between the two sides revealed an ideological chasm that degenerated into a full-blown constitutional crisis. Khomeini astutely allowed the contest to come to its own end. A case in point was ambiguity in the constitution concerning the authority of the president versus the prime minister, and the level of the Majles’s supervision. The function of the prime minister, the chief executive officer of the government, and the degree of his autonomy in appointing ministers were interpreted by the Islamic Republican Party’s deputies in the Majles as something independent of the president. The latter was treated almost like a ceremonial head of the state. Banisadr contested this, arguing that not only the choice of the premier and his ministers but also the broad contours of the government’s policies were to be set, or as a last resort approved, by the president. Below the constitutional quarrel, deeper threads of ideological division were palpable.

After months of wrangling, in August 1980 Banisadr yielded. With visible reluctance and after rejecting less desirable candidates for the post, he condoned the choice of Mohammad ‘Ali Raja’i, a hard-line activist and earlier minister of education under Bazargan. He held the right credentials for the rapidly polarizing politics of the time: a fully “committed” Khomeinist, his upbringing and class status contrasted Banisadr’s. Born in Qazvin, he began his career as a schoolteacher of humble background who had suffered Savak’s imprisonment and torture. His father, a modest haberdasher in the bazaar, was among the founders of the Society of Expectants for the Advent of the Mahdi, devoted to combatting communists and Baha’is. The young Mohammad ‘Ali himself recited Shi‘i mourning eulogies (nawheh) in the Moharram processions. Immigrating to the capital in late 1940s, where he eked out a menial livelihood as a store apprentice in the bazaar, for a while as a peddler of cheap utensils in poor neighborhoods, he later became civilian personnel in the Iranian air force. During the heyday of religious activism in the early 1950s, he was recruited by an Islamic association, drawn into the sermons of Mahmud Taleqani and Mahdi Bazargan, and soon after affiliated with Fada’iyan-e Islam. After 1953, while serving as a schoolteacher in one of Tehran’s a poor neighborhood, he continued as an Islamic activist, engaging Baha’is in religious debates. Soon he became an advocate of Khomeini, which landed him in prison for a few years.

Raja’i had a blunt and furious style and a supply of anti-Western rhetoric distinct from the refined but dreary tone of his embattled superior. Though the intrigue and squabbling ebbed momentarily with the breakout of war with Iraq, by no means did it end the regime’s inner quarrels. It was clear that the relatively restrained brand of Islamism of Banisadr, and other modernist blends and flavors in his camp, were bound to face stiff resistance from the better-organized clerical quarters. Frustration with the opposition in Tehran and the looming prospects of war with Iraq, meanwhile, drew Banisadr’s attention and his energies away from the capital and to the front. Frequently traveling to Khuzestan and other war-torn provinces, he tried to put a brave face on his crumbling presidency. He was steadily marginalized in Tehran and failed to make any decisive inroads at the war’s front. Setback on the front and Banisadr’s favored defensive strategy, especially in the Battle of Susangerd in January 1981, further gave an opportunity to his clerical opponents to tarnish his reputation. They made Khomeini clearly furious and distrustful of the president’s capabilities. Banisadr’s criticism of the excesses of the revolutionary courts and his calls for a peaceful end to the hostage crisis did not improve his standing with the Imam and his hard-line followers. Seeking a counterweight to the Islamic Revolutionary Party, Banisadr gradually tilted toward the Mojahedin camp, then still a force to be reckoned with, and embraced their anticlerical stand, a move that proved fatal to his presidency and his political career.

Banisadr’s speech at a rally at Tehran University on March 5, 1981, the anniversary of Mosaddeq’s death, more clearly revealed the irreconcilable rift with the Khomeinist camp. An army of club-wielding (chomaqdar) saboteurs who came to disrupt the rally clashed with oppositional forces, including Mojahedin-e Khalq and the National Front, who as a last resort had gathered around Banisadr. During a lengthy speech that was repeatedly interrupted by pro- and anti-Banisadr slogans, he paid homage to Mosaddeq’s Islamic principles and touched on the government’s inefficiency, heroic resistance in the war with Iraq, and the absence of judicial security, by which he meant the willful conduct of the revolutionary courts and the hostage takers. He then went on to say:

The job of the president is to disclose the truth and raise people’s awareness and strive to maintain the sense of unity in the country. . . . We must investigate and get to the bottom of everything in order to return security to our country. If your president who comes to deliver a speech [here] is to encounter armed men with club and firearms, that is not a republic that can survive. . . . If they exchange their clubs with thinking with their brains, then the social atmosphere will heal and purify. By God’s grace and your selfless support we shall overcome perils and be triumphant.3

Banisadr’s aspirations proved misplaced. The rally, and the clashes between supporters and opponents of Banisadr received a wide negative coverage in the hard-line press and in pro-Khomeini circles that no longer had any reservation to openly attack the president. The retaliatory course that followed eventually brought about Banisadr’s downfall. Within weeks it became apparent that he lacked the popular backing strong enough to withstand the barrage of attacks in the press, in the broadcasting services and in mass rallies accusing him of being “compromising liberal,” a collaborator with the domestic and foreign enemies of the revolution and for mismanagement of the war with Iraq. His relatively tolerant and inclusive interpretation of the new Islamic order seems to have been no longer palatable to the radicalized supporters of the Imam, or indeed to the Imam himself.


In June 1981, when the war with Iraq was at a critical stage, the Iranian forces were demoralized, and popular enthusiasm for the regime was dwindling, the Majles moved to impeach Banisadr on charges of incompetence, ill intentions, and defiance toward the guardian jurist, all charges carrying a subtext of treason. In an orchestrated move Khomeini duly dismissed his first president only fifteen months after blessing his election to the office. Shortly before his dismissal, Banisadr had already been removed by Khomeini’s order from the post of commander in chief of the armed forces, a position the Imam had bestowed on him at the beginning of the war. Weeks earlier, the Khomeinist press and media sharpened their attacks on the president and his supporters, accusing him of compromise and deviating from the revolutionary path.

