All the while that the Council of Experts deliberated over the articles of the Islamic constitution and the supreme authority of the guardian jurist, a crisis of great magnitude was in progress, one that shook Iran’s relations with the outside world and initiated an adversarial encounter with the United States that shaped their relationship for decades to come. The hostage crisis of November 1979 started an international tremor that for the following fourteen months would enrage the United States, preoccupy world media, appall public opinion worldwide, and irreparably damage the image of the Islamic Republic. A devastating conflict with the Ba‘athist regime in neighboring Iraq compounded Iran’s external troubles. While the first event offered the Islamic regime a chance to symbolically engage a superpower, the prolonged war with Iraq proved a calamity that adversely affected lives of Iranians and Iraqis alike. As in most revolutions, domestic turmoil found an adversarial projection beyond its borders, even though neither of the two events, the hostage crisis or the Iraqi invasion, was entirely unavoidable.

Yet both events boosted Khomeini’s uncompromising stance and helped consolidate his Islamic order at the expense of his contenders. What he proudly labeled the “second revolution” was an attempt to eradicate not only the remnants of what his camp labeled as “royalist sedition” but also the “compromising liberals.” Khomeinists exploited the hostage crisis, and the assumed threat of “world-devouring” America (emrika-ye jahan-khawar), to steal the show from the left, the first to “expose” (efshagari) the great powers’ “sinister imperialist plots.” The war, in contrast, helped silence any contestation of clerical supremacy by labeling it “traitorous.” The experience of defending the “Islamic homeland,” moreover, gave new legitimacy to the regime, which basked in its patriotic glow, and helped raise a generation of veterans tied to the Islamic Republic through sacrifice and blood.


On November 4, 1979, a group of young hard-liners who called themselves Students Following the Line of the Imam (Daneshjuyan-e Payro-e Khatt-e Imam) in a dramatic move took over the compound of the American Embassy in Tehran. They seized sixty-six US diplomats and staff and held them hostage, presumably demanding the shah’s repatriation by the United States to stand trial in a revolutionary court. A week earlier, in late October 1979, the shah, by then a ghost of his past, had arrived in New York to receive urgent treatment for his cancer. Having approached his influential friends for an entry visa to the United States, among them Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller, his arrival in New York aroused further suspicions in the conspiracy-infested climate of the revolution in Iran. The bitter memories of the US intervention in the coup of August 1953 fueled a sense of déjà vu that was highly opportune for whoever wished to exploit it.

The 444-day hostage crisis proved as beneficial to Khomeini’s camp as it was damaging to Iran’s international standing. Immediately after the seizure, a few of the US embassy staff were paraded before cameras, an audacious gesture to gain publicity that was amply covered by world media. Images of blindfold and terrified Americans (some of them taken from behind their consulate desks where they had been issuing visas to terrified Iranians seeking residence in the United States) soon turned into iconic markers of American humiliation in the hands of vengeful fanatics.

Furthering the demand for the shah’s return, the Students of the Imam Line, as they came to be known, alleged that the embassy of the world-devouring superpower was a “spy den” (laneh-ye jasusi) conspiring against the revolution, aiding “idol worshippers,” and somehow aiming to stage a coup and restore the shah to power. In Iran’s revolutionary atmosphere “exposing” such mischiefs, no doubt, could arouse huge popular sentiment. If further conspiratorial pretexts were needed, they were readily offered by meetings between members of the provisional government and the American diplomats and statesmen. Already, occasional meetings between Bazargan and William Sullivan (1922–2013), the American ambassador in Tehran, were portrayed in the leftist and Islamic hard-line presses as compromising and suspicious. A meeting between Ibrahim Yazdi and the US secretary of the state at the time, Cyrus Vance (1917–2002), during the UN General Assembly in New York, aggravated the charges of conspiracy. A meeting between Bazargan and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US national security adviser, during the anniversary celebration of Algerian independence in late October 1979 added fuel to the paranoiac climate. Though all negotiations revolved around mutual concerns and the need to revamp US-Iran relations in the aftermath of the revolution, and even sought remedies for excesses of the Pahlavi era, this apparently was not enough to vindicate Bazargan in the eye of his radical critics. Soon these contacts became a major part of the “exposés” by the hostage takers to discredit the provisional government.

The intention to take over the embassy was a familiar part of the radical left’s agenda, rehearsed earlier and unsuccessfully staged. No less than three times before the takeover by the Students of the Imam Line, the US embassy had been attacked by leftist militias—first on Christmas 1978 and again on February 13, 1979, two days after the victory of the revolution. The second assault by the People’s Fada’iyan was deflected with the cooperation of Ibrahim Yazdi and the provisional government. Later, a self-styled revolutionary komiteh was stationed in the embassy and headed by a thug-turned-revolutionary—who evidently was on the embassy’s payroll. A further attempt by the Mojahedin paramilitary took place weeks before November 1979. All attempts evidently were meant to be symbolic and gain publicity for the perpetrators, but thanks to the radical left, lessons in hostage taking were quickly learned by the Islamic understudies.

The terminology of the hostage crisis, too, part of the widespread neology of the early revolutionary days, was a joint product of the left and the Khomeinists. The “line” (khatt) indicative of an ideological line evidently came from the Marxist milieu and was quickly spread in the linguistically contagious environment of the time eager to differentiate one “position” from another. “Clarify your position!” was a common cautionary message at a time when minute ideological variances separated the Marxist from the Marxist Islamic and both of them from the radical Islamist line. Occupying the US embassy was a bold move by the Students of the Imam Line to outmaneuver competing trends on the fast-changing revolutionary stage. That they were of the “Imam’s line” implied a certain personal loyalty to the leader of the revolution, though, as it turned out, not entirely to the clerical or lay Khomeinist factions around the Imam. Acting as a free agent, the students were a handful of young and idealistic men and women of mostly middle or lower middle classes motivated by the anti-imperialist discourse and in solidarity with world liberation movements (fig. 16.1). Such sentiments were rampant in the Islamic associations in universities, often in competition with the leftist publicity. The sense of urgency attached to the seizure of the embassy was meant to be dramatic, even theatrical.

Expressions of moral indignation throughout the crisis were a powerful propaganda weapon in the hands of the Students of the Imam Line forcing all other revolutionaries to jump on the bandwagon. The seizure turned into a crisis of unprecedented scale. To the surprise of many, Bazargan included, Khomeini unabashedly backed the takeover of the embassy not only as a valiant move by the committed Islamic youth but also a preemptive measure to “expose” the American “satanic” plots in the hand of “spies” masked as diplomats. Still residing in Qom, Khomeini on the surface was reluctant to intervene in the affairs of the provisional government, while he actually routinely and overtly undermined it, often with undisguised relish. He gave inflammatory interviews to international media calling on Islamic militants worldwide to rise up against world-devouring superpowers, he appointed radical clergy critical of Bazargan to executive and judiciary posts and to the offices of Imam Jom‘eh (leader of Friday prayers) in every city, and extolled rabble-rousers and their maverick behavior. If he needed any pretext to rule by decree, the constitution was about to award it to him. Soon his escalating militancy became all the more apparent to all who hoped for a quick end to the hostage crisis and revolutionary chaos. As Bazargan had once noted, the Imam himself proved the most potent source of confusion. He resembled Iran to “a city of hundred mayors” and his own government a “knife without a handle.”

Figure 16.1. Produced by the Students of the Imam’s Line for the World Liberation Movements conference in Tehran in January 1980, the poster in English and Arabic shows Iran spearheading the struggle against the United States. Its citation by Khomeini was the inspiration for nasty anti-American propaganda during the hostage crisis.

Middle Eastern Posters. Collection, Box 2, Poster no. 49, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

The first victim of the hostage crisis, predictably, was the provisional government. It resigned on November 5, a day after the seizure, and Khomeini eventually accepted the resignation a few days later. By late October, though, it had been largely paralyzed and ready to quit. It faced harassment not only from the unruly komitehs backed by Khomeinists and the revolutionary courts but also from the free-agent Revolutionary Council, with its semiclandestine and revolving membership. The council was set up by Khomeini almost as a parallel authority to the provisional government, as if from the start he intended to pull off all the authority from under the government and put all the blame for chaos and contention on its shoulder. Bazargan was attacked both by Marxists and the Islamic left, who accused him of sheltering “dependent” (vabasteh) capitalists and actively collaborating with the United States and its agents. Bazargan’s “step-by-step” transition had clearly run aground.

After veraciously digging the remnant of the documents in the embassy, the “revelations” (efsha-gari) made of the Students of the Imam Line revealed few earth-shaking spy stories. Though they landed ‘Abbas Amir Entezam (b. 1933), the spokesman of the then-defunct provisional government, in prison on charges of collaborating with the US embassy, there was little substance to the charges of American meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. What seemed to be routine intelligence gathering by embassy staff, handicapped by lack of credible sources, appeared to the embassy invaders as undeniable evidence of the superpower’s design to destroy the Islamic Revolution. With unparalleled obsession, the students pored over thousands of embassy files in search of agents and spies, plots for assassination and overthrow, and enemies within. They even pasted together, unbelievably though it may sound, thousands of classified documents that were hurriedly shredded by the American staff minutes before the embassy’s complete takeover. The Herculean act of document recovery, however, did not reveal much of a conspiracy.

What eventually did emerge out of this frantic exercise in exposing “malicious imperialist intrigues” were many published volumes of Asnad-e Laneh-ye Jasusi (Documents from the Den of Spies), demonstrating years of close US monitoring of Iran’s domestic affairs and regional developments. What every intelligence unit of any embassy in any country around the world would routinely perform appeared to the wide-eyed Students of the Imam’s Line as undeniable proof of US espionage. The documents revealed a high level of attention to detail but also a bureaucratic sense of benign negligence toward the bigger picture and the underlying revolutionary pressures that were building up under the glittery surface of Pahlavi regime.

As far as the postrevolutionary period was concerned, beyond the nitty-gritty who’s who and the means of establishing contacts with new authorities, the US diplomacy and intelligence gathering appeared to be less concerned with the makeup of the revolutionary regime and activist Islam. Rather, the US embassy was engaged with repercussions of the new regime domestically and for the region: the potential Soviet benefits from the fall of the shah, security of the Persian Gulf, and consequences of the reactivation of the Tudeh Party and various other brands of Marxism in Iran. Khomeini was seen more as a rabble-rouser than a potent nemesis, and Bazargan as a potential fellow traveler on the road to diplomatic normalization. There was little admission of past mistakes, and even less about ways to offset the loss of a valuable ally such as the shah. The Islamic Revolution was seen as a regional headache, yet to be figured out and dealt with.

For the students and the captivated Iranian public, the hostage episode first appeared as a triumph, a preemptive move to avert another 1953 coup, so it seemed, thanks to revolutionary alertness of the young and unblemished students. But from the start the crisis decidedly tilted the political discourse toward greater militancy as the students successfully adopted the rhetoric and techniques of the left. Not only they were empowered by the fall of the provisional government, they persuaded Khomeini and his allies to place higher ideological bets. The slogan “Neither East nor West but the Islamic Republic” had to be amended with a more potent “anti-imperialist” label. Now the frequently uttered slogan in the rallies, “Death to America” (marg bar Amrika), a relic of the Tudeh slogans of the 1950s, was matched by Khomeini’s fiery denunciation of America as the “Great Satan” (shaytan-e bozorg)

Almost becoming a voodoo-like invocation, the satanic attribute, first uttered in November 1979 by Khomeini in a routine diatribe against the United States, may have been rooted more in Cold War propaganda than in an Islamic notion of Satan. To be sure, the Qur’an does have its Great Satan leading an army of smaller demons. Yet Satan was barely ever perceived beyond the context of worldly temptations and an agency for personal damnation. He is a fallen angel capable of mischief and deceit but devoid of dark destructive powers. Applying this to the United States as a demonic superpower, with an almost apocalyptic connotation, seems to have been inspired by more mundane sources. In the new Islamic garb, demonizing America went beyond the Cold War invective. It came to predicate an ultimate act of “othering,” as if in cosmic combat the Islamic Revolution was leading the forces of good against the evil armies of hegemony and decadence. That such a dichotomy appeared in a land that once nurtured the Zoroastrian belief in eternal war between good and evil is striking.

In a more historical Iranian experience, however, one can only draw a parallel with Safavid Shi‘ism. The cursing of the Caliphs and other desecrations of Sunni symbols were rooted in the vulnerability of the new Shi‘i state versus the military might of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Anti-Sunni propaganda not only reflected anxiety about Ottoman hegemony but also generated legitimacy for the new Safavid state. It consolidated its social base and allowed it to eliminate its real and potential rivals. “Curse and rebuke” (sabb va la‘n) of the first three Righteous Caliphs, scandalizing ‘Aisha, the wife of the Prophet and leader of anti-‘Ali revolt during the first civil war, even the ritualistic burning of the effigy of the second caliph ‘Umar (‘Omar-koshan), cursing of the first Umayyad caliph Mu‘awiya, his son Yazid and some of the celebrated figures of early Islamic history, and steady harassment of the Sunni and crypto-Sunni population of Iran helped consolidate the Safavid base, especially among the restive Qezilbash. For centuries to come, the Shi‘i propaganda generated a powerful counternarrative to Sunni history, with a lasting impact on Iran’s identity.

