Giant posters of Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s first supreme leader, cover the plazas of Tehran. Despite being dead for two decades, Khomeini continues to dominate his country’s political landscape. Con Coughlin’s Khomeini’s Ghost seeks to explore the nature of the Ayatollah’s influence. But just as the ubiquitous images tell us little about the places where they now hang, Khomeini’s Ghost fails to capture the contemporary complexities of the country the Ayatollah once ruled.
Khomeini’s persona can only be understood in juxtaposition with that of his predecessor. Mohammad RezƒÅ ShƒÅh Pahlavi, who reigned over Iran until 1979, was widely considered a puppet of the West. The brutal Shah lived lavishly: he once imported 165 chefs from Paris in order to prepare plates for a week-long party, which went down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest state banquet ever. But the playboy Shah was also a reformer of sorts. His “White Revolution” sought to break up the landholdings of the Shia clergy, extend suffrage to women, establish legal equality between husband and wife and permit minorities to hold office.
Khomeini was the Shah’s opposite. A serious scholar who spent much of his life in a seminary, Khomeini was one of Iran’s foremost experts on Islamic law and jurisprudence. He rose to prominence as a vehement critic of the White Revolution, seeing it as a blatant attempt to eradicate Islam from Iranian society and to forcibly install a Western order. Khomeini cast Islam as a radical religion that represented the rights of the downtrodden. Publicly, he focused on the social and economic aspects of his plan—not on the fact that it meant rule by Islamic jurists. By 1979, Khomeini’s rhetoric and charisma had captured the anti-imperialist, traditionalist and nationalist sentiments of the Iranian people and created a broad base of support for his his uprising.
Among those supporters was a small fundamentalist group called the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam Khomeini’s Line. In November 1979, a month before Khomeini became Iran’s supreme leader, the Muslim Student Followers laid siege to the US embassy compound in Tehran and seized 52 hostages. Despite their name, the hostage-takers were not following orders from Khomeini. Privately, Khomeini expressed distress once the operation had been carried out, concerned that off-shoot supporters of the Islamic revolution might undermine the authority of the new government. However, Khomeini soon noticed that the siege was tapping into ordinary Iranians’ anti-imperialist sentiments and their thirst for revenge against their former political “colonisers”. Coughlin notes that the siege served another practical purpose for Khomeini as well: the Ayatollah used it to separate the moderate supporters of the revolution, who had only reluctantly helped him reach power, from the true Islamic faithful.
Coughlin chronicles how the ideological and pragmatic dimensions of the Ayatollah’s programme converged during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. Khomeini sought to unite the Shia majority in Iraq with the Islamic revolution in Iran, and to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s secular, Arab nationalist Ba’athist government. But Khomeini’s support for the war also stemmed from the more realist apprehension that Saddam would re-invade Iran if given the opportunity. Khomeini believed that Iran’s best defence against a reinvasion was to topple Saddam’s regime—or at least force a defeat so that Iran could impose significant financial reparations and military sanctions on its neighbour to the West.
Unfortunately, Coughlin lapses into a simplistic analysis when he examines Khomeini’s living legacy. Coughlin interprets Iran’s support for Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and various (sometimes opposing) insurgency movements in Iraq as nothing more than an extension of Khomeini’s revolutionary drive. Iran’s support for terrorism, according to Coughlin, is part of Khomeini’s desire to confront the US and Israel on all fronts. Likewise, Coughlin explains Iran’s current pursuit of nuclear weapons as yet another piece of Khomeini’s vision to fight a Cold War-style struggle—with Islam replacing communism in combat with the capitalist West.
Coughlin ignores two alternative explanations of Iran’s sponsorship of international terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The first explanation is that the Iranian regime uses foreign policy to rally waning support amongst Iranians at home. In assisting terrorist organisations, the Iranian regime depicts itself as a defender of causes with which many ordinary Iranians sympathise, such as the plight of the Palestinian people and the outrage over the American invasion of Iraq. Likewise Iran’s confrontational stance over its nuclear programme helps create the perception amongst Iranians that the Western powers, especially the US, impose double standards on Iran, denying Iran weapons which the US itself has.
The second explanation is that Iran uses foreign policy as a bargaining chip with the West. In this consideration, Khomeini’s heirs do not necessarily seek to defeat the US and Israel on all fronts. Rather, Iran’s leaders hope to use the issues of terrorism and Iraq as ways to win concessions for other objectives, such as securing a nuclear weapon. Essentially, Iran wants something from Israel and the US—not to wipe these adversaries off the map.
Just as Coughlin’s accounts of the hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq war consider Khomeini’s pragmatic as well as ideological sides, an investigation into Iranian foreign policy today must take these multiple dimensions into account. In its omission of these rival interpretations, Khomeini’s Ghost offers nothing more than an interesting biography of Khomeini—but one whose analysis is as flat as the massive paintings that plaster the walls of Tehran.
Navid Pourghazi is reading for an MPhil in Political Theory at Balliol College, Oxford.