But more was in the offing. Fearing the perils ahead, Banisadr had already gone into hiding in Tehran in the house of Mas‘ud Rajavi (1948–2016?), a leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalq. A change in climate in favor of the Khomeinists was clearly palpable. The radicals had gathered enough acumen in a short span of time not to leave the job of governing to the outsiders, nor were they willing to tolerate “compromising liberals” lecturing on the splendors of democracy or the “deviating” People’s Mojahedin selling their “classless society.” Soon after Banisadr’s downfall, a new presidential election brought Raja’i to office with a margin that claimed to be even larger than Banisadr’s. Khomeini, too, astutely recognized that hard-liner loyalty was far more vital to him than sustaining a doomed presidency.

Forty-three days after his disappearance, in a dramatic escape Banisadr resurfaced in Paris, along with Mas‘ud Rajavi, who had survived the anti-Mojahedin purges. They flew in disguise aboard an air force 707 flown by a colonel who formerly served as the shah’s personal pilot. Banisadr’s disguise cost him his famous mustaches, though in Paris he soon returned to his former self, minus, of course, the cachet as the Islamic Republic’s first president. His reliance on the Mojahedin, though largely tactical, came at an expense not only to him but also to the Mojahedins’ rank and file. The collapse of Banisadr triggered a “reign of terror” that soon engulfed all nonaffiliated revolutionary and nonrevolutionary political organizations that the Islamic regime viewed as real or imagined competition.

Besides the Mojahedin, who were the crackdown’s main target and most numerous victims, the purge extended to the Marxist Fada’iyan and the Maoist Paykar. Even moderates such as the National Front and Freedom Movement were not spared. By February 1983, four years into the Islamic Republic, the raging flames even caught up with the Tudeh Party, which despite its consistent pandering at Khomeini’s gate and praising the “progressive” virtues of the Islamic Revolution, was soon subject to arrest and eventual elimination. The ten-month-long coup de grace of 1981–1982 can thus justifiably be seen as the third stage of the revolution. While February 1979 brought down the Pahlavi ancien régime and the hostage crisis wiped out the “step-by-step” Bazargan model, the fall of Banisadr and the purging of the opposition—coinciding with mass mobilization for the war with Iraq—brought the greatest concentration of power into the hands of the hard-liner Khomeinists.

At the core of the anti-Banisadr camp was Mohammad Beheshti, chief of the judiciary and the most influential leader of the Islamic Republican Party. Behind him was Rafsanjani, then the speaker of the Majles and an up-and-coming enabler of clerical supremacy. Others outside the party, such as Khalkhali, the head of the revolutionary courts, were no less hostile, and Khomeini himself required little persuasion. Banisadr’s tacit pact with the Mojahedin-e Khalq was sufficiently vilifying. From the early days of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini and his disciples had looked upon the Mojahedin with a mix of suspicion, fear, and resentment. Mojahedin’s flirting in the early months of the revolution with “Father Taleqani,” as they referred to their presumed patron, did not help remedy doctrinal differences with the Khomeinists or conceal mutual enmities between them. The Mojahedin’s widespread recruitment of young men and women, mostly high school and university students, their well-organized and disciplined cadres, and their program of ideological indoctrination turned them into a formidable force ahead of all other brands of opposition.

Mojahedin’s amalgam of idealized but selective Islamic teachings, romantic readings of early Shi‘i history drenched in martyr worship, via ‘Ali Shari‘ati, and a watered-down Marxist-Leninist theory of class struggle with a veneer of a socialist political economy was appealing. Despite being cultish and hierarchical, to the point of a resembling a fascist party, the Mojahedins’ appeal to young women and men lay in their seemingly liberating message, which contrasted starkly with the male-dominated, paternalistic Islam of the Khomeinists. In reality, the Mojahedin had become an Islamicized answer to the demands of a younger generation for agency. Breaking gender barriers and allowing a greater mix of the sexes under an Islamic canopy and a collectivized morality code was the key. While it required headscarves for women and button-down shirts for men, it allowed for a brotherly-sisterly interaction and instilled a strong spirit of sacrifice, armed struggle, and hero worship. It provided a ready-made package of doctrinaire answers to complex questions posed by the revolution.

Even before Banisadr’s flight, the pro-regime militias—soon to be labeled “Hezbollahis” (from the Qur’anic hizb-Allah, or “party of God”) armed with sticks and clubs interrupted opposition rallies, especially of the Mojahedin. In a matter of weeks such clashes turned into bloody street battles between the Revolutionary Guards and the armed cadres of the Mojahedin, resulting in hundreds dead and thousands, perhaps as many as five thousand, arrested. The Mojahedin supporters were mostly from urban lower-middle classes with religious backgrounds. Fired with revolutionary zeal and too anxious to resort to armed struggle, they carried the legacy of the older generation of the Mojahedin leadership. In Pahlavi prisons they honed their “dialectical” rationale that made them adamant, as they frequently claimed, that they are the only “alternative” to the reactionary Khomeinists. Under Rajavi and his cohort, Musa Khiabani (1943–1982), the People’s Mojahedin grew to be a formidable paramilitary force with a wide network, safe houses, a cache of weapons looted from the army barracks in February 1979, and a steadfast cadre of young men and women with some experience in urban warfare. Resorting to an armed insurgency thus seemed to them inevitable when they effectively were pushed out of the political process along with all other forces of opposition—a deadly miscalculation for which they paid dearly.

In clashes that lasted through early 1982, small Mojahedin cells operating in the capital and provincial cities lost most of their recruits in street battles. Frequently, clashes occurred when a Mojahedin safe house was identified, leaving them no choice but to defend themselves. The alternative was torture and often death in detention. Daring and brave, they nevertheless were outgunned and outmaneuvered by the Revolutionary Guards. In a déjà vu reminiscent of the Pahlavi era, the Mojahedin proved utterly wrong in assuming that the bold act of resistance would miraculously prompt a public uprising against the regime.

Armed clashes came with a barrage of anti-Mojahedin propaganda from the Islamic Republic. Their label as “eclectics” (elteqati) in the early days of the revolution, for their Islamo-Marxist doctrine, soon was degraded to “hypocrites” (monafeqin), a Qur’anic reference denoting those who accepted Islam outwardly but inwardly retained their pagan beliefs. When confrontations turned to armed clashes, the Mojahedin were declared outright infidels (kafer), which allowed the Islamic regime to deal with them on the harshest of terms. Hundreds of Mojahedin, along with Fada’iyan and Paykar, and their sympathizers, were summarily tried and sent before firing squads or hanged inside the Evin prison and other detention centers.