With some historical latitude, it may be argued that the modern Students of the Imam Line in their praise of the Imam were not unlike the Qezilbash of the Safavid era. Nor was the cursing of the American demon entirely unlike the damning of the Ottoman Sunnis. And Khomeini was as much a prophet for the Islamic Revolution as Isma‘il was for the Safavid revolution. Such a parallel, ahistorical as it may seem, is sociologically constructive. To define its identity in moments of crisis, Shi‘ism has relied on an element of social cohesion, charismatic leadership, a persecution narrative, and an external Other, real or imagined. Here in the Islamic revolution, the alien Other reappeared as a demonized United States so as to allow for the political legitimacy of the Shi‘i clerical body and secure its ascendency. Students of the Line of the Imam hence facilitated a leap to a new era of international animosity, severing the Islamic Republic from the Pahlavi past.

To this end there was no dearth of enthusiasm. In front of the embassy, along Roosevelt Avenue (renamed Mofatteh), there was a spirit of fanfare: thousands gathered everyday to take part in anti-American and anti-Israeli rallies or to witness the spectacle. “Committed” graffiti artists were hard at work depicting on the outer walls of the embassy ad hoc scenes of American crimes and graphic expressions of revolutionary victory. Sayings of the beloved Imam were painted in huge size, including Emrika hich ghalati nemitavanad bekonad (roughly, “America can’t do a damn thing”), an assurance from Khomeini that despite much talk in the media, the United States was in no position to take any military action against Iran. There were vendors selling their goods: grilled corncobs, fresh walnuts, and oven-roasted beets, all delicacies of the poor now brought to the affluent neighborhood in north Tehran. In the aftermath of the Camp David accords and the subsequent Egypt-Israeli peace treaty signed in March 1979, young peddlers in front of the US embassy were selling crude string puppets of the “three corruptors: Carter, Sadat, and Begin.” The Tudeh Party, too, had to make its presence felt. Every morning a large bouquet of flowers was delivered to the front gate of the embassy as a token of Tudeh appreciation of the heroism of the students.

The street culture of the hostage crisis also brought street booksellers to the thoroughfare in front of the US embassy (renamed “Den of Spies”) offering “blank cover” clandestine translations of Russian Marxist-Leninist pamphlets along with popular writings on Islamic ideology; works of Al-e Ahmad, Shari‘ati, and Taleqani; hasty translations of popular histories about US crimes in Vietnam, international Zionism, and crimes of Israel against Palestinians; pamphlets published by Fada’iyan and Mojahedin; and portraits of Mosaddeq, Mirza Khuchak Khan, and martyrs of the Islamic Revolution. The small collection of books and posters was an iconic representation of a revolutionary culture in the making, with its diverse origins and curious readership in search of a political identity.

As if he were a clairvoyant, Khomeini’s assurance about the US inability to do any harm proved true on April 24, 1980, when Operation Eagle Claw undertaken by the US Army Delta Force in collaboration with other units of the US armed forces attempted to rescue the hostages. The operation was a total failure. In a highly elaborate, multistage military plan, US troops first were to land on a deserted airstrip in the middle of the central Iranian desert, then fly some four hundred miles north with helicopters to a secure base near the capital, then storm the embassy compound, and after releasing hostages, drive them over to an airstrip near the capital and fly them back to safety abroad.

The operation, however, was aborted halfway through because of logistical problems and while troops were still landing in the inhospitable Lut desert south of the oasis town of Tabas. In a frantic move to return to their base, three US helicopters crashed with a huge C-130 military transport aircraft, resulting in the death of eight servicemen. The failure was caused by no less a biblical calamity (more accurately, a Qur’anic one) than a momentary sandstorm. This was a huge discredit to President Carter and the Carter administration even though in retrospect it displayed his sound judgment to abort the operation. The perception of divine intervention projected a sense of invincibility onto Khomeini’s image and vastly boosted his revolutionary resolve. Soon after, when Khalkhali rushed to the scene of the crash, where charred bodies of the victims were still exposed, his jubilant sneer against the backdrop of the empty desert appeared grossly surreal. In front of Iranian TV cameras he irreverently kicked their remains with his shoes as if he were raking through the ruins of a forlorn empire. To many Iranian revolutionaries the debacle was a living testimony that the United States indeed could not “do a damn thing.”


The Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 was a rude awakening for the Islamic Republic and an unexpected retreat from the empty rhetoric of the hostage taking and the pretensions of “bringing the United States to its knees.” Reminiscent of earlier episodes from Iran’s long history, here, too, turmoil at the center encouraged intrusion into the vulnerable periphery. At the end of the Safavid era, when Iran’s western frontiers were overrun by Ottoman armies and those in the north by Russian troops, or in the postconstitutional era when turmoil in Tehran invited occupations from all directions, were two distinct reminders of past vulnerabilities going back to the Roman-Parthian and Byzantine-Sasanian times. The Iraqi regime’s aggression, however, added an ideological facet to the ancient border tension along the Zagros range.

For Saddam Hussein and his Ba‘athist cohorts there was an added ideological facet. Arab nationalism, in its Ba‘athist permutation east of Damascus, suffered from a sense of insecurity toward Iran that was fueled as much by Iraq’s own religious and ethnic complexities as by Saddam’s skewed, and barely concealed, ambitions to become champion of the Arab cause. The postcolonial complex of Ba‘athist nationalism was bound to invent its own demons nearby. Saddam’s Tikrit clique, in particular, was brimming with racial and cultural hatred for “Persians” (‘Ajam). They were viewed as historical enemies of the “Arabs,” who, despite defeat and humiliation in the early days of the Islamic era, according to the Ba‘athist narrative, persisted over the centuries and encroached on Iraq’s Arab supremacy. The time had come to put the enemy in its place, not through a war of propaganda but through the barrel of a gun. Invoking the early history of Islamic conquests (al-Futuh) and Arab armies routing Sassanian defenses in successive battles, Saddam hoped for a quick victory. Ominously, he named the Iraqi offensive Qadisiya after the decisive battle in 636 fought on the west bank of Euphrates. In that battle, the Iranian loss opened Mesopotamia to armies of Islam and soon after brought the loss of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sasanian Empire (north of today’s Baghdad), and the beginning of its rapid downfall.

Iran’s historical claims over the Shi‘i holy sites and the Shi‘i community of Iraq added to the Ba‘athist resentment. Capture of Baghdad in 1508 and in 1638 under the Safavids, Nader Shah’s occupation of the shrine cities of Iraq in 1743, and Karim Khan’s occupation of Basra in 1775, though distant memories, had not entirely lapsed from the modern Iraqi narrative. Fierce Wahhabi anti-Shi‘i campaigns in southern Iraq and the sack of Karbala in 1802, on the other hand, incensed Iranians. The aborted campaign in 1821 by the Qajar prince-governor of western Iran, Mohammad ‘Ali Mirza Dowlatshah, in part was motivated by concern for protection of the Shi‘i community. Even though the conclusion of the 1823 and 1847 Perso-Ottoman border treaties stabilized the frontiers and diminished both the Ottoman and the Iranian territorial ambitions, Qajar moral authority over Shi‘i Iraq endured throughout the nineteenth century.

The unfavorable treatment of the Shi‘i community, once the Mamluk dynasty of Iraq was supplanted in 1831 by Ottoman direct rule, rekindled Iranian resentment. Yet Naser al-Din Shah’s 1871 visit and his cordial reception by the Ottomans was but one example of how the Iranian state tried to reassert its authority albeit symbolically. Predominance of the ulama and of the seminarians of the Iranian origin in the teaching circles of Najaf and Karbala has in effect made these centers inseparable part of Iran’s religious fabric. A steady stream of Iranian pilgrims to southern Iraq and a large community of Iranian permanent residents in the shrine cities bonded the two countries even after the formation of modern Iraq. That by the 1960s and 1970s tens of thousands of Shi‘is with dual Iranian-Iraqi identities were residing in the pilgrimage cities of southern Iraq further injured Ba‘athist sensibilities.

The ethnically diverse population of Iraq that had been glued together under the British mandate now had to be tied up by a police state wallowing in its oil wealth. Saddam saw revolution-stricken Iran both as a threat and an opportunity. Iraq’s 1975 territorial compromise with the shah over demarcation of the Shatt al-Arab waterway (or what Iranians knew as Arvand Rud) had wounded his ego and whetted his expansionist appetite. In July 1980, a week after the shah’s death in a Cairo hospital, Saddam appeared on Baghdad television denouncing the earlier settlement with Iran and shredding the Algiers Declaration. Shatt al-Arab, he claimed, was in Iraqi territory in its entirety. Sole access to the two-hundred-mile waterway not only offered Iraq strategically secure access to the Persian Gulf but also exacted a major blow on Iran’s commercial shipping and access to the Persian Gulf along its southeastern province of Khuzestan.

Saddam also entertained other ambitions. With purges of Iranian armed forces after the revolution, and the ensuing chaos in Iranian defense, he saw a golden opportunity to “annex” Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, or what the Iraqi regime called Arabistan, to the “Arab motherland”—a Ba‘athist dream of an Anschluss. With about 40 percent of the Khuzestan population then conversing in an Arabic dialect or of some Arab descent, Saddam believed he had a popular base inside Iran. Although a leftist-inspired and Iraqi-sponsored secessionist movement known as Jibhat al-Tahrir (liberation front) flickered briefly in the early months of the revolution, there was virtually no support inside Khuzestan for Saddam or Ba‘athism, even among Sunnis of the province.

Only weeks after the victory of the revolution, the ethnic Arab activists in Khorramshahr led by pro-Ba‘athist Jibha al-Tahrir and its left-leaning associates put out a list of three demands. They called for cultural autonomy and adoption of Arabic as the official language of the Khuzestan province, use of Iran’s oil revenue as a first priority, and an exclusive Arabic-speaking cohort to govern the province. Months of negotiations with representatives of the provisional government and with Khomeini and his aids reached a deadlock and eventually led to an armed confrontation in Khorramshahr on May 29, 1979. The commander of the Iranian Navy, Admiral Ahmad Madani (1928–2006), a popular National Front figure, led the government forces that crushed the secessionist rebellion. There were at least fifty-five dead and many injured. The Khorramshahr incident, the first of several ethnic rebellions in other provinces, demonstrated the Islamic Republic’s commitment to a strong and centralized state, a policy that in Baghdad’s view reaffirmed Iranian hegemony of the Pahlavi era.

Beside Khorramshahr incident, Saddam’s fear of a Shi‘i revolution in Iran had deeper roots. Although in early 1979 he had congratulated Khomeini for the revolution’s success and even invited Bazargan to Baghdad, his shift to a hostile posture came after Khomeini and his hard-line supporters called for the “export” of the Islamic Revolution to neighboring Iraq. The Islamic Da‘wa Party, a cleric-dominated Shi‘i revolutionary organization active since the 1960s, emerged as an eager partner. The Da‘wa Party was responsible for a Shi‘i uprising in Najaf in 1977 that had been brutally put down by the Ba‘athist regime. In the absence of secular parties, Da‘wa epitomized Shi‘i grievances and years of repression, torture, and killing.

The Iranian revolutionary message was carried not merely over the airwaves and through clerical channels, but also by provocative acts that made Saddam even more concerned with a recurring Shi‘i rebellion in the south at a time when prospects of a second Kurdish revolt in the north were not far off. Following two assassination attempts against senior Ba‘athist figures, by April 1980 Saddam was anxious enough to go as far as detaining and then executing Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935–1980), the most visible leader of the Da‘wa, on charges of support for the Islamic Revolution and attempts to replicate it in Iraq. His sister Amina bint Huda al-Sadr (1937–1980) was tortured and killed before his eyes. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a respected theologian and author of a trilogy expounding on political, economic, and philosophical dimensions of his perceived Islamic order, had already spent time in Saddam’s jail on charges of sedition.

These executions, followed by more arrests and executions, were warning signals to Khomeini and his Iraqi sympathizers. His years of exile in Najaf made Khomeini a familiar face among the Shi‘i clerical leadership of Iraq, who viewed him with a mix of awe and fear. Baghdad’s extreme measures had the reverse effect, for it heightened anti-Ba‘athist sentiments in revolutionary Iran and further blackened Saddam’s image as a brutal tyrant. As it turned out, the Shi‘is of Iraq were not entirely sold on Khomeini’s revolution. Despite sympathy for the Islamic Revolution, droves of them recruited into the Iraqi army fought against Iran and died for their country. Yet hatred for Saddam and the Ba‘athist regime persisted. It was too deep to be diminished even by the horrifying experience of an eight-year war with Iran. Shi‘is continued to be discriminated against, intimidated, and kept out of the ruling circles in Iraq. These were conditions that swayed the Iraqi Shi‘is toward clerical leadership and its Islamic political alternative.

Saddam’s blend of anxiety and expansionism was further fed by Iranian opposition figures in exile, an all-too-familiar phenomenon in history of revolutions. With the demise of the shah, senior Pahlavi army officers in exile, such as General Gholam-‘Ali Oveysi, viewed Saddam as a potential ally. They were apparently in cahoots with Shapur Bakhtiar, then in exile in Paris, who unmindful of Ba‘athist ambitions, viewed Saddam as a valuable counterbalance to the harm brought by Khomeini. The hostage crisis, the fall of Bazargan’s provisional government, and the shah’s demise consolidated the Islamic Republic’s stance. Even in the early months of the war, there were nebulous hopes among opponents of the Islamic regime that the Iraqi invasion would weaken Khomeini and open a road to Pahlavi restoration. Four months into war with Iraq, and as late as January 1981, the hostage crisis was still in progress, adding uncertainty to the future of the Iranian revolution. These were incentives to engage in a conflict, hoping that Iran’s anti-American belligerence and the general anti-Iranian climate in the West would work in their favor.


Despite many months of hostile exchanges over the airwaves and at border posts, the full-scale Iraqi invasion came as a surprise. On September 22, 1980, Iraqi air strikes targeted Iranian air force bases deep inside the country (map 16.1). Concurrently, the Iraqi infantry and amphibious forces crossed the Shatt al-Arab, and breaking through the southwestern and western borders, they infiltrated deep inside Iran’s strategic positions. With unconcealed desire, the invading army aimed to occupy the oil-rich province of Khuzestan. Pushing back feeble Iranian defenses all along the western borders, and as far north as Kermanshahan province, the Iraqis’ rapid gains within the first few weeks of the conflict were significant. Claiming the entire Shatt al-Arab waterway, the Iraqi siege of Khorramshahr, Iran’s most important commercial port in the Persian Gulf, and near destruction of the nearby city of Abadan, Iran’s most important oil refinery, were severe blows to Iran’s defense, economy, and morale. Iraq’s control of the Zagros heights along the Luristan and Kurdistan frontiers, moreover, meant the loss of a crucial natural strategic advantage that had protected Iran through the ages.

Yet Iraqi gains proved transient. When the first shock of the invasion had passed, Iranian resistance and its reconstituted defenses, despite the huge odds, were effective enough to withhold Iraqi advances. In a matter of weeks, the Iranian armed forces—or what was left of them—along with the Revolutionary Guards, disorganized and inexperienced but steadfast, and soon after with the help of the Basij volunteer militia, managed to bring the Iraqi advances to a near halt. In less than a year Saddam’s army was in retreat. A foreign intrusion in the midst of the revolution brought most Iranians behind the Islamic regime, and soon the war became a unifying cause despite its many domestic divisions. As it turned out, the “sacred defense” (defa‘-e moqaddas), as it soon was labeled, became a blessing to a regime then in the throes of a deadly domestic struggle versus the People’s Mojahedin and other opposition forces. Incredible feats of sacrifice by hundreds of thousands of young Iranians fighting and dying at the front electrified Iranian society. Despite Iran’s many instances of civil war and wars of succession and despite two rounds of occupation by European powers, this was the first time since the Russo-Persian wars of the early nineteenth century that Iranians had experienced a full-scale invasion. Remarkably, with the exception of the People’s Mojahedin, whom Saddam harbored in 1986, throughout the course of the conflict there was no known case of collaboration with the enemy or defection to the Iraqi side. Even the few senior officers of the shah’s army who have set their hope in Saddam’s victory quickly gave up.

Map 16.1. Iraq-Iran War, 1980–1988

By late November 1980 Iran had amassed some two hundred thousand regular troops and one hundred thousand Revolutionary Guards and volunteers on its southwestern front. Iranian special forces, moreover, with naval and air support, attacked the Iraqi oil export terminals on the southern tip of the Faw peninsula. The Iraqi defensive posture changed the course of the war and forced the invading army to dig in along its advanced lines. Thus began trench warfare that lasted for nearly eight years, at huge human cost to both sides. Iranian counteroffensives in January 1981 in the Battle of Susangerd, forty miles northwest of Khuzestan’s provincial capital, Ahwaz, was the first of many that came in its pace (see map 16.1). Banisadr, who at the time also served as commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed forces, oversaw an operation that proved ineffective and caused massive casualties. Dejected and tired of animosities in Tehran, he spent the greater part of his time behind the front lines, preoccupied with the course of the war, hence lost more ground to his many nemesis in the capital (fig. 16.2). He was perhaps unfairly blamed for the failure of the first Iranian counteroffensive. The operation was marred by rivalries between the regular armed forces and the Revolutionary Guards and by the aftereffects of heightening political quarrels in Tehran. Both the command and the rank and file had to adjust to new realities: revolutionary turmoil, multiple sources of power within the regime, and the dictates of a total war.

Figure 16.2. Banisadr visiting the front (Susanged?), c. January 1981.

Kaveh Golestan and Alfred Yaghoubzadeh, Jang: Do Gozaresh az Jang-e Iran-Iraq, 1359 (Tehran, 1360/1981), 50 (photographed by Alfred Yaghoubzadeh).

After the ousting of Banisadr in June 1981 and the takeover by the Supreme Defense Council, appointed by Khomeini and headed jointly by two of his senior clerical aides, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and ‘Ali Khamenei, there was a semblance of greater coordination. The Revolutionary Guards called in September 1980 to fight alongside the embattled Iranian armed forces learned to be more practical in driving the enemy back. Though untried and hardly battle-worthy, the challenge of the war built up the spirit of the Guards, solidified their ranks, and raised their prestige, sometimes unfairly at the expense of the regular forces. The propaganda machine of the Islamic Republic invariably gave preference in its coverage to the Guards and credited them with major gains. Soon emerging as a powerful arm of the Islamic state, the Revolutionary Guard Corps relied on its militia spirit and organizational spontaneity, extensive indoctrination, and generous state funding to compensate for the lack of experience and training of its new recruits. In Khuzestan, together with the Basij paramilitary force, the Guards staunchly resisted Iraqi offensives, and in joint operations with the regular army managed to push the Iraqis behind the border. On the southwestern front, and especially in the Battle of Khorramshahr in the fall of 1980, the Guards fought valiantly, sustaining massive losses.

By September 1981, the Iranians forced the Iraqis to lift the siege of Abadan, and by December, the Iranian regular army units had pushed back the Iraqi army along the western and northwestern fronts. Fighting pitched battles, by May 1982 Iranian Guards and Basij volunteer units finally recaptured the ruined port of Khorramshahr at huge human cost (see map 16.1). The Battle of Khorramshahr—dubbed “Khunin-shahr” (city of blood), claimed thousands of young Iranian lives. It was a drama of blood and martyrdom that boosted Iranian morale rather than having huge strategic value. The Iraqi retreat behind Khuzestan’s borders, and from most other sectors of occupied Iranian territory, was an undeniable victory for Iran. This was despite Iranian military and economic disadvantages, and despite regional and international isolation, a turning point after nearly two years of carnage and destruction. Having recovered its losses, Iran stood at a clear advantage to end the war in its own terms. Yet the war continued for reasons beyond defense of the “Islamic motherland,” as Iran labeled it in the Iranian media.


Stories of bravery and resistance by regular army recruits, purged officers returning to service—some directly from the jails of the Islamic Republic—the Revolutionary Guards, and Basij volunteers moved millions of their compatriots. The “human waves”—or “cannon fodder” as cynics called it—mostly consisted of young volunteers spearheading counterattacks, or, more accurately, sent off on suicidal missions by Revolutionary Guard commanders and low-ranking clergy who served as the “ideological-devotional” commissars behind the lines (fig. 16.3 and fig. 16.4). With astounding audacity some of the volunteers crossed Iraqi lines and with grenades in hand went under Iraqi tanks. The Islamic regime saw such sacrifice as the edifying fruit of the revolution. War unified the society against a foreign intruder, giving it unprecedented resilience. The siege of Khorramshahr in September and October 1980 was particularly galvanizing. Although Iranian resistance failed and the ruined city fell into Iraqi hands, acts of endurance boosted Iranian morale and heralded eventual victory over the Iraqis.

Young volunteers were mostly a by-product of Iran’s demographic revolution that had started in the early 1970s. These were teenagers who at times, despite their parents’ wishes, escaped home, buying one-way tickets to the front on the intercity bus services. Others took their school textbooks with them to the front to study in their spare time. Still others, with the blessing of their family, left for the front as if going on an outdoor excursion, taking with them rugs, bedding, and samovars. Once there, a few received sufficient military equipment or protective clothing. Often they had very little or no training. After each operation, thousands of corpses lay rotting on the parched plains of Khuzestan, amid dust, mud, and heat, some run over by tanks or smashed to pieces by shrapnel.

Figure 16.3 and Figure 16.4. Luring children to the front was one objective of the state-sponsored cult of martyrdom. The extra push up the hill (left) is symbolic. The message on the wall (right) has Khomeini saying, “Our leader is a twelve-year-old who throws himself under the tank with a grenade in hand.”

(Left) Kaveh Golestan and Alfred Yaghoubzadeh, Jang: Do Gozaresh az Jang-e Iran-Iraq, 1359 (Tehran, 1360/1981) (photographed by Kaveh Golestan). (Right) Middle Eastern Posters. Collection, Box 4, Poster no. 208, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Those bodies that could be identified and sent back to their families occupied rows of humble graves in overflowing local cemeteries. Every town and village soon had its own martyrs’ section (or “flower garden of martyrs,” as they were named) with tombstones adorned with framed youthful portraits and heartbreaking epithets. These were recruits of what Khomeini called the Army of the Twenty Million. Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, where the largest number of war victims was laid to rest, displayed the state’s appropriation of the cult of martyrdom. Red-colored water falling through spouts into large decorative pools, a reminder of the blood of the martyrs, welcomed visitors. These were Iran’s sites of memory. On religious holidays the martyrs’ section, with its ever-expanding rows of fresh graves, awaited the relatives who came to listen to prayers for the dead and sermons in praise of martyrdom.

Beyond television and radio coverage and military communiqués, frequent encounters with popular symbols of sacrifice reinforced shared sentiments. Hundreds of bridal canopies, known as hejleh, were set up wherever a young unmarried war victim lived, often in low-income neighborhoods. A glittering structure of mirrors, lamps, feathers and flowers, often plastic, and parchment with Qur’anic verses and Shi‘i martyrdom poetry, these canopies were meant to celebrate the figurative wedding of a fallen warrior, a moving reference to Shi‘i lore visualizing the unconsumed wedding of Qasim, the young son of Hasan ibn ‘Ali, the Second Imam, who fell in the Battle of Karbala in 680. A whole mournful funerary cult enveloped war martyrdom reflected in posters, films, and propaganda literature (pl. 16.1).

The outpouring of emotions was further aggravated as the war raged bloodier and casualties became more numerous. Visual representations of the war emphasized the recurrence of the suffering of early Shi‘i history. Huge makeshift murals in the streets, in public places, and in barracks behind the front lines depicted scenes of Karbala with injured bodies of Hosain ibn ‘Ali, his companions, and his loyal double-winged horse Dhul-Janah. Painted in dramatic settings and bright colors, they evoked a cross between popular narrative paintings (carried by dervish storytellers) and the publicity murals made for low-priced movies of the prerevolutionary cinema. Yet in other murals, subtle emphasis was placed on blending the paradigmatic tragedies of the Shi‘i past with sacrifices of the present, and at times with a messianic undertones.

A sentimental visual language and iconography was visible in the blooming red tulips and roses that signified the blood of the fallen heroes in the garden of martyrs, a familiar theme in Shi‘i mourning imagery. A blazing horizon was reminiscent of the Karbala-like struggle and sacrifices on the model of Hosain, and the green color in warriors’ headbands and on their flags hinted at their acquired sacredness. Captions were further reminders of the sacred narrative. One mural showed in the foreground a fallen Hosain ibn ‘Ali and his fatally injured horse at the close of the Battle of Karbala on the day of ‘Ashura, the most sacred date in the Shi‘i calendar. The background showed a modern battlefield as if a scene of the war with Iraq. The caption in Arabic complimented the moving iconography: “All lands are Karbala, all days are ‘Ashura” (pl. 16.2).

Another mural, to be repeated on the streets of the capital, showed a luminous holy figure with covered face—presumably Hosain ibn ‘Ali—holding to his bosom a young fallen hero in military uniform, a Revolutionary Guard or Basij, no doubt. It was as if the “King of the Martyrs” were offering his blessing to his contemporary emulators, a message underscored by the caption “Martyrdom is an honor inherited from the House of the Prophethood and Guardianship [nubowwat va wilayat] by their followers.” Playing on the theme of welayat and its contemporary heir, numerous other murals embedded Khomeini’s portrait and cited his sayings in support of the “sacred defense” (pl. 16.3).

Beyond murals, war propaganda elevated martyrdom to a new eschatological plane. To further dramatize the messianic connotation of the “battle of good versus evil,” reportedly the warriors in the wake of major counteroffensives were allowed to see on the horizon an apparition of the Mahdi, the Imam of the Age, clad in white and on the back of a white horse. Even if this was a mere wartime myth, its wide reportage by word of mouth implied an implicit desire to elevate the war to a messianic cause, which soon became characteristic of the second stage of the conflict.

A common venue for such sentiments was in martyrs’ last testaments (vasiyat-namehs), which appeared in newspapers and propaganda publications of the Islamic Republic. Almost a genre of folk literature, they followed a set pattern, with predictable catchwords, a melodramatic style, and pedestrian syntax. Over the years the frequent publication of these testaments made their content more predictable as if they were produced as a routine obligation. Although they were to be read by members of the author’s family, especially mothers and fathers, they frequently addressed the general public, referring to them as Islamic brothers and sisters. That these last testaments were to appear in newspapers or be collected and preserved by authorities added incentive to their production. Mostly written by the Basij recruits in their late teens and early twenties, they imbued innocence but also fascination with the battlefield.