Those who were spared did not find life in prison any easier. Under the gaze of a notorious revolutionary judge, Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani (1928–2014), and chief prosecutor and prison warden, Asadollah Lajevardi (1935–1998), known as the “Butcher of Evin,” the inmates, men and women, were systematically tortured and humiliated, placed in long-term solitary confinement, and forced to confess their “mistakes” in front of television cameras. Women were forced to seek penance by sitting on their knees for hours on end in pigeonhole partitions and in total silence. Everyone had to repent and be subjected to “reeducation,” or face more torture or possible execution. “Recanting” their earlier political affiliations under pressure, whether Mojahedin, Fada’iyan, or others on the left, they were labeled as tawabin (repentants), a term historically denoting those who after the Battle of Karbala in 680 renounced their allegiance to the House of Umayyads. Not unlike the style of the Khmer Rouge, the inmates at Evin “university” were subject to a program of Islamic “rehabilitation,” which in reality amounted to full indoctrination, open displays of loyalty to the Imam and the Islamic regime, and complete collaboration by disclosing the identities of their comrades and locations of safe houses. Even then some remained suspect, were accused of insincerity, and in due course, were retried and executed.

Outmaneuvering Khalkhali, the revolutionary judge Gilani gained notoriety not only for his cold-blooded verdicts that sent hundreds, if not thousands to the gallows, but for his television program in which he articulated intricate points of Shi‘i jurisprudence often with sexual undertones pertaining to temporary marriage, incest, and sodomy. His dispassionate legalistic tone, seeming at times even leisurely, stood in surreal contrast to his death verdicts, which by 1988 had acquired the definition of mass murder. His aloof clinical approach in blending ruthlessness on the judicial bench with an almost comical television performance spoke volumes of a humanistic disconnect that was the prevailing character of Qom legalism. In September 1981 in an interview with the daily Kayhan, he declared: “Those who are arrested during street armed clashes can be lined up against the wall and shot on the spot. The wounded can also be finished off on the spot. From a religious point of view, there is no need to bring such people to court, because they have waged war on God.”4 By October he felt the need to further clarify his legal reasoning when in an interview with the daily Ettela‘at he pointed out, “According to Islam, even if they [i.e., Mojahedin] die under torture, no one is held accountable. This is the precise decree of the Imam.”5 Two of Mohammadi Gilani’s sons, who earlier had joined the People’s Mojahedin, were among the victims of the regime. Escaping the country, close to the Turkish border they were caught by the Revolutionary Guards. Anticipating the outcome of their arrest, they committed suicide with cyanide capsules. Their father confirmed that if they were brought before his court, they would have received death sentence.

Others among the Khomeinists did not display as much zeal as Gilani, though they were not far behind in their line of reasoning. Serving as shari‘a judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, and—among the higher ranks—as head of the judiciary, ministers of information and justice, leaders of Friday prayers appointed by Khomeini, and his representatives in the Revolutionary Guards, armed forces, and other sensitive organs of the government, they abided by the same guidelines. Thousands were purged, imprisoned, and executed once any affiliation with the mostly imagined forces of opposition was detected. Many sympathizers of the left were arrested on such minor charges as befriending an activist, possessing a revolutionary tract, or attending informal gatherings suspected of leftist tendencies. By mid-1982, the tail end of the Mojahedin insurgency, the regime’s draconian measures had successfully created an environment of terror detrimental to any show of sympathy toward any popular cause, let alone those initiated by the left.

The Mojahedin and their associates did not remain entirely passive to the regime’s design to destroy them. On June 28, 1981, a week after Banisadr’s downfall and the start of serious street clashes, a massive explosion in the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party killed more than seventy, including the secretary-general of the party, Mohammad Beheshti. The loss of government ministers, officials, and party activists inflicted the gravest blow to the regime’s leadership since the start of the revolution. The seventh of the month of Tir 1360 thus became a new red dot on the martyrdom calendar. In particular the loss of Beheshti, eulogized as the “tulip of the paradise” (laleh-ye behesht), deprived the clerical hierarchy of one of its most astute operators. Despite his pivotal role in establishing the Islamic Republican Party and the ousting of Banisadr, Beheshti was distinct from a host of Khomeinists in appreciating the complexity of the political process.

More than two months later, in the last days of August 1981, another massive bomb went off in the office of the president, killing Mohammad ‘Ali Raja’i, two weeks after he had been elected president. He was killed along with his newly appointed prime minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar (1933–1981), a founding member of the Islamic Republican Party and the first cleric to hold an important ministerial post. The two bombings, coming at short intervals, were shocking displays of the regime’s faulty security and infiltration by foes. A series of assassinations and attempted assassinations against pro-regime elements aggravated fears. Among them, Sayyid ‘Ali Khamenei, future president and Supreme Leader, was the target of a bomb blast in June 1981 while preaching in a Tehran mosque. The bombings, carried out presumably by Mojahedin agents, had an enormous adverse effect on the political climate, for they tilted public sympathies toward the Khomeinists. It also alerted the regime to the lethal threat to its very survival. In return, it unleashed the harshest clampdown so far on the opposition.


Crushing the Mojahedin served as a pretext to eradicate all other forms of dissent. Earlier on, after months of insinuations, in a fiery speech in June 1981, Khomeini had denounced the National Front leadership as “apostates,” primarily for calling a rally to protest the passage by the Majles of the law of Islamic retribution (qesas). The law, that replaced the penal code of the Pahlavi era, inculcated such ancient punishments as stoning married woman for extramarital affairs, cutting off limbs for theft and other serious offences, and determining life or death of murderers and other culprits by the mere consent of relatives of the victim, whom the new law defined as “custodians of the [victim’s] blood” (awliya-e damm). On a broader scheme, the National Front was being punished for holding Khomeini accountable for the climate of intimidation and terror. By the summer of 1982, most leaders of the National Front either had fled the country into permanent exile or had ended up in the prisons of the Islamic Republic. Not entirely devoid of potential middle-class support, the National Front nevertheless found itself in no position to withstand Khomeini’s rage or the terror of the club-wielding Hezbollah and their paymaster in the Islamic Republican Party. The Freedom Movement had been saved only barely by renouncing its old comrades in the National Front.