Often written before the volunteers left for the front or while at the front, the authors testified, as was customary, to their belief in God, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur’an, but they also expressed glowing commitment to the revolution and to the “sacred defense.” Almost invariably they saluted Khomeini in exaggerated terms, calling him a prophetlike Imam, light of God and his spirit—the latter a wordplay on Khomeini’s first name, Ruhollah. References to his radiant face, his steely willpower, and his mesmerizing words were not uncommon. Invariably, they affirmed faith in Hosain, the Third Imam, as lord of the martyrs. The cult of Hosain was omnipresent. Some authors expressed their gratitude to God, or to Khomeini, for granting them the chance to sacrifice themselves for the cause of Islam while others revered Hosain and the heroic story of Karbala as their inspiration. Preoccupation with blood, sacrifice, and martyrdom was often couched in a crypto-mystical language rife with such catchphrases as wishing to “ascend to the heavens” and “see the divine countenance.” The authors begged forgiveness from their parents for often undefined, perhaps uncommitted, sins and thanked them for their selfless labor. They were proud to denounce any material attachment. Absolute obedience to the Imam and to the exalted goals of the revolution was frequent advice offered to fellow warriors and the public. Doing good and trying to be honest and kind were among other counsel. To women, often addressed as “Islamic sisters,” the key advice was to live chaste lives and observe the hijab. Saluting the fallen soldiers in the “war of the good against the evil” was also a common assertion, perhaps camouflaging anxieties for the unknown challenges ahead.


June 1982 marked the end of the first phase of the war in Iran’s favor. Despite political and strategic advantages, however, Iran adamantly refused the offer of a cease-fire set forth by a number of mediators who had Saddam Hussein’s blessing. After tens of thousands of lives were lost and many more injured, and at the cost of billions of dollars in material and military losses, the tyrant of the Euphrates had apparently come to his senses. He realized that annexation of Khuzestan, let alone the collapse of the Islamic Republic, was an awful and costly nightmare. The Imam of Jamaran, as Khomeini was labeled by his opponents, turned down the peace offer. From Jamaran (a hamlet on the slopes of the central Alborz in the affluent Shemiran suburb north of the capital), where Khomeini took residence after his return from Qom to Tehran, he continued exhorting his revolutionary fighters to vanquish the intruding enemy and his satanic backers. He also called on the “slum dwellers” (kukh-neshinan) to take their revolutionary reprisal from the “mansion dwellers” (kakh-neshinan). The two calls to vanquish the enemy and to take reprisal were intertwined.

Rejecting the cease-fire, Iran’s new offensive posture set in motion the second phase of the war. The momentum, driven by general euphoria after pushing back the Iraqis, served as a vehicle for Khomeini to project his revolutionary vision beyond his own country. Operation Ramadan, in July 1982, when tens of thousands of poorly trained and poorly equipped volunteers were sent off to face Iraqi armored units, was an intensification of the “human waves.” The casualties were staggering. By February 1983 some two hundred thousand “last reserve” Revolutionary Guards and the Basij descended on Iraqi defenses along a twenty-five-mile stretch on the shore of the Tigris River near ‘Amara, thirty-five miles into Iraqi territory. In just one day at least six thousand were killed, though little territory was solidly gained.

By the end of 1983 an estimated 120,000 Iranians and 60,000 Iraqis had been killed in battle, stunning losses for both countries. This was also reflective of the Iranian resolve to push ahead at almost any cost. Iraq’s huge advantages included billions of dollars of financial support from conservative Arab states wary of the threat of the Islamic Revolution. Saudi Arabia contributed as much as US$30 billion to Saddam’s war chest, while Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates contributed in excess of $8 billion each. The Iraqi army, moreover, received massive military hardware from the United States, France, Britain, and West Germany. The Ba‘athist regime enjoyed the general blessing of countries of the Western bloc throughout the war and in contrast to a spirit of belligerence aimed at Iran. A surfeit of financial and military and moral support nevertheless kept the Iraqi positions only barely defensible. By early 1984 Iran had managed to gain the upper hand not merely by fielding greater numbers of troops or superior strategy but also by high morale and sheer sacrifice. Deceived by its momentary successes, however, soon the Iranian leadership, and above all Khomeini, had to face the harsh reality as the Iraqis’ revived spirit of resistance countered Iran’s repeated offensives inside Iraq. Military and civilian casualties, too, were quickly rising.

As Iran shifted from defense to the offensive, the war had turned bloodier and the carnage heavier. Early in 1984, for the first time Iraqis began deploying chemical weapons against Iranian troops and later against Kurdish Iraqi civilians in the north. The use of mustard gas and nerve gas were flagrant violations of the 1925 Geneva Protocol that prohibited the deployment of chemical and biological weapons. Yet the countries of the Western world did not condemn Saddam’s criminal act outright. In a ludicrous charade, the US administration and its European allies instead pointed their finger of blame toward Iran, if not as a chief culprit, at least as a co-offender of the chemical ban. Both the Reagan administration and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government surreptitiously facilitated, directly or through a third party, the sale to Iraq of material for production of chemical weapons, including a factory for manufacturing chlorine, the chief ingredient in the production of chemical weapons. Thousands of Iranian soldiers died a painful death or were permanently injured after exposure to poisonous fumes. Though chemical weapons had limited logistical use, their effect on Iranian morale was lasting and helped slowing down troop maneuvers. Gruesome scenes of victims of gas attacks with advanced skin burns, fatal respiratory problems, or total or partial blindness were eerily reminiscent of World War I chemical warfare. Use of deadly gases, however, did not substantially change the Iranians’ resolve to abandon its offensive.

Disregard for the use of chemical weapons was an example of the sustained Western bias in favor of Iraq, especially after 1984, and indifference to the fact that Saddam was the aggressor who started the war. As Iranian attacks intensified inside Iraq, so grew Western support for Saddam as a tactical ally against Iran’s export of its Islamic revolution. That was despite the Iraqi regime’s dark record of human rights abuses, expansionist drive, and near-psychopathic behavior of the men at the top. The warming up in relations with Iraq came at the time when the Ba‘athist regime’s genocidal campaigns in the operation code name al-Anfal (literally, “spoils” of the war, and more broadly “total decimation of the enemy”) had begun. In a prolonged operation that lasted five years, the Iraqi forces demolished thousands of Iraqi villages near the Iranian border and other targeted areas and forcefully removed its Kurdish and Turkmen inhabitants. They resettled Kurdish cities and villages with Arabic-speaking populations and engaged in repeated mass killing of mostly innocent Kurdish villagers. Between 1984 and 1989, al-Anfal cost at least one hundred thousand Iraqi Kurdish and Turkmen lives and the destruction of about four thousand villages, together with their associated institutions, schools, and public amenities. Reminiscent of the Armenian genocide during World War I, though not on the same massive scale, or of Stalin’s mass movement of the Chechen and other ethnic populations in the Caucasus to Central Asia and Siberia, at the time, al-Anfal received little attention in the Western media, even in human rights circles.

In March 1988 the Iraqi regime broadened its use of chemical weapons against its own civilian population. The town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iranian border was the chief target. Using nerve gas as a punitive measure for Kurds’ alleged collaboration with the enemy, it resulted in at least four thousand deaths and eight thousand serious injuries of men, women, and children (see map 16.1). Despite all the evidence pointing to the Iraqi crime, the Western media and the US administration raised doubts about the true identity of the perpetrator of that tragedy. Iran’s disclaimer throughout the war—that it did not deploy chemical weapons—was treated with deep skepticism, while the menacing silence from Iraq was hardly ever taken as an admission of guilt.

A series of eight offensives throughout 1984 and early 1985 known as wa’l Fajr (meaning “dawn”) brought an estimated two hundred thousand Iranian troops, Revolutionary Guards, and volunteers to within a short distance of the Basra-Baghdad road and a covetous distance from the Shi‘i holy cities of southern Iraq. In one of the largest operations of the entire war, in early March 1984 a clash of the two armies reportedly left behind twenty-five thousand casualties, with no tangible advantage for the Iranians. They managed to capture parts of the oil fields of the Majnoon Islands, in the marshes of southern Iraq near the head of the Persian Gulf, but Iraqi air and ground defenses retaliated causing heavy Iranian losses (see map 16.1). In another offensive at least five Iranian brigades with a total of fifteen thousand men reportedly perished in the operation. With little advance on either side, both parties were forced to return to their trenches. The war of attrition that continued for another four years brought both armies to a gloomy stalemate: futile operations followed by seemingly unending carnage. Iraq’s renewed efforts to negotiate a cease-fire for the second time failed, and in April 1984, Khomeini rejected outright a face-to-face meeting with Saddam.

Even if up to the end of 1984 the Iranian war effort appeared justified on the grounds of defending the homeland and punishing the aggressor, from that point on there was no acceptable rationale for it. The war efforts were primarily motivated by Khomeini’s wish to uproot the Ba‘athist regime altogether. The hard-liners in his circle fully abided by that objective, at least until 1987, as if they, too, were expecting a miracle that would bring down Saddam, similar to that which earlier had toppled the Pahlavi ruler. By late 1984 there was virtually no viable ground for Iran to prolong the war—strategically, politically, or morally—except Khomeini’s call to “liberate” the heartland of Shi‘ism from the yoke of the “godless” Ba‘athists. His messianic vision perhaps called for advancing to the lands beyond in the hopes of liberating the Quds, as the Holy Land is known to Muslims, from Zionist occupation. Though never part of the official Iranian war objectives or war propaganda, the longing for such a move was in the air. Numerous war murals, posters, and signposts along the front read “Through Karbala to Quds.”

The Iranian refusal to negotiate came despite a casual offer of Saddam’s Arab backers—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—to pay Iran a hefty war indemnity, which in effect was an admission of Iraqi guilt. Even though the offer was never solid enough, the climate was decidedly in Iran’s favor to press for monetary reparations and boundary amendments. Yet from Khomeini’s perspective, and that of his advisers, so much was invested in the war that it was formidable, if not impossible, for Iran to accept even a favorable cease-fire. The blood of martyrs, lofty Islamic ideals, and material destruction of a large portion of the southwest were but one concern. Anti-Saddam propaganda—he was the “Minor Satan” in the service of the Great Satan—was another.

In Khomeini’s eyes, the odds were greatly in favor of his revolutionary crusade, and the prospect of victory for his “dear Islam” was high. To him, annihilation of the Iraqi regime, despite numerous setbacks, was an unavoidable task to be fulfilled, even at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties and further material losses. In his narrative, the unfolding destiny of the Islamic Revolution had anticipated such a miracle. The whole process over the previous five years from his hermetic seclusion in Najaf to the suburbs of Paris, his triumphant return to Iran, the collapse of the mighty Pahlavi regime and the shah’s pitiful demise in exile, the apparent despair of the Great Satan throughout the hostage crisis, the crushing of his numerous opponents at home, and successful deflecting of Iraqi aggression—all were chapters of a sacred drama. The end game, therefore, could not have been an inconclusive peace with the enemy; rather, it was the capture of the holy Shi‘i sites of Karbala, Kufa, and Najaf, where the mytho-historical narrative of Shi‘ism was first conceived. With the Iranian forces in early 1984 within tantalizing distance of these cities, what was the worth of human lives in order to vanquish a satanic enemy, even if superpowers stood behind it?

Even as late as March 19, 1987, more then six years into the war, when Iranian forces launched operation wa’l-Fajr 10, with no decisive results, Khomeini, in his message to the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, still called for further sacrifice. “With the blessing of God almighty and support of his great messenger” he saluted his “resilient and sacrificing nation and the valiant warriors of Islam for their great and thunderous victory”:

For sure this divine gift . . . is the fulfillment of the [Qur’anic verse] “support God and God supports you and solidifies your pace.” This is the outcome of the unique resistance of this great nation against [Saddam’s] cowardly onslaughts and his bombing of the [Iranian] cities. The news of the epic victories of the Islamic warriors not only cheered the hearts of our people, but those of all disinherited and deprived. It also grieved Saddam . . . and his protectors and masters, especially America and Israel.

Saluting the people of the liberated Iraqi cities, no doubt a reference to Halabja, Khomeini urged them to see “how insanely Saddam targeted you and your cities with chemical and cluster bombs and witness how the world devouring [powers] in their poisonous propaganda ignored our great victories and overlooked the crimes of Saddam’s armies.” He then urged the “gallant youth of the proud Islamic land of Iran to rush to the fronts” and “suffocate the defeated and desperate” forces of Saddam.1


Despite Khomeini’s lofty wishes, the fate of the war shifted once more in favor of Iraq. In the third and final stage of the war, between 1985 and 1988, Saddam began for the first time since 1982 a new offensive in which he was not alone. He continued to receive generous funding from the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf as well as Western powers and the Soviet bloc. The Soviet Union, Iraq’s chief supplier in the past, initially observed an arms embargo, perhaps in the hope of encouraging Iran’s neutrality, if not cooperation, in its increasingly troubled occupation of Afghanistan and with an eye toward Tudeh support for the Iranian regime. From 1986, however, the Soviets were back in business supplying their old Iraqi ally. The Iraqi forces, regrouped and refurbished, began firing their Soviet-made Scud missiles with horrifying frequency at Iranian cities, and Iranians retaliated in kind, with the North Korean version of Scuds, though theirs were far fewer in numbers. It was a bitter irony that both sides were using Soviet and American weaponry against each other with no ideological tag attached to the hardware and no scruples on the side of the suppliers.