This was a humiliating fate for a movement that had stood for national sovereignty and political freedom for three decades. Khomeini and his turbaned clique never really trusted or cared for the tie-wearing, liberal nationalists. Nor did Khomeini ever acknowledge Mosaddeq as a national leader or subscribe to his path. It was largely the misplaced hopes of the liberal nationalists in the early days of the revolution that made them believe Khomeini was their partner in democracy, an error they quickly began to regret. As Karim Sanjabi, the leader of the National Front, once said: “Now it is the mullahs’ sleepers who replaced military boots.” Fearing for his life, in July 1981 Sanjabi went into hiding before leaving for Paris and soon after retiring in the United States.

Likewise, the National Democratic Front, a competing political coalition loyal to Mosaddeq’s memory, was labeled heretical. Established in March 1979 by intellectuals and activists unexcited by the National Front’s old-style liberalism, they advocated a secular socialist outlook. After the daily Ayandegan, affiliated with the Democratic Front, was closed in August 8, 1979, most leaders were harassed and driven into exile. In Paris, the Democratic Front’s leadership collaborated with the Mojahedin and other oppositional elements associated with Banisadr to create the National Council of Resistance. For a short while the council was a promising voice of opposition abroad, though in practice it proved a liability for secular intellectuals unaccustomed to the Mojahedin’s authoritarian outlook and paramilitary conduct. Once the latter’s collaboration with the Iraqi Ba‘athist regime became too embarrassing for any self-respecting Iranian nationalist, the council virtually dissolved.

The last of the political parties to go was the Tudeh Party. Despite the devious pretentions of its leadership, insisting that they were loyal to the people’s revolution, declaring that socialist principles are in harmony with revolutionary Islam, and saluting Khomeini as an anti-imperialist champion, they scarcely overcame Khomeini’s innate mistrust of the left. Nor did it remain immune to the regime’s wrath, despite careful treading down a tactical path or collaborating with the regime on issues of intelligence and security. From the early days of the revolution the Tudeh recruited from among the old comrades but also the ideologically inclined younger generations. It also embraced a merger with the so-called Majority (aksariyat) faction of the Fada’iyan-e Khalq. Not the least remorseful of its past history, the Tudeh leadership steadfastly followed a pro-Soviet party line. Entertaining high hopes for their future, it infiltrated the middle ranks of the regime’s nascent security and intelligence apparatus, evidently counting on long-term gains once the “inept mullahs” handed them the reins of power in desperation.

Major figures such as Ehsan Tabari (1917–1989), a respected theoretician of the party and a historian of some weight; Nur al-Din Kianuri (1915–1999), the party’s general secretary, notorious for his checkered record before 1953; and Maryam Firuz (1913–2008), the most prominent woman among the Tudeh ranks, were survivors of the party’s cadre who escaped to Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They returned to Iran after decades of exile, bringing experience and discipline but also a doctrinaire brand of Marxism that tried hard to comply with the rhetoric of the radical clergy and their spirit of militancy. Like many on the left, including liberal intellectuals, the Tudeh naively assumed that the days of the mullahs were numbered. Like many “progressives,” the Tudeh, too, relished the “historical necessity” of revolutionary action against the “degenerate” Pahlavi monarchy, and often sneered at such “bourgeois” values as human and civil rights (unless they were in their favor). If not in words at least in deeds, nearly all means were legitimate if they were serving their end and fulfilling their lofty dream of the masses’ one day casting off the threadbare cloak of religious “superstitions.”

The Tudeh woke up to a nightmare, however, when the Islamic regime began a massive crackdown that lasted until 1984. Despite the Tudeh’s unreserved support for the Islamic Revolution in its publications and rallies, the regime’s deep suspicion of the party and its activities never truly abated. Revelations of the KGB spymaster Vladimir Kuzichkin, a onetime Soviet station chief in Tehran who defected to Britain in 1982, confirmed these fears. In his interviews with CIA officers, Kuzichkin not only revealed the identities of almost the entire Tudeh leadership but also their infiltrators and the party’s close ties to the KGB. In early 1983 the CIA secretly shared these details with the Iranian intelligence, an early gift from the agency’s chief, William Casey, in the hopes that by courting Iran, the United States would be able to check presumed Soviet influence. This was at a time when the Reagan administration was about to adopt a policy of counterbalancing its massive assistance to Iraq in its war with Iran. Offering incidental intelligence to Iran and consignments of weaponry constituted a series of covert measures that eventually culminated in 1985 in the Iran-Contra Affair.

Widespread arrests of Tudeh members by the hundreds in Tehran and the provinces were followed by their torture, long prison sentences, and executions. Soon after, in 1985, a series of “panel interviews,” a euphemism for forced televised confessions, brought Tudeh Party leaders before the cameras, where they expressed remorse for a life of communist deceit and subservience to foreign powers. They praised the Imam for his true revolutionary qualities and bowed down in servility to Islam and the revolution as the true path to salvation. Intimidation, torture, and Soviet-inspired interrogation techniques cast long and ominous shadows over these interviews.

Also notable were the aftershocks of a crumbling ideological worldview. Thereafter came the “memoirs” and more “interviews” by well-known Tudeh leaders, including Tabari and Kianuri, in which the aged leaders, then in their seventies, again praised Khomeini and confessed to a life of political errors. The authenticity of these publications was deeply suspect, no doubt choreographed under duress and threat of further torture. Some of the heinous interrogators were themselves former Tudeh members and sympathizers. Now in the service of the regime’s Ministry of Information, a reincarnation of Savak, they were responsible for the post-torture interrogation, when victims were “broken” and ready to say or write whatever pleased their captors. Of all the reversals that the Iranian people witnessed following the revolution, the confessions of the Tudeh leadership probably were the most sobering.

Coinciding with massive crackdowns on Banisadr and Mojahedin, in April 1982 the security forces arrested Sadeq Qotbzadeh, once a senior member of Khomeini’s camp and at one time his minister of foreign affairs. He was detained, brought to trial, and forced to make a television confession. Like Banisadr, he was instrumental to Khomeini’s rise to prominence and, like him, was to become another devoured offspring of the revolution. He was accused of plotting a coup to assassinate Ayatollah Khomeini and topple his clerical regime. After an unusually long trial of twenty-six days, and after securing Khomeini’s consent, in September 15, 1982, a military revolutionary tribunal convicted him of the highest treason and sent him to the gallows.