In what came to be known as the “War of the Cities,” thousands were killed on both sides, and tens of thousands turned into internally displaced refugees (see map 16.1). With Mirage fighter-bombers purchased from France, Iraqis could reach targets deep inside Iran, and American-made combat helicopters offered them visual advantage on the battlefield. In an increasingly vicious war, both sides had little compunction about harming civilians. In the course of the war, the Iraqis fired more than three hundred Scud and other missiles on urban targets in Iran, and Iranians retaliated with more than seventy. The exchange of missiles had limited military significance, but its psychological impact on the general public was substantial. For the first time since the early days of the war, ordinary people felt that the war was no longer an affair fought off in the distance but a tangible reality.

Iranians began frantically searching for arms to purchase, not only on the treacherous black market at outrageous prices but also through state suppliers ranging from China, North Korea, and Libya (which sold them Scud missiles purchased from the Soviet Union) to backdoor deals with the United States and its allies, including Israel, for spare parts and antitank weapons. Though much smaller in scale and effectiveness, the Israeli and American weapon consignments that came through Israel, with the approval of the Reagan administration, or directly through CIA channels, as it turned out, had a scandalous fallout. Israel’s motive was simple. It viewed Saddam’s victory a cause for Arab solidarity and with Saddam at the helm. Given that the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat had shifted sides, from praise for Khomeini in the early days of the revolution to praise for Saddam during the later stages of the war, such a security concern hit closer to home. It is hard, moreover, not to detect in Israel’s move a desire to see both sides—Iraq and Iran—militarily exhausted and bankrupt.

The US record of support for Saddam’s war efforts, however, was far more problematic. It was probably among the most appalling in the history of American aid to villainous dictators. While the hostage crisis was still going on, the Carter administration hinted at thawing diplomatic relations with Iraq, a reversal of a policy that for years had treated the Ba‘athists as pariahs. At the outset this seemed a plausible course to counterbalance Iranian success while returning Iran’s anti-Americanism in kind. Yet US support for Ba‘athists did not stop at the level of diplomacy. Though the Reagan administration had declared neutrality in the Iraq-Iran War, soon it relapsed into a proactive course, especially after 1984, when the US government began to view Iran’s advances detrimental to American interests in the region. US assistance to Iraq ranged from the direct and indirect sale of weapons and export of raw materials for manufacturing chemical and biological weapons to extensive sharing of military intelligence, CIA and Pentagon operational support on the battlefield, training of Iraqi military personnel, and vast sums of credit for Iraqi purchases of weapons, agricultural needs, and other necessities, as well as tacit or explicit backing for Iraq in the United Nations and other international forums.

Fearing the collapse of the Iraqi regime, late in 1983 and again in March 1984, two delegations headed by then US special envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, visited Baghdad to normalize relations and offer help in Iraq’s war efforts. The warming of relations began just at the time when Iraq was extensively using mustard gas and nerve gas against Iranian troops. Iraq’s “struggle for survival,” as Washington expressed it, soon gave rise to officers from the US Defense Intelligence Agency making available to the Iraqis satellite and airborne early warning and control (AWACS) intelligence on Iran’s troop movements as well as helping directly with military operations. The US personnel in effect helped plan and execute the war on a daily basis and advised Iraqi air attacks and shelling Iranian targets. Assistance from the United States proved essential in destroying much of the Iranian military, which had been built so painstakingly by the shah with US hardware and technical support. Anxiety over the potential fall of the Iraqi regime went so far as to persuade the United States to bring Iraqi personnel to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where, among taking other courses, they were trained in insurgency tactics in the event of an Iranian victory.

Most controversial was the US role in facilitating Iraq’s chemical and biological weapon programs. It has been reported that at least seventy shipments of US raw materials for manufacture of chemical and biological weapons were sent to Iraq between 1984 and 1987. This was in addition to the sale of the same materials from German and British private and government sources. It is difficult to determine how much the US matériel went toward the actual manufacture of Iraqi chemical weapons, but there is little doubt that the United States deemed it unavoidable that the banned weapons be used against Iranian troops. In March 1984 the US delegation to the United Nations even went so far as to collude with Iraq in defeating an Iranian resolution in the Security Council that condemned Iraq’s use of chemical weapons on the battlefield. Later, in the wake of the Halabja mass killing in 1988, the Reagan administration woefully pointed the finger of suspicion at Iran, presumably knowing full well the extent of Saddam’s al-Anfal operation and his vengeance toward the Kurdish population.

Later in the course of the conflict, the United States also played a pivotal role in the so-called Tanker War of 1984–1988, aimed to escort Kuwaiti (and later Saudi and Iraqi) vessels under the US flag to protect them against Iranian amphibian attacks in the Persian Gulf. The internationally accepted pretext of keeping the shipping lanes open, and hence the supply of oil through the Strait of Hormuz uninterrupted, had the intended effect of providing Iraq and its regional allies with a revenue stream from the sale of their oil for the duration of the conflict while the revived Iraqi air force, with the aid of the Americans and their allies, repeatedly pummeled Iranian oil export terminals on Kharg Island. Even US outrage over the Iraqi bombing of the USS Stark in May 17, 1987, which resulted in the loss of thirty-seven American sailors, was contained once Iraq lodged a formal apology admitting its error.

By April 1988 US support for Saddam had effectively changed the fortune of the war in favor of Iraq and brought it closer to an end. Had it not been for the United States and its European allies, it may be argued, the war probably would have ended in 1984 or 1985 with a serious weakening, or possibly collapse, of the Ba‘athist regime. The United States’ national interests to some degree may have vindicated a balancing in the critical struggle between an expansionist and a revolutionary regime with an avowed anti-American ideological bent. Yet by no stretch of realpolitik can one vindicate the US condoning of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons or coordinating of a counteroffensive by a belligerent maverick whose hands were red with the blood of his own people.

Realistic casualty figures for the eight-year war period are difficult to come by. By early 1988 the estimated war casualties had reached at least 300,000 dead on the Iranian side and 250,000 on the Iraqi side. Hundreds of thousands more were injured and disabled in what came to be probably the longest war of the twentieth century and one of the most ferocious. Exhausted, demoralized, and internationally isolated, Iran slowly came to realize that it no longer could sustain high casualties and the huge economic costs of the war without the risk of renewed internal dissent. Iraqi missile attacks on Iranian cities added to the public distress, especially when combined with the loss of oil revenue, growing numbers of internal refugees, and troop exhaustion. Equally grave was the possibility of a serious confrontation with the United States in the Persian Gulf once the Tanker War had escalated by early 1988. If not Khomeini himself, some of his advisers in charge of the war, most significantly Rafsanjani, came to realize the long-term dangers of engaging a superpower.

The downing of an Iran Air passenger Airbus on July 3, 1988, by the USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser, resulting in the loss of 290 civilian lives, was an ominous sign. The incident presumably was caused by the US cruiser mistaking the passenger airliner as an approaching Iranian fighter jet, a questionable judgment, perhaps, given Iran’s poor air force capabilities at the time and the USS Vincennes’s advanced radar and intelligence equipment. The incident, Iran’s first and only direct military engagement with the United States, reflected the growing tension that had built up between the two countries ever since the hostage crisis. The United States barely expressed regret for the incident, blaming it on the roguery of the Iran Air pilot. Eight years later, when the United States agreed to pay only minimal reparations to the victims’ relatives, this was interpreted as a further mark of the United States trying to humiliate Iran.

On July 20, 1988, shortly after the downing of its aircraft, Iran finally accepted the UN Security Council Resolution 598, initially adopted in July 20, 1987, calling for an end to hostilities between Iraq and Iran and the withdrawal of all forces to “internationally recognized boundaries without delay.” Although the resolution requested the UN secretary-general to explore “the question of entrusting an impartial body with inquiring into responsibilities for the conflict,” and although it deplored in strongest terms “heavy loss of human life and material destruction,” it did not call for any form of war reparation or condemnation of the belligerent party. It went only as far as expressing conviction that “a comprehensive, just, honorable and durable settlement should be achieved between Iran and Iraq.” One of the decisions attached to the text of the resolution also expressed deep dismay based on the “unanimous conclusion of the specialists that there has been repeated use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces by Iraqi forces,” and that “civilians in Iran also have been injured by chemical weapons, and that Iraqi military personnel have sustained injuries from chemical warfare agents.”2

By August 20, 1988, although both countries observed a cease-fire on all fronts, Iraq refused to evacuate from the frontier territories it had captured in the last years of the war. That was in clear breach of the resolution’s call upon both parties to “withdraw all forces to the internationally recognized boundaries without delay.” Other articles of the resolution such as a call on both sides for the release of all prisoners of war, and the demand that the UN secretary-general facilitate a lasting settlement between the countries, remained unaddressed. As it turned out, the Iraqi regime did not abide by any of the additional terms of the resolution. By 1988 Iran’s international isolation, its loss of any strategic advantage over Iraq in the battlefield, and its inaptitude to effectively argue its case, compelled it to accept the cease-fire from a position of weakness and without any explicit UN recognition of Iraq’s belligerence.

In a rare admission of remorse, Khomeini declared that he had succumbed to the cease-fire as if drinking a “chalice of poison” (jam-e zahr), a tantalizing reference perhaps to Socrates’s death when condemned by the Athenian court. Coming from a man who was once a teacher of philosophy in Qom with a passion for Greek philosophers, the phrase contained oblique nuances. Accepting the cease-fire was an admission of humiliating defeat while defying, as did the Greek philosopher, the morality of “might makes right.” The sum total of eight years of suffering and carnage for Iran was not only the loss of territory to Iraq along its western border but also, more important, succumbing to a cease-fire with an Iraqi tyrant who won the war with the military backing of a superpower. His decision, Khomeini stressed, was in consultation with his trusted advisers, and that he took into account the best interest of the country and the revolution. “By God,” he went on to say:

If it was not because of concerns for all of our credibility, honor and expediency for the cause of Islam and the Muslims, I would have never condoned to this act since death and martyrdom is sweeter to me. But what alternative do we have but to abide by the divine will? No doubt our heroic and valiant nation has and will abide by it. . . . In future some individuals may intentionally or unintentionally raise doubt as to the fruit of all the blood and sacrifice. They obviously are unaware of the invisible worlds [of the hereafter] and of the philosophy of martyrdom. . . . Beyond doubt the blood of the martyrs is insurance for revolution and Islam. . . . Blessed you the nation! Blessed you women and men! Blessed you the martyrs and the captives, those who are lost in action, and families of the glorious martyrs! And woe on me for being still alive drinking the poisonous callous of this resolution. I feel humbled before all the sacrifice and glory of this great nation.3

Yet no amount of verbiage, sophistry, and emotional manipulation could conceal the magnitude of the disaster for which the guardian jurist of the Islamic Republic was largely responsible.

Over a longer historical span, the Iran-Iraq War can be seen as a clash of two ideologies, both manifestations of an evolving modern Middle East. Saddam’s Ba‘athism had all the symptoms of an extreme state-based pan-Arabism rooted in the post–World War I territorial settlements, unfulfilled national aspirations, volatility within the Iraqi polity, tensions with the Shi‘i and the Kurdish communities of Iraq, and conflict with the neighboring Iran. The Islamic Revolution, by contrast, was based on a revolutionary ideology, a later phase of a new Islam that rejected, at least on the surface, the secular model of nationalism that for more than a century had transformed the region. On the Iranian side, these revolutionary sentiments were deeply ingrained with patriotic feelings, reaffirming a national identity within its historical boundaries. Once these sentiments acquired an invasive posture, however, outside traditional Iranian borders, beyond Zagros and into the Mesopotamian lowlands, they proved ineffective, despite the shared Shi‘i religious heritage of the two countries. As in the past such ambitions under the Islamic Republic did not, and perhaps could not, bear any fruit.

Ethnic loyalties and collective memories played their parts in the Iraq-Iran conflict, but what really fueled the war and enabled both sides to fight long and hard was the availability of economic resources generated in the main by oil revenues, despite the damages to both countries’ oil installations. Both regimes were able to quell the opposition and tighten their monopoly of power. In effect, the world’s energy needs, and the ensuing strategic concerns of Western powers, facilitated intervention in the conflict, albeit covertly. Interventions in the conflict secured, first and foremost, the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, but also aimed to maintain the upper hand in the region against a potential Soviet threat, especially after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Yet the war did not settle the main territorial issue that contributed to the prolonged conflict. Sovereignty over Shatt al-Arab remained unresolved at least officially. The humiliating end to the war, moreover, did not bring down the Iranian regime or even sap the revolutionary zeal of its leadership. In part, this can be explained by an effective purge of Iran’s political dissent throughout the war and after. Though never reaching the scale and ferocity of the police state in Saddam’s Iraq, silencing domestic opposition in Iran under the pretext of security and war priorities secured the regime enough synergy to last even after the demeaning final settlement. War, in effect, vastly helped the Islamic Republic consolidate its military, propaganda and policing apparatuses, close constitutional loopholes, and increase ideological and economic control over society. In this respect, although the war was a net defeat with huge casualties, material ruination, and temporary territorial loss, it was a “blessing” in disguise, as was repeatedly acknowledged by the regime’s clerical leadership. Irrespective of what the regime claimed as its popular mandate, the experience of the war and memories of sacrifice, life in the trenches, bombing of the cities, rationing, and economic hardship were all ingredients for a trial by fire that contributed to shaping postrevolutionary Iran.

On the Iraqi side the Ba‘athist euphoria ended soon in a new disaster. As it turned out, soon after Saddam’s armies paraded under the Qadisiya victory arch, built in a gruesome design using helmets of perished Iranian troops as decoration, and shortly after he was hailed by the press in the Arab world as a hero, his expansionist ambitions brought about another adventure. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, on another territorial pretext, may in part be attributed to the six years of US fraternization with Saddam and accommodation of his ambitions. Even a few weeks before Saddam’s onslaught against Kuwait—his financial backer during the war with Iran—he still received indecisive messages from the US State Department, which may well have persuaded him to imagine that this time his adventure would be trouble-free.


The eighty-six-year-old Imam of the Revolution’s admitting of even a relative defeat did not come without terrible retaliation against his domestic opponents, real or potential. Unforeseen developments during the last days of the war deepened the regime’s fears of renewed discontent, public unrest, and armed rebellion. The humiliating end to the war added an almost psychopathic urgency for another round of purges. A sequence of events taking place in less than a year between the cease-fire in July 1988 and Khomeini’s death in June 1989 offers a clue to his motivation, if not a rationale. The systematic execution in secret of at least 4,500 political prisoners through the latter part of 1988 was one manifestation of the regime’s insecurity and its unexhausted reservoirs of violence.

Four days after Iran accepted the cease-fire, on July 26, 1988, an estimated force of seven thousand Mojahedin Khalq equipped with heavy weaponry by the Iraqis and based inside Iraq made a surprise attack fifty miles into the western Iranian province of Kermanshahan. Backed by Iraqi air and logistical support, the Mojahedin operation, named Forugh-e Javidan (Eternal glory), was meant to liberate Iran from its clerical regime. After a crushing setback in 1982 and a respite in France, the Mojahedin leadership and their loyal comrades-in-arms took refuge in Saddam’s Iraq and settled in a military base they called Camp Ashraf 67 miles north of Baghdad and 110 miles west of the Iranian frontier. By doing so, the desperate Mojahedin turned into Saddam’s pawn, a fifth column of sorts that justified collaboration through a culture of indoctrination and iron-fisted conformity. Hoping to gain further advantage from the Iranian regime while it was down, Saddam let the Mojahedin launch their attack on Iranian soil just after the cease-fire came into effect.

The Mojahedin operation, however, proved neither eternal nor glorious. It went terribly wrong. Under international pressure, Saddam was soon obligated to withdraw air cover, exposing the Mojahedin to Iranian fighter jets and soon to the Revolutionary Guards’ airborne units landing behind their lines. Cut off from their base and with limited firepower, the inexperienced Mojahedin force was completely routed four days after their initial assault. At least two thousand Mojahedin were killed in action, and reportedly more than four hundred Iranian troops and Guards perished. To the limited extent that the Mojahedin advanced inside Iran, the civilian population did not receive them as liberators. Nor would they have been accorded a warm reception given the extensive damage they had inflicted on Shahabad Gharb (now Islamabad Gharb), the only town they occupied on the Iranian western border. The remnants of the Mojahedin and those who managed to flee back to the Iraqi camp suffered the defeat with pitiful complacency.

Irrespective of their defeat, the thrust of the regime’s anti-Mojahedin grudge had already resurfaced in mass executions inside the Islamic Republic’s prisons. On July 19, 1988, on the eve of the cease-fire, and four days before the start of the Mojahedin’s operation, Khomeini issued a fatwa-like executive order declaring members of the People’s Mojahedin already in prisons of the Islamic Republic to be “active combatants (against Islam; i.e., mohareb) and [thus] condemnable to death.” He justified this extraordinary ruling on the grounds that the “hypocrites” were not believers in Islam, had committed apostasy (ertedad), had actively engaged in a “classic war” along Iranian frontiers, had collaborated with the Ba‘athist regime and spied for them against “our Islamic nation,” and were in contact with the “universal arrogance” (estekbar-e jahani), a reference to the United States and its allies. Despite the shari‘a-sounding rationale, Khomeini’s instructions were aimed not at the combatants in the battlefields but at the thousands of political prisoners he stigmatized in his executive order as those “insisting on their hypocrisy.” The Qur’anic reference to hypocrites (monafeqin) was a convenient shortcut to a vengeful mass killing.4

Khomeini’s ruling, which must have been in the making for a while, was only reaffirmed by the Mojahedins’ action and gave the Khomeinist hard-liners an ideal excuse to empty the prisons of thousands of victims. Immediately, a three-men clerical tribunal appointed by Khomeini and aided by some of his most trusted henchmen meticulously went through the roster of Evin and other prisons and detention centers in Tehran and the provinces, selecting and segregating thousands of “suspects,” both men and women. They were individually brought before a tribunal to answer a set of questions, and though this action appeared to be consistent with the Islamic law of apostasy, it was in fact a sinister ploy to remove almost any chance of acquittal for the victims.

Many of the suspects, teenagers or in their early twenties, had been arrested years earlier and had already been tried and given prison sentences. They were originally accused of such crimes as being members of the Mojahedin and Fada’iyan, distributing their tracts, attending demonstrations, “sympathizing” with the left, and other charges entirely inconsistent with the charge of apostasy, or actively warring against Islam or collaboration with enemy. Even some of the most ardent “repentants” (tawwabin) who were “reeducated” in prison and actively practicing Islamic rituals under the watchful eyes of the prisons’ “ideological-religious commissars” or inmates who had completed their terms or were near completion, were not spared.

Unaware of why they were brought before the tribunal or unaware of the charges, the defendants had to confirm or deny belief in Islam; whether they were practicing Muslims; if they were prepared to reveal the identity of other “hypocrites,” sympathizers, and false repentants; if they were willing to go before television cameras to repent; and if they were prepared to fight on the front and pass over minefields. After the first or the second question, usually, the tribunal passed its judgment. Victims were then asked to write their last will and immediately were sent off in groups of six to the gallows. In compliance with Islamic law, in most cases the victims were hanged so that they would suffer a slow death, rather than going before a firing squad.

Most victims were the Mojahedin and their sympathizers, followed by the Fada’iyan, the Tudeh, Paykar, and other leftist parties. Female members of the Mojahedin and other parties were forced to repent, severely beaten, received a lashing, and were kept in solitary confinement. A few were executed or died under torture. In the nearly six months between July and December 1988, executions went on around the clock and almost in total secrecy. The regime’s denial of any executions was only occasionally countered by the pleas of anxious but terrified families, who were banned even from gathering before the prison gates. Bodies of the victims were not returned to their relatives, contrary to usual practice in the Islamic Republic of returning slaughtered bodies in exchange for the price of bullets. Those executed in the Evin prison were dumped in secrecy in mass graves in an undisclosed location in the vicinity of the capital. The location of the graves, which the regime dubbed “Kofrabad” (abode of infidelity) and “La‘nat-abad” (abode of damnation), were revealed to the families only a year later. They were permitted to visit the ramshackle site only if they observed a total ban on memorial gatherings of any sort. In the cemetery in southwestern Tehran, later known as Khavaran, the mass graves of the 1988 victims were shared with graves of the Baha’is, the other “infidels” of the Islamic Republic. Even as late as 2009 the regime’s anxieties were not entirely abated; Khavaran was bulldozed so as to remove even the makeshift marks made by the families of the dead. These were Iran’s other sites of memory, unmarked and unattended.

The executions elicited virtually no criticism within the regime’s inner circles except for one important exception, Ayatollah Hosain-‘Ali Montazeri. And he paid dearly for raising his voice. The majority of high-ranking mullahs and their associates who were aware of the mass killings, or came to know of them in the following months, were either in favor of this atrocity or did not dare to raise an objection. The rotating membership of the “Death Committee,” as the three-man tribunal came to be known, included some of the most notorious revolutionary judges and perpetrators of political crimes in the Islamic Republic. Their verdicts, grounded in a meticulous reading of Khomeini’s directive, revealed a culture of brutality at odds with the idealized image of Khomeini as the kindhearted father of the revolution. Like the massacre of the Banu-Qurayza in seventh-century Medina, which Khomeini was fond of recalling as a model for dealing with charges of treason, the judges saw no grounds for mercy or fairness.


Aside from political opponents, the Islamic Republic, and more specifically its anti-Baha’i activists, continued to harass and persecute Baha’is. In the months following the victory of the revolution, other non-Muslim communities—Jews, Armenians, and Zoroastrians, as well as Sunni Muslims, Sufis, the Ahl-e Haqq, and Shaykhis—did not remain untouched by the new regime’s rigorous segregationist policies. Non-Muslims were banned from government employment, their community school curricula were Islamicized, community activities controlled, and for a while Jews were banned from traveling abroad. The thrust of this systematic persecution, however, was directed against the “devious sect” (ferqeh-e zalleh), a familiar euphemistic label for the Baha’is.

The renewed persecution was a culmination of anti-Baha’i sentiments common to Iranian society since the very inception of the new faith in the mid-nineteenth century. In the first decade of the Islamic Republic, more than two hundred Baha’i women and men were executed, not only elected members of Baha’i national and local administrative bodies but ordinary Baha’is in towns and villages around the country. They were executed merely for being Baha’i. Others were abducted and killed in secret. ‘Ali-Morad Davudi (1922–1979), a professor of philosophy at Tehran University and a Cartesian of some repute, was abducted and killed in November 1979 after he penned a succinct response to anti-Baha’i smears. Manuchehr Hakim (1910–1981), a professor of medicine at Tehran University and a pioneer of free medical clinics, was attacked and slaughtered in his office. Among those executed between February 1980 and June 1981 either by order of the revolutionary courts or without any court proceedings were Zhinus Mahmudi (1925–1981), dean of Iran’s School of Meteorology; her husband, Hushang Mahmudi, a well-known TV personality of children’s programs; and a number of lawyers, physicians, career engineers and contractors, army officers, as well as homemakers.

Among numerous executions ordered by the revolutionary courts was the case of the Baha’i women of Shiraz. In June 1983 ten Baha’i woman in that city, mostly in their twenties, were arrested on the charge of teaching principles of their faith to Baha’i children in Friday classes held in houses of the Baha’is. They were summarily tried, and despite excessive pressure, they refused to repent their faith. They were condemned of being “agents of the Zionists entity” and executed. Before execution some were reportedly raped in prison on the grounds that the Shi‘i shari‘a requires, as the revolutionary judge interpreted it, that virgins be “deflowered” before execution so as to prevent their salvation in the hereafter. The head of the Shiraz revolutionary court, a certain Hujjat al-Islam Qaza’i, later implied in a newspaper interview that he condemned to death twenty-two Baha’i women and men because they remained steadfast in their faith. He threatened that all deviant Baha’is must repent if they wish to avoid Muslim’s “religious obligation” to destroy all infidels.

Altogether in the first decade of the Islamic Republic upward of two hundred Baha’is were executed and thousands more in urban and rural communities throughout Iran were imprisoned and tortured. Tens of thousands were harassed, looted, purged from government posts, barred from universities, had their livelihoods confiscated by the revolutionary courts, were forced to repent their faith under duress, lost their retirement pensions, or were forced out of their towns and villages. As the largest non-Muslim community in Iran, Baha’is had a remarkable nationwide geographical and class distribution that included villagers (some established at the inception of the Babi movement in remote regions), residents of small towns and working classes in large cities, teachers, bureaucrats, small business owners, as well as professionals and members of the affluent middle classes.

The Islamic Revolution had been a major blow to the community as a whole. While many, including most affluent Baha’is, soon emigrated to Europe and North America, others, mostly lower-income Baha’is, stayed behind only to face increasing restrictions and humiliation. Vile anti-Baha’i campaigns in the press and media, lies and fabrications in history textbooks, and economic loss and general social demotion were accompanied by losses of educational opportunities for the younger generations. The unaccredited Baha’i Institute of Higher Education in Tehran, a semiclandestine institution but effective in countering the official ban on higher education for Baha’is, faced repeated onslaughts by security forces. Bans on Baha’i administration, public gatherings, and publications, as well as the destruction of Baha’i cemeteries all over Iran and the confiscation, desecration, and demolition of sacred and historic Baha’i sites, among them, the best-preserved examples of Qajar domestic architecture, all became everyday facts of life. These actions represented a program of intolerance and intimidation aimed at suffocating to extinction a community considered by the Islamic Republic heretical and treasonous. Despite all pressures, few among the Iranian Baha’is denied their religious identity.

Baha’is did not present a political threat to the Islamic Republic. Yet they were increasingly perceived as a potent internal enemy, especially when other political contenders had been effectively quashed. Accusations against them followed a historical pattern. Whereas in earlier times the charges were mostly of heresy and apostasy, by the mid-twentieth century the accusations had become exceedingly political and conspiratorial. In earlier times the old charge of sexual revelry, especially clandestine sexual transgressions (abaha), was leveled against them. This was a smear as old as the history of persecuted Jewish, Christian, and Manichaean minorities in ancient times. Even early Islamic societies accused nonconformists of forbidden sexual transgressions. Popularized relics of such smears found a new lease on life in the fertile imagination of the anti-Baha’i polemicists. Yet even the charge of immorality gradually faded, giving way to charges of disloyalty, spying, and treason.