Qotbzadeh reportedly “confessed” to a plot that implicated culprits inside and outside Iran, ranging from the CIA and the Bakhtiar opposition in Paris to royalists in exile, the Socialist International, military officers, and clerical and lay figures associated with Ayatollah Shari‘atmadari and the Muslim People’s Republican Party. If the KGB officer Kuzichkin is to be believed, Qotbzadeh’s removal was in part aided by the KGB, who presumably loathed him for his anti-Soviet and anti-Tudeh sentiments. According to this version, KGB agents planted in Qotbzadeh’s house a forged secret message from the CIA that implicated him in a largely spurious antiregime plot. Whatever the reality, Qotbzadeh was a victim of his refusal to be resigned to his political fate. A maverick with a trait of eccentricity, like many revolutionaries of his persuasion, he was rudely awakened to the fact that he had been overrun by a circle of clerical insiders who were cohesive, single-minded, and ruthless. In February 1979, as the head of Iran’s broadcasting services, when he expressed disgust with clerical reactionary measures, using the popular pejorative expression akhund-bazi(i.e., mullah’s conduct), he probably never imagined the grim implications of the expression.

The Muslim People’s Republican Party, a once-powerful rival to the ruling Islamic Republican Party, was another victim. Its moderate program of reform with elements of socialist economics appealed to the middle classes wary of the speedy rise of the Khomeinists. Backed by Ayatollah Mohammad-Kazem Shari‘atmadari, a moderate marja‘ from Iranian Azarbaijan, and one time the most respected authority in Qom, the party hoped to create a wider constituency despite open hostility of the hard-liners. When large rallies organized in Tabriz and other cities of Azarbaijan sufficiently worried the regime, a club-wielding mob readily assigned to sabotage rallies and trigger violence. In the meantime the leadership was called a stooge of the Americans and the party was duly crushed to oblivion.

Soon after Qotbzadeh’s execution, and in the context of the alleged plot, Khomeini ordered Shari‘atmadari to be “defrocked” (khal‘-e lebas) and kept under house arrest for the rest of his life. A highly unusual measure, even for Khomeini, to mistreat a fellow ayatollah, particularly a man who once in 1962 mediated on his behalf with the shah and probably saved Khomeini from death, it reflected the gravity of the situation in which the regime found itself. The Center for Islamic Publication and Teaching, one of the oldest in Qom created under Shari‘atmadari’s watch, was closed down, along with its journal Maktab-e Islam, long a voice of Islamic nonrevolutionary persuasion. Members of Shari‘atmadari’s family were arrested and tortured. Accused of collaboration with plotters, the aging Shari‘atmadari, then a dignified figure of seventy-seven, was beaten and manhandled by the minister of information and chief henchman of the Islamic Republic, Mohammad Rayshahri (b. 1946). To complete his public humiliation, he, too, was brought before television cameras to read a statement apologizing for his misdeeds (fig. 15.6).

The “defrocking” of a recognized marja‘, clearly an invented reprimand inspired by the Vatican, was an unprecedented intrusion into the recognized safe space of a high-ranking mojtahed. It was meant to exhibit Khomeini’s hierarchical superiority over other marja‘s, especially if they didn’t bow publically to his status as Imam and the guardian jurist. This was the first time in the history of clerical Shi‘ism that an institutional hierarchy was set with punitive repercussions for violating it. Other marja‘s dully followed the lead. Save for Ayatollah Hosain-‘Ali Montazeri, a chief lieutenant and designated successor to Khomeini (who in 1989 was to face a fate comparable to Shari‘atmadari), few audible objections came from Qom or other major Shi‘i centers.

Figure 15.6. Khomeini and Shari‘atmadari meet in Qom in 1979. Relations quickly turned sour as the two marja‘s took distinct paths.

Imam Khomeini. http://www.imam-khomeini.ir/fa/c201_30173. Public domain.

Another casualty of the purge, though less severe, was the Hojjatiyeh Society (also known as anjoman-e zedd-e Baha’iyat, or the Anti-Baha’i Society) founded in 1953 in the aftermath of the coup. Shaykh Mahmud Halabi (1900–1998), a madrasa cohort of Khomeini who established the society and became its leader, viewed anti-Baha’i activities—including harassment of individual members of that faith and disrupting their gatherings—as a duty of committed Muslims in anticipation of the coming of the Hidden Imam or the Proof (Hojjat; hence Hojjatiyeh, meaning “party of the Proof of God, i.e., the Mahdi”). The society’s latent messianism was a response to the Baha’is’ post-Islamic belief. On the eve of the revolution and continuing through the postrevolutionary days, the Hojjatiyeh had emerged as a cohesive nonclerical network advocating a messianic interpretation of the Islamic Revolution as a preparatory stage for the Advent of the Imam of the Age. “Until Mahdi’s revolution,” declared a favorite slogan of the Hojjatiyeh,” the movement continues,” implying that the Islamic Revolution was a prelude to the Advent of the Imam of the Age. In response, those supportive of Imam Khomeini cried out, “Khomeini! Khomeini! You are a manifestation of the Imam [of the Age],” a clear emphasis on the authority of the guardian jurist as “deputy” of the Hidden Imam. For a while Hojjatiyeh was tolerated by its opponent, but eventually in a 1983 speech, Khomeini banned the society’s activities, fearing its rising influence among the new elite. A vast number of the “committed” in the Islamic Republic’s cadre were former Hojjatiyeh and silently remained, even after Khomeini’s ban, loyal to its memory and its objectives.


Removing the remnants of the Pahlavi past and, more urgently, obliterating the regime’s ideological nemesis on the left and even within the Islamic fold called not only for a takeover of political power but also for closure of newspapers and publications run by the secular opposition. Independent newspapers such as the left-leaning Ayandegan, which had mustered an impressive following and rendered higher standards of reporting and editorship, were the first to go. The closure of Ayandegan, which had been in print since 1967 and had covered the prerevolutionary and revolutionary course of events from the vintage point of the intellectuals of the left, was an ominous reminder to a generation of activists of the liberal left who embraced the revolution as a paragon of an open society and freedom of press. The confiscation of the paper’s offices by the order of the attorney general of the Islamic Republic, and after the passage of a highly restrictive press law in August 1979, made it clear that the Islamic authorities had no stamina for even tamed criticism of the regime’s excesses.