Political allegations were the by-product of a climate of paranoid fears and conspiracy theories, an obsession with the hidden hand of European colonialism. In this representation, Baha’is were viewed as puppets of a sinister Western power whose identity kept evolving with time. One prevalent narrative originating in the 1930s was presented in the form of a fraudulent “memoir” of a Russian diplomat, Prince Dolgrouki, a composite figure of a sort, attributing the “creation” of the Baha’i “pseudoreligion” to Russian imperial ambitions in the nineteenth century. Later, however, the same narrative was amended by a new epilogue in which the Russian imperialists, once they no longer had a use for the Baha’is, generously handed over control of them to British colonialists. Given the potency of British “hidden hands” in the Iranian popular imagination, such a charge carried grave consequences throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Yet the evolutionary mutation in the life of this deception did not end with the British. In the 1960s Baha’is were further accused of being not merely “British lackeys” but simultaneously agents in the service of US imperialism and the CIA, and soon after, coinciding with the Islamic Revolution and the rise of anti-Zionist sentiments, as agents and spies of world Zionism.

The latter allegation brought many Baha’is, men and women, before the revolutionary courts even in remote towns and villages of Iran and led to numerous executions and long-term imprisonment during the first decade of the revolution and later. That the Baha’i world center and Baha’i sacred sites were located in Haifa and ‘Akka, in today’s Israel, itself the outcome of a long-term banishment of Baha’ullah (founder of the Baha’i faith) to Ottoman Palestine seven decades before the creation of the state of Israel, was more than sufficient proof in the eyes of its accusers of Baha’i complicity in a British-American-Zionist collusion. Somehow they were all instruments of the sinister “colonialists” and agents of a global ploy hatched by “universal arrogance” to destroy the Islamic Republic and Islam as a whole.

If further proof was needed, the accusers could always resort to the record of the Baha’i leader, Mirza ‘Abbas Nuri, better known as ‘Abdul-Baha, who in 1921 accepted British knighthood presumably for his peaceful efforts toward the success of Allied operation in Palestine following the collapse of the Young Turks regime and the end to their atrocities in Syria and Palestine. In the eyes of the Islamic Republic, this was tantamount to Baha’i subservience to British imperialism and later to the “Zionist entity,” as Israel was referred to in the Islamic Republic.

The Baha’i experience in the Pahlavi era exposed the community’s own shortcomings to communicate more effectively with Iranian society at large. Throughout the postconstitutional period and into the early Pahlavi era, a sector of the urban Baha’is excelled in socioeconomic terms in part because of decreased harassment and discriminations. They also advanced because they were welcomed into a benign partnership in the early Pahlavi project of modernity and were part of its flourishing middle classes. Yet with time, the Baha’is gradually lost much of their appeal as harbingers of religious modernity. Relative prosperity brought social isolation from society at large. Success, empowered by education and capital, widened the gulf between Baha’is and traditional Muslim sectors and sharpened differences with Islamic opponents. Both the clergy and anti-Baha’i activists, such as the Hojjatiyeh Society, bemoaned the Baha’is’ acquired freedoms to preach their message, limited though they were. In effect, their enemies viewed Baha’is as a new challenge to Islamic superiority. The Hojjatiyeh Society, perhaps the largest Islamic organization before the revolution, was almost solely devoted to anti-Baha’i activities.

Yet heated engagements with Islamic clergy and lay activists over arcane points of theology and acrobatics of messianic prophecies not surprisingly made the Baha’i message stagnant and their approach outmoded and intellectually timid. Because the Baha’is maintained a doctrine of political noninterference, a relic of the nineteenth century, they were unfairly suspected as complaisant, even collaborating with the Pahlavi regime. By the mid-1970s, like any other isolated minority under a repressive regime, the Baha’is were accused of monopolizing “key positions” in the Pahlavi regime. The premier Amir ‘Abbas Hovayda, in particular, was rumored to be a Baha’i only because at some stage in the distant past his father, an Iranian diplomat, was a member of the Baha’i community, though he later withdrew from it altogether. Baha’is were accused of pulling the strings, running the Savak and torturing its victims, monopolizing wealth and privilege through their intimate connections with sources of power, and liaising in dirty deals with the British intelligence services, the CIA, and the Israelis. Venomous rumors such as these thrived in the late Pahlavi era while Baha’is carefully tried to stay away from the raging flames of the revolutionary movement. Under the Islamic Republic these rumors were quickly upgraded to unquestionable facts and turned into evidence for charges of treason and conspiracy.

Deeper than doctrinal differences or conspiratorial obsessions, however, antagonism toward the Baha’i was representative of a shared heritage not only among Islamists but also among many intellectuals on the left, academics, and the public at large. The search for an enemy within, on whose shoulder could be placed all the faults of the past and fears for the future, was an exercise in self-indulgence familiar to cultures of victimization. The Baha’is were cohesive and resilient but increasingly introverted. Standing their ground and refusing to doctrinally assimilate made them a target of suspicion and animosity. If the revolutionary regime in its quixotic battle could no longer defeat the Great Satan, it could harass a vulnerable enemy within.


Revelations in November 1986 concerning an Iranian arms deal with the United States, using Israel as an intermediary, triggered a full-scale political scandal between August 1985 and March 1987 in Washington, known as the Iran-Contra Affair, with serious repercussions for the Reagan administration. The course of events that shaped the affair exhibited how the United States, despite a history of rancorous relations with Iran, was prepared to engage Iran by supplying it with arms and spare parts, albeit for its own covert operation. Even more troubling was the fact that despite the Islamic Republic’s public denouncement of Israel, it had no compunction in using Israel as intermediary in the arms deal, all the while persecuting Baha’is in towns and villages of Iran on charges of espionage for the Great Satan and the Zionist entity.

In the years leading to Iran-Contra, Iran was enlisted by the United States among the “rogue” states sponsoring terrorism and subject to an arms embargo and other sanctions. The secret arms deal thus promised to provide Iran with much-needed material in the war with the minor Satan, as Saddam ranked in the demonology of the Islamic Republic. Whatever the Reagan administration’s justifications for the arms deal with Iran, including raising funds needed for a covert operation against Nicaragua, facilitating the release of American hostages who were in the custody of the Hezbollah of Lebanon, and a goodwill gesture with the remote hope of rekindling relations with revolutionary Iran, the initiative eventually backfired. It blew up into a major embarrassment on several counts and received enormous publicity worldwide. In addition to breaching the arms sanctions against Iran, the White House security adviser stood accused of breaking a congressional ban on assistance to Contra forces fighting the Nicaraguan revolutionary regime.

The Iranian side of the deal was arranged by a shady Iranian arms dealer Manuchehr Ghorbanifar (b. 1945), once a Savak agent and partner in an Israeli-Iranian shipping company. He claimed to have contacts with influential “moderates” in the Iranian regime. On the American side was maverick staff member of the National Security Council, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North (b. 1946). The prospect of reopening relations with Iran was intriguing to the American administration. Not only the national security adviser Robert McFarlane (b. 1943) but also the CIA chief William Casey, as well as other senior White House officials and President Reagan himself, were optimistic enough to approve the sale of more than 2,500 American-made TOW antitank missiles to Iran over two years. The Israelis delivered early consignments of missiles and spare parts after they scratched off the tracing numbers and Hebrew letters presumably saving the Iranian regime from the embarrassment of sending Israeli equipment to their warriors in the “battlefields of the good versus the evil,” as war with Iraq was labeled in the Iranian revolutionary propaganda. From the outset, Iranians had no illusions as to where the weapons had originated and at what overblown price. Later consignments were directly shipped from the United States.

Encouraged by the release of some hostages in Lebanon through Iranian mediation, the Reagan administration was thrilled enough to dispatch to Iran in May 1986 a mission headed by McFarlane and including North, a host of other American officials, and Amiram Nir (1950–1988), the chief Israeli agent in charge of the deal. They were aboard an Israeli aircraft that also carried a planeload of missiles and military spare parts for delivery to Iran. Upon arrival in Tehran, the uninvited mission soon realized they were unwelcome. Even a copy of the Bible signed by the US president as a goodwill gesture and a cake brought over in the shape of a key did not open any friendly doors. The mission returned to the United States hastily and in disgrace.

What was remarkable about the whole affair was the degree of naïveté displayed by the White House in assessing the complexity of the Iranian situation and its predicament. It was even more curious that Americans assumed that Iranians would not see through so obvious a ploy as luring Iran to normalization when at the very same time the US administration, as part of its two-track policy, was offering military assistance and reconnaissance to Saddam’s Iraq. Under such circumstances, it was quite possible that Iranians, even the “moderates” imagined by the arms-selling intermediary, were not prepared to risk years of investing in the “Great Satan” rhetoric, a cornerstone of Islamic Republic’s international posture, for the sake of an arms deal with a superpower clearly opposed to their ideological standing. They were willing to purchase arms from the United States and Israel so long that things stay at that level.

What was also remarkable was how shrewdly the leadership of the Islamic Republic managed to wave the scandalous aftereffects of Iran-Contra. The fact that Iran struck a secret deal with the Great Satan, and even with the “Zionist entity,” was no small matter at a time when echoes of “Death to America” and “Death of Israel” were audible in every Friday prayer throughout Iran. Such temerity was typical of the regime’s political culture. Any regime, it may be argued, in the throes of a deadly war would strike a deal with a power capable of delivering the necessary hardware. Yet purchasing arms from the United States and Israel to fight a Muslim neighbor could be swallowed by the Iranian public only with a great deal of ideological grease, as when only a few years earlier, in 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon claimed eighty thousand Shi‘i Lebanese and Palestinians victims.

Concerned with the damage that exposure of the arms deal can cause, in September 1987 the Iranian security forces arrested Mehdi Hashemi (1946–1987), a close aide to Montazeri and in control of a militia loyal to him, on the charge of treason. A seminarian of militant convictions and a lifetime client of Montazeri, Hashemi in 1977 was tried in a Pahlavi court and sentenced to life imprisonment on the charge of assassinating a prominent ayatollah in Isfahan. Hashemi was the ringleader of a terrorist group known as the Hadafis (those who believed in Shi‘ism’s political objective), which was inspired by the publication of a controversial book, Shahid-e Javid (The eternal martyr). It argued that Hosain, the Third Shi‘i Imam, sacrificed himself for a proactive political cause rather than sheer moral endeavor.

After the victory of the revolution and release from prison, Hashemi gravitated toward the idea of exporting the revolution and especially to Shi‘i communities abroad, which in turn drew him into the factional politics of the then evolving Lebanese Hezbollah. Opposed to the secret arms deal with the United States in exchange for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, Hashemi disclosed the secret deal to the Lebanese weekly al-Shira‘. Outraged by the imminent disclosure, in October 1986 the Iranian security forces arrested Hashemi and forty of his associates shortly before the publication of the damaging revelations in al-Shira‘ on November 3, 1986. After lengthy detention, torture, and a forced television interview, in which he “confessed” to his crime of collaborating with the Great Satan, Hashemi was eventually put on trial in the clergy’s special court. He was executed in November 1987. Silencing Hashemi, and in turn Montazeri, only partially diverted the bewildered Iranian public. Other pretexts were needed to distract attention to another direction.

It was not mere coincidence, therefore, that at the tail end of the Iran-Contra Affair and shortly after Hashemi’s execution, Khomeini should engage in a seemingly unnecessary crisis. What came to be known as the Rushdie affair inflicted further damage to Iran’s already-battered image abroad, yet it handsomely paid off, saving Khomeini’s image at home as an uncompromising Islamic crusader. On February 14, 1989, he issued a famous fatwa accusing Salman Rushdie, the British writer of Muslim Indian descent and author of The Satanic Verses, of blasphemy. The fatwa called on “all valiant Muslims” to kill the author and all the editors and publishers who were aware of the novel’s content, wherever they found them and without delay, “so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr.”5 The fatwa, while elevating postwar turmoil inside Iran to a new height, also triggered a wave of condemnation in the West toward Khomeini and his Islamic regime. From the perspective of Khomeini and his officials and aides, who in the days following the issuance of the fatwa announced a $6 million award for Rushdie’s assassination, the fatwa was an affordable tool of brandishing the regime’s comparative brand in a fast-growing international market of Islamic militancy even if the cost would be a break in diplomatic relations with Britain, where Rushdie was residing.

Less than four months before Khomeini’s death from terminal cancer, which had already been diagnosed at the time, one might attribute his stirring up the Rushdie controversy primarily to leave behind a legacy of unbending militancy. The grievous end to the war and the unraveling of his vision to export the revolution may well have given him the impression that condemning Rushdie would ensure his legacy. Placing himself in a primary role in the anti-Rushdie protest movement that stretched from Britain to Pakistan and beyond guaranteed that. As he saw it, in the scheme of things, the issuance of a death fatwa was a religious duty, especially when coming from the guardian jurist of the Islamic Republic. Jumping on the bandwagon of anti-Rushdie mania, no doubt, also secured the intended publicity at home as well. A hefty award brazenly placed on Rushdie’s head gave the affair an extra flavor of bounty-hunting justice.