Ayandegan was the first among other newspapers and journals that either brought into silence in the following months and years or completely taken over by supporters of Khomeini. If the stringent monitoring of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance was not sufficient to intimidate journalist and force them to silence, the Hezbollah vigilantes and the komitehs’ “shock troops” were. The two major national dailies were simply taken over at the outset of the revolution and nationalized. After a thorough purge of the staff, control of these papers was entrusted to Khomeini’s aides or to the most egregious hard-liners. The official organ of the Islamic Republican Party and other well-funded government journals and newspapers also had their share in the Islamification of the press. By 1983, the forced closure of almost all independent newspapers and journals left a faint shadow of the burgeoning press, which had exceeded one hundred periodicals in 1980 (fig. 15.7).

Along with the press, educational and cultural institutions were obvious targets of a regime with a pronounced cultural agenda. Purging all “uncommitted” faculty, staff, and students from institutes of higher education and Islamization of education at all levels soon became a major preoccupation of the Islamic Republic. At the core of what came to be known as the Cultural Revolution (Enqelab-e Farhangi) stood a deep resentment of the secular educational system that had emerged since the turn of the twentieth century. Such a vindictive attitude may be attributed to the past belittling, even denial, of the brand of knowledge often viewed by the Pahlavi rule as arcane and backward—in contradistinction to what was revered in the Shi‘i teaching circles of Qom and Najaf. Though in most respects the radical clergy camp and their lay associates viewed modern technical, scientific, and medical education as realities congruent with Islamic teaching, they felt that traditional brands of Islamic knowledge, especially jurisprudence, were unjustly ignored and even ridiculed.

Figure 15.7. Ambivalence about the chances for the growth of a free press in the shadow of machine guns is evident in this enigmatic poster produced in October 1979.

Designed by Kurosh Shishehgran. Honar-e Enqlab, 57 Poster az Enqelab-e 57, ed. Rasul Ja‘farian (Tehran: Kitabkhaneh, Muzeh va Markaz-e Asnad-e Majles-i Shura-ye Islami, 1390/2011), 24.

More so, especially since the 1960s they felt that the university environment was tainted with moral laxity and Western depravity, including various flavors of Marxist ideology, and that the Pahlavi cultural elite for long nursed a deep grudge against anything associated with traditional Shi‘i education. This is what the Islamic authorities and its civil agents aimed to transform. The discourse of “Westoxication” (gharbzadehgi), a legacy of Al-e Ahmad, also had its place. And so did Shari‘ati’s idealized radical Islamism. Both contributed to an air of moral indignation adopted by Ayatollah Khomeini and his commissars of the Cultural Revolution who frequently characterized universities as dens of disbelief where students are conditioned to disdain Islam and its teachings. Class disparity also played a part. Purging the venerable faculty with obvious grudge, often by revolutionary agents of lower social standing, symbolized a victory over the old educational elite. The extent of the purge, and its centrality to the regime’s ethos, is also evident in what can be described only as the conquest of Tehran University. As in other universities and institutes of higher education, Tehran University in the early days of the revolution had turned into a bastion of the Fada’iyan and Mojahedin organization and recruitments, another motive for the “forces of the Hezbollah” to take over campuses all over the country and purge undesired elements from among students and faculty (fig. 15.8 and fig. 15.9).

Immediately after the victory of the revolution, every week thousands of supporters of the regime occupied the Tehran University’s soccer field at the center of the campus to set Friday congregational prayers. The symbolic gesture, complete with the leader of the prayer delivering hellfire sermons (khotbeh) with a G3 rifle in hand, denouncing domestic and foreign enemies of Islam, was meant to underscore the regime’s Islamic sovereignty in a venerable center of educational modernity. As if a ritual, the audience responded with salutes to the Prophet and his progeny followed by “death to America,” “death to idol worshippers,” “death to hypocrites”—and death to other flavors of the week.

Figure 15.8. Ferdowsi’s statue in front of the School of Letters, Tehran University, March 1979. Posters, graffiti, and notices, including a portrait of Arani, were predominantly by the Fada’iyan and the Mojahedin.

Maryam Zandi, Enqlab-e 57 (Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 103.

That Friday prayer was to be held on the campus of an institution that for nearly half a century had been a vital source for training Iran’s professional elite and a center of political dissent exhibited a meaningful mix of intents. It displayed the desire of the Qom howzeh to “Islamicize,” as Khomeini often stressed, the heathen world of the university. “Crossbreeding the university with the howzeh” became a priority of the regime. The Friday congregation was also meant to overpower with sheer numbers (and loudspeakers) all other voices, especially the left, which since the victory of the revolution had taken shelter inside university campuses. That Friday prayers continued to be held at Tehran University for more than three decades despite the availability of larger sites speaks of the Islamic Republic’s existential anxiety. To withdraw from the campus of Tehran University in effect signaled a retreat from the revolution’s Islamicizing crusade, a concession the regime was, and still is, unwilling to grant at any cost.

Other symbolic gestures, benign as they may have appeared at the outset, followed. Iran’s Cultural Revolution initiated by Khomeini’s decree in June 1980 was the start of a widespread purge (paksazi; literally, “purification”) of suspect elements at all levels, from elementary schools to universities. Probably inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution—a torrent of intimidation, terror, massacre, and destruction of mostly academics and intellectuals that consumed Mao Zedong’s China between 1966 and 1976—the Iranian version was far tamer, less bloody, and largely concerned with control of educational levers at all levels. It was nevertheless deeply damaging to the fabric of Iranian education, professional fields, technological skills, and most of all, branches of the humanities. The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, consisting of Khomeini’s appointees from among hard-liners, took its cues from the guardian jurist’s directives and furious public speeches. He repeatedly urged the council to rid the universities of all un-Islamic elements and at all costs. By mid-1981, in actions parallel to ousting Banisadr and crushing Mojahedin, mobs in Tehran and other provinces randomly attacked university campuses, beating up and injuring students, driving out the left from their offices and paramilitary bases, and in turn occupying campuses. To complete their task, on June 4, 1980, the council ordered the closure of the universities nationwide. They remained closed for the following three years to give ample time to systematically cull undesirable elements. A few days later Ayatollah Khomeini’s directive confirmed the closing of the universities:

The need for Cultural Revolution, which is an Islamic issue and demand of the Muslim nation, has been recognized for sometimes. . . . The Muslim nation is worried that God forbid the opportunity is missed and no positive action has yet been taken and the culture remains the same as the time of the corrupt regime when the uncultured officials put these important centers under the disposal of colonialists. Continuation of this disaster, which unfortunately is the objective of groups guided by foreign interests will strike a heavy blow on the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic and any indifference towards this vital issue would be an act of great treason to Islam and the Islamic country.6

Under the rubric of reevaluation, thousands were expelled or subjected to Islamic ideological tests or sent off to revolutionary courts. The adverse effects of depriving universities of some of their most skilled and qualified faculty, who were labeled “antirevolutionary,” “idol worshippers,” and “decadent,” soon became apparent at all levels. Intimidated and weary of the ponderous Islamicizing measures, thousands resigned and left Iran or went into businesses or private practice. Professors of humanities and social sciences, in particular, were targets of academic cleansing, having been accused of facilitating a Western “cultural onslaught” (tahajom-e farhangi) or entertaining an “un-Islamic” lifestyle. Also subject to great scrutiny were faculty with left-leaning affinities, records of currying favor with the old regime, or Baha’is identified as members of the “devious sect.”

Figure 15.9. On the eve of the revolution, curbside booksellers offered an assortment of long-censored books, pamphlets, and snapshots that had surfaced around Tehran University. Among the favorites were leftist literature, including Stalinist and Maoist tracts, and works by Shari’ati and Al-e Ahmad.

Maryam Zandi, Enqlab-e 57 (Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 90.

Classrooms and curricula also bore the burnt of the Cultural Revolution. Classes were segregated by gender and, though still under the same roof, were under the watchful eyes of zealous “security” (herasat) agents. Instructors who survived the purges had to meander through ideological minefields when teaching such areas as evolutionary theory, sociology of religion, civil law, and various fields of humanities. History, both modern and premodern, was embattled by an indoctrinated reading of the past. Being “Islamically correct” soon became the order of the day. After the universities reopened in the fall of 1984, “committed” students, many from among the war veterans or favored insiders, were admitted mostly on the basis of their zeal and connections rather than their scholarly merits. They weren’t shy about challenging their professors, and if necessary, they harassed them in and out of the classroom or reported them to universities’ Islamic associations. A spirit of fear and suspicion quickly set in, diminishing any drive for independent inquiry and academic objectivity. Even the exact sciences were to comply with Islamic “ideological” values.

The students’ fervor, however, subsided with time and gave way in many instances to cynicism or sheer utilitarian motives. Acquiring a degree to excel in the regime’s technocracy or improve one’s chances for immigration prevailed. The regime’s grip over the educational system, and especially over higher education, steadily grew and became further institutionalized over the coming decades. “Committed” cadres trained under the new system gradually replaced the older generation of instructors and university professors, though even then the spirit of dissent and skepticism did not entirely evaporate. The maturing of a new generation of academics had its surprises. While seemingly subordinate to the ideological dictates of the regime, many were critical of the narrow-minded superficiality imposed on higher education and at times courageous enough to question the mainstream.

Even more drastic was the Islamification of the curricula, the other urgent task of the Cultural Revolution. A fair amount of mandatory “Islamic” education was injected into the system at all levels, including devotional acts, rudimentary Shi‘i jurisprudence, and theology. A systematic effort was also made to substantially revise and rewrite textbooks in the humanities, most notably history, philosophy, and literature. Relying heavily on the Shi‘i narrative, new textbooks presented the Islamic Revolution embedded within a salvation narrative—a liberating struggle, as it were, that restored two and a half millennia of Iranian history gone awry. It aimed to supplant the Pahlavi nationalistic histories of the latter half of the twentieth century with an Islamicized version of its own, displaying familiar symptoms: ideologically driven, naive, self-righteous, always pitting good versus evil, and xenophobic.

With the emphasis on Islamic history, the Pahlavi promotion of the ancient Iranian past of the Achaemenid and Sassanian periods did not receive the same preferential treatment. With a twist, perhaps borrowed from the Soviet-inspired Tudeh literature, the power and glory of those eras was attributed to the toiling masses who built empires under the yoke of oppressive King of Kings. The real glories were reserved for the Islamic era, particularly for early Shi‘i history. A facile hagiography of the Shi‘i Imams, mostly based on popular legends filtered through Qom clerical channels, offered a sanctimonious narrative in which persecution and suffering was blended with a largely imagined political activism. This was a picture as unfitting to the Shi‘i Imams’ mostly docile lives as it was disingenuously ideological. The updated language and vocabulary injected into the otherwise arcane narratives, as in the Shi‘i books of mourning (mas’eb va marasi), appeared surreal, if not absurd.

The greatest distortions were rendered in the story of modern Iran as a prelude to the Islamic Revolution. Loyal to the narrative of moral decadence, the history textbooks of the Islamic Republic portrayed Qajar rulers as ignorant, oppressive and hedonistic, and responsible for Iran’s territorial losses to the rapacious European powers. Devoid of any political agency, with few exceptions Qajar statesmen were depicted as puppets stranded between British and Russian insatiable greed. Predictably, the loss of the precious Caucasian provinces as well as Herat and Marv were bemoaned in a tone that betrayed a veiled expansionist complex. Lamenting the fate of the Constitutional Revolution, the new Islamic narrative accused secular constitutionalists of selling out virtuous Islamic ideals to alien liberal ideologies. It portrayed statesmen of the period as deviant Westernizers. By contrast, Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri was celebrated as the true champion of the Constitutional Revolution, a victim of his Islamic convictions, and a forerunner of an Islamic movement that eventually came to fruition under Ayatollah Khomeini. The only other hero of early Qajar era was Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir. He received an equally idealized treatment, one that was inherited from nationalistic narrative in earlier decades. He was portrayed as an unblemished anti-imperialist champion whose murder at the hands of heinous Qajars robbed Iran of its only chance for reform and progress.