Whatever the offensive content of the novel The Satanic Verses, the fatwa constituted serious harassment of a gifted writer with great cultural sensibilities. It also undermined provisions in Islamic law regarding cases of blasphemy and the evidentiary and procedural grounds for issuing a legal opinion. For one thing, it can be argued that a work of fiction with a phantasmagoric style and with such ambiguous characters as the story’s Mahound can hardly be accepted as evidence for blasphemy. According to such a yardstick, many Sufi aphorisms and some in the corpus of Persian and Arabic poetry would be heretical. It is also debatable whether the penal provisions of Islamic law are binding by anyone beyond the jurisdiction of Dar al-Islam, if for no other reason than that the accused must first be brought before a shari‘a court presided over by one or more jurists who are qualified to study the text in question, or rely on unbiased and trusted experts. By calling on the “brave Muslims of the world” it was as if Khomeini instantaneously expanded the “abode of Islam” globally, a trend that was soon to be emulated by Muslim militants everywhere. Yet there is near consensus that no opinion can be issued by an Islamic court before the accused is cross-examined in person, admitting or denying a charge of blasphemy brought against him or her. The text by itself, according to most jurists, does not carry sufficient weight for the issuance of a fatwa of blasphemy, let alone a death sentence, the execution of which at any rate cannot be delegated to an anonymous individual. That the author apologized, or “repented,” did not alter Khomeini’s or his clerical followers’ opinions even though an overwhelming majority of Muslim jurists admit that repentance for first-time offenders is adequate grounds for recalling a death sentence, even in grave blasphemy cases.

Khomeini’s fatwa thus appeared to be serving other purposes than a mere discharge of juristic obligation, given the glaring legal breaches that must have been known to him and his cohorts. That the intense publicity in the Iranian media portrayed publication of Satanic Verses as a Western conspiracy against Islam, moreover, pointed to a skillful masking of the realties of the postwar era. The gloomy realities included the return home of hundreds of thousands of disillusioned and disabled war veterans, rows of graves in overcrowded “martyr cemeteries,” tens of thousands of detainees kept in ghastly Iraqi prisoner-of-war camps, and difficulties in fulfilling promises made to families of martyrs. The anti-Rushdie crusade also served to soften contention within the leadership at a critical juncture when Khomeini’s death loomed large. The designation of the next guardian jurist appeared to be in trouble.


The state-sponsored public clamor demanding Rushdie’s assassination was loud enough to swamp Montazeri’s call for moderation. In an atmosphere of adulation for the great leader and an imagined Western conspiracy to blemish and ridicule Islam, Montazeri dared to say that the people of the world thought of Iran as just in the business of killing people. No other ranking clergy raised any concern, at least in public, over the validity of Khomeini’s fatwa, let alone concern with free speech or Iran’s image abroad. As in the case of the 1988 executions, here too, bowing blindly before the guardian jurist had become a norm in the Islamic Republic with no parallel in the Shi‘i past—and for good reason, as Montazeri’s fate soon demonstrated.

As designated heir (janeshin) to the Imam, and probably the most prominent jurist in Khomeini’s inner circle and an early advocate of welayat-e faqih, Montazeri has kept a healthy distance from the internal quarrels and controversial decisions. Earlier he had criticized the way the hard-liners shunned Bazargan and his colleagues as “compromising liberals,” and in 1981 he even attempted, unsuccessfully, to broker peace with the Mojahedin. In his typical plain language, he occasionally mentioned the regime’s harsh treatment of his opponents, touching at times innocuously on Khomeini’s positions. In turn, he was gradually cut off from the decision-making circle around the Imam of the revolution. Equally worrisome was the regime’s fear of a domestic source of dissent similar to the leftist militias and close to the Mojahedin’s anticlerical positions, especially if it had the blessing of an important clerical authority such as Montazeri. His implicit rebuke of how revolutionary ideals were being compromised with the growth of financial corruption in high circles and widespread political repression added to the rift.

Already distraught by Hashemi’s execution, by mid-1988 Montazeri was voicing his abhorrence at the reports of mass executions of political prisoners. In a number of cautionary notes addressed to Khomeini, he considered such killings neither consistent with the shari‘a nor justified by human rights standards. He openly reiterated his earlier demands to reassess failures of the revolution and open up the political space, demands that stood little chance of seeing Khomeini’s compliance. This was the first, and the only, public confirmation of the mass killings coming from a senior figure. Coinciding with the anti-Rushdie campaign came the revelation of Montazeri’s note to Khomeini dating August 1, 1988, cautioning against prison executions on Islamic and human rights grounds. “About your honor’s recent order pertaining to the execution of the hypocrites [i.e., the Mojahedin] who are already in prisons,” wrote Montazeri,

The execution of those who were detained after the recent incident [i.e., Mojahedin’s offensive in western Iran in July 1988], nation and the society will accept it and apparently it will not have a negative repercussion. But executing those who were already in prisons [beforehand], first of all will be interpreted under the present circumstances as an act of vengeance and reprisal. . . . What have we gained so far from killings and violence except increasing adverse publicity against ourselves while adding to the appeal of the hypocrites and antirevolutionaries? It is now the time to act for a while with compassion and benevolence.6

By early 1989 Montazeri had gone so far as to implicitly criticize Khomeini in public for denying people their rights and disregarding the revolution’s true values. He called on the “leader” to allow for a political and ideological reassessment. By the standards of the Islamic Republic, this was an unprecedented reproach of Khomeini and his radical allies. Montazeri’s revelation and criticisms of the guardian jurist predictably further enraged Khomeini and vexed his associates, among them Sayyid ‘Ali Khamenei, president of the Islamic Republic since 1981 and soon to be Supreme Leader of the Republic. An enforcer of Khomeini’s whims and wishes, and the chief implementer of Khomeini’s war strategy, he appeared to have been instrumental in staging the last scene of the anti-Montazeri coup de grace.

The Council of Experts, entirely peopled by ranking mullahs loyal to Khomeini, had already begun revisiting the qualifications for the guardian jurist in the Islamic Republic’s constitution while contemplating the choice of the next leader. By March 1989, when Khomeini openly disowned Montazeri, his once-close comrade, it was more for public consumption than to alert the Council of Experts of Montazeri’s undesirability. In March 28, 1989, two days after a taunting speech by Khomeini, Montazeri quietly resigned. He also accepted with dignity the restrictions placed on him by the regime for the following two decades of his life. Residing in his house in Qom, he continued teaching a small circle of students and gave occasional interviews before his statements subjected him to house arrest and a complete ban on interviews. Not long afterward, he was erased (not unlike in the Soviet Union of the Stalin era) entirely from public view and the official revolutionary narrative.

During Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997–2005), his house arrest was partially relaxed, though he remained an outsider deprived of public speeches, travel, and publication of any political statement. Contesting the restrictions despite his ailments, he expressed views and issued opinions antithetical to some repressive polices of the regime and reflective of his moderating outlook. His reissuance of a fatwa in May 2008 in response to renewed persecutions of Baha’is of Iran reflected Montazeri’s courageous stance. The members of the “Baha’i sect,” he stressed, “don’t have a divine scripture” and are not “considered a religious minority, but since they are citizens of this country, they have indigenous rights [haqq-e ab va gel] and are entitled to rights of citizenship. Moreover, they should benefit from Islamic compassion as emphasized in the Qur’an and by guardians of [our] faith.”7 His death in December 19, 2009, stirred much public sympathy in Tehran, Qom, Isfahan, and elsewhere. Coming in the aftermath of the June 2009 Green Movement, the regime imposed a near-total ban on any commemorative gathering.

Montazeri’s fall was the last of the purges of Khomeini’s era and emblematic of the Islamic Republic’s relentless quest for regimented uniformity. That the clerical establishment, with few exceptions, rallied behind Khomeini on this issue, was not merely due to a climate of coercion and a demand for total loyalty. The ruling clergy was also responsible for trading its customary judicial and academic autonomy in exchange for new privileges under the republic’s hierarchy. They took advantage of the opportunity to monopolize political power and solidify privileges at the price of depreciating ejtehad as a tool of judicial independence. Slavish subservience to welayat-e faqih superseded even the authority of marja‘iyat.


On June 3, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini died of terminal cancer at the age of eighty-seven. His funeral brought hundreds of thousands of mourners into the streets of the capital along the road to his burial place fifteen miles south of Tehran on the road to Qom. A memorable event in the calendar of the Islamic Revolution, crowds of mourners were comparable in size only to Khomeini’s reception upon arrival from exile a decade earlier. The two events in effect marked the beginning and the end of the first phase of the Islamic Revolution during which Khomeini’s leadership was central and enduring.

The mourners, spontaneous in their emotions and visibly overcome with grief, brought the funeral to a standstill, broke through the procession, and struggled to reach the casket and touch Khomeini’s shroud. The pandemonium that followed long delayed the interment. The outpouring of emotions carried an underlying message. It was as if the public were not only mourning the loss of the Imam but also burying with Khomeini’s remains the revolutionary passions that had motivated a generation, brought people into the streets, and forever transformed Iranian society. It was a subtle message from an exhausted public to leave behind protest rallies and sacrifice in the battlefield and move ahead toward greater normalcy.

Even Khomeini’s mausoleum, hastily designed and hurriedly built, seemed to carry a message of finality. The gilded dome, minarets, the inner structure (zarih), and the niche (mehrab) clearly called for a return to the sacred Shi‘i past. At the terminus of a Tehran underground line, the “Imam’s Mausoleum” seemed to emphasize, symbolically, an end point along the revolution’s mental itinerary. The building in effect beatifies Khomeini in a space meant to be superior to the nearby Shah ‘Abd al-‘Azim shrine and on par with such sites as the shrines of Qom and even Mashhad. It also was a symbolic reference, albeit in reverse, to the demolished Reza Shah mausoleum that had once been located not far away.

The inscription above an entrance to the interior of the mausoleum carries a short passage from Khomeini’s “political-divine testament.” It assures visitors:” By God’s grace, it is with a serene soul, a confident heart, an elated spirit and a hopeful conscience that I now bid farewell to my sisters and brothers and travel to my eternal resting place.”8 It is quite remarkable that being for a decade at the helm of a ferocious course of events that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the battlefields, in prisons, and on the streets, the guardian jurist of the revolution could still entertain such cheerful aspirations.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to say that by 1989 the charismatic phase of the revolution had decidedly come to an end. During the decade under Khomeini, the revolution effectively dismantled not only the Pahlavi political and technocratic elites but also a large sector of the Pahlavi middle classes. During the same period, the new regime effectively suppressed competing sources of dissent, from the radical left to liberals and clerical moderates, and regional and ethnic resistance. Despite serious setbacks, it also managed to deter a formidable aggressor in neighboring Iraq while taking on a superpower, the United States, in an egregious, though largely symbolic, contest. Through the hostage crisis and war with Iraq, and a host of other challenges, the Islamic Republic under Khomeini solidified its base and created political and security institutions to preserve its economic and financial monopolies.

Like a host of twentieth-century revolutionary leaders, from Lenin and Mao to Ho Chi Minh, and possibly even Gandhi, Khomeini was crucial in the shaping of a mass revolution. His prophetic acumen, however, neither entirely replicated the revolutionary and messianic examples of the past nor was a mere by-product of modern ideologies and their postcolonial reverberations. He relied instead on a normative Islam and the clerical establishment that represented it. Ruthless and resolute, he successfully transformed the shari‘a-based clerical establishment into a powerful tool to mobilize the less-privileged sectors of society without ever fully breaking from traditional Islamic values or offering a coherent program of socioeconomic and cultural change. His fascination with an idealized and largely ahistorical “true Islam,” though not entirely devoid of elements of modernity, remained by and large regressive in its outlook and conduct.

Khomeini’s most tangible and enduring contribution, however, was his success in putting into practice the long-speculated-on idea of political Islam. The Islamic republic that he helped found was the first to emerge out of an ideological revolution, something that perhaps could emerge only in Shi‘i Iran. Yet as a militant and a revolutionary promoting the paradigm of an Islamic state, Khomeini’s influence has been well evident throughout the Muslim world since the 1980s. In that regard at least, in modern times no other Muslim thinker, activist, or revolutionary can match his record. Irrespective of their brand of Islamic activism, it can be argued that none of the modern Muslim thinkers and revolutionaries, from Mohammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century to Jamal al-Din Asadabadi and Mohammad ‘Abdu in the nineteenth century to Rashid Rida, Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Abul-‘Ala Mawdudi in the twentieth century, are comparable to Khomeini insofar as their regional or global impact.

At least three characteristics qualify the Islamic Revolution as a major revolutionary movement in modern times. First, it was based on mass mobilization and large-scale popular participation. It was unprecedented not only in Middle East history but also in the sheer number of participants—perhaps one of the largest in modern history. The revolutionary movement was comprehensive and decisive in ousting the old political order and dismantling its associated political and economic elites. Second, in a remarkably short time, the Islamic Revolution managed to establish a new political order, nurture a new sociopolitical elite, and institutionalize its hierocracy despite serious domestic and external challenges. The incipient Islamic Republic violently surpassed all other real or potential contenders. In this respect it demonstrated a consistent drive toward greater monopoly of power. This was in common with most totalitarian regimes intolerant of dissent even within their own ranks. War in particular greatly contributed to the Islamic Republic’s grassroots support as much as to its ability to crush its opposition. Third, the Islamic Revolution offered a cultural program that included a curious mix of hard-line conservatism, anti-imperialist rhetoric, selective modernity, and conscious antisecularism. In practice, it showed no hesitation in employing modern means of repression, control, and propaganda. Nor did it show hesitation to adopt modern programs of economic development and social welfare, so long they could be safely Islamicized. In this respect, too, despite many signs of anachronism, the Islamic Republic put into practice a program of social engineering with enduring results.

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