The greatest villain of the Islamic Republic’s grand narrative, however, was Reza Shah, or Reza Khan, as he was contemptuously referred to in the language of the Islamic Revolution. Portrayed as the puppet of British mischief, the much-favored conspiratorial theory of his rise to power painted him—and of course, Pahlavi reforms—with a vindictive brush. It was as if the entire era had been nothing but a grand betrayal of the spirit of true Islam and the Shi‘i clergy, a modernistic aberration with no positive value to Iranian state and society. Predictably, such a narrative found in Hasan Modarres, by then elevated to ayatollah status, not a political maneuverer but an innocent martyr of Pahlavi’s anti-Islamic tyranny. He was another precursor to the Islamic Revolution. The Reza Shah era, the prevailing narrative of the Ministry of Education of the Islamic Republic assured students, had no benefit; rather, it had caused Iran’s educated middle classes to deviate from the path of Islam. Ironically, the authors of these textbooks and a whole host of the radical Khomeinists were the ungrateful by-products of this same middle class.

By the same token, Mohammad Reza Shah’s era received an utterly Manichaean treatment, contrasting the forces of Islamic good under the auspices of Ayatollah Khomeini against the evils of a “treasonous” Mohammad Reza Shah and the greed, oppression, and subservience he brought to the country. Not surprisingly, Mohammad Mosaddeq (often referred to by his Qajar title, Mosaddeq al-Saltaneh, to stress his aristocratic lineage) emerged in this narrative not as champion of the oil nationalization movement but as its accidental leader. And like liberal constitutionalists before him, he, too, was doomed to fail once he parted ways from the true Islamic leader of his time, Ayatollah Kashani, another turbaned precursor in the sacred genealogy of the Islamic Revolution. A succession of encounters between clerical activism and secular modernity, always corrupt and deviant, offered a modern version of a Shi‘i passion play (ta‘ziyeh) with a providential touch, one that was destined to bring Ayatollah Khomeini to the stage as the ultimate savior of centuries of clerical service and sacrifice.


By late 1983 the regime had succeeded in silencing virtually all voices of political opposition that had helped bring it to power only four years earlier. All autonomy-seeking ethnic voices in the country including Kurdish, Azari, Turkmen, and Sunni Arab natives of Khuzestan, were efficiently extinguished. The magnitude of the crackdown becomes even more striking when we take into account Iran’s successes during 1982 and 1983 in repelling Iraqi offensives. Compared to the experiences of earlier revolutionary regimes in Europe and elsewhere, the Islamic Republic’s success was impressive. Four years into the 1789 French Revolution, and two years before the Reign of Terror, the revolutionary process in France was largely unsolidified and the fate of the revolutionary regime undetermined. By 1921 the Russian Revolution still had a long way to go, having been fighting a widespread civil war that cast doubt on the Bolsheviks’ very survival. Even the Chinese Revolution of 1949, with popular support for Mao Zedong, was not fully capable of eliminating its Nationalist nemesis.

The key to this remarkable sustenance may be attributed to the crucial presence of Khomeini as a revolutionary prophet. He brought to bear, above all, a high degree of group cohesion—to borrow Ibn Khaldun’s famous ‘asabiyya theory of the rise and fall of empires—among his clerical and lay followers with resolve and unmerciful acumen. When necessary, he forfeited even his closest aides or highest-ranking clerical rivals. The clerical network over which he presided had little doubt as to who was an insider and who was not, and in a short time, the eventful course of the revolution made this differentiation even sharper. Saving the “self” and purging the “other” quickly became a matter of survival. While the “old regime” was almost completely wiped out, the participants in the revolution were swiftly sifted through for their doctrinal (maktabi) loyalty.

Group cohesion was complemented by organization and leadership of a strong state. Though revolutionary institutions were chaotic and clerical leadership decentralized, and even flawed, there was enough organization and financial resources, thanks to income from soaring oil prices in the early 1980s, to allow the new regime to consolidate. By trial and error Ayatollah Khomeini and the Khomeinist elite learned the art of survival and its accompanying need for coercion and terror. Their “Qomified” style of politics quickly taught them the intricacies of mass politics, honed their talents for intimidation and control, enriched their radical rhetoric and propaganda skills, indulged their fascination for new technologies—much of which had originated in the land of the Great Satan—enhanced their skills in the face of international isolation, and above all convinced them that it was their moment to transform society to their image and ethos.

This was a Qom-based style of rule because it was grounded in centuries of madrasa solidarity and decades of isolation from sources of political power, a world steeped in inner rivalries and factionalism but also unified against the common enemy of Pahlavi secularity. Qom was as much a physical space as it was a mental state, a complex and multifaceted labyrinth with its own moral economy based on the madrasas’ frugal life and the clergy’s connection with the larger community of believers through mosques, shrines, sermons, and the Moharram mourning ritual. This was the culture now projected onto the larger political stage.

In resilience or shrewdness this clerical community had no rivals, not even the Mojahedin who nurtured unquestioned organizational loyalties and doctrinal certitude. The latter’s leadership, and the leadership of the Fada’iyan, were as ideologically naive and politically imprudent as the Tudeh was subservient to its Marxist-Leninist idols. Veteran liberal nationalists, either of the Islamist or the secular type, still dwelled in paradigms of the Mosaddeq era. They were barely equipped, nor could ever have been, to truly fathom Khomeini and the new brand of radicalized clergy around him. Their uneasy partnership, based on an assumption on their part that divisions of labor were to be observed between the clerical and political wings of the new revolutionary order, proved utterly outdated. Beyond the initial task of facilitating their rise to power, the mullahs had little use for the mild-mannered, democratically inclined men of the past generation. When these veterans chose not to accommodate the hierocracy in power, it was too late.

Solidarity and manipulation aside, the new regime benefited tremendously from public support and patriotic sympathies generated by the war against Iraq. The Khomeinists were not shy in acknowledging that the hostage crisis and war with Iraq were indeed blessings for their survival, once Iranians with diverse sympathies chose in the course of the war to put the defense of their country ahead of their preference for the emerging political order. Popular sentiments were still too raw, and resentment for the previous regime too intense, to allow for dispassionate political discretion. In particular, most Iranians saw Khomeini as the only legitimate leader who could steer their country through the treacherous waters to victory over a menacing Iraqi invader and its real or imagined Western backers.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!