The Charismatic Leadership of Iran’s Revolution

Mural in Qom depicting Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei (David Stanley via Flickr)

by Gareth Smyth

The mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini just south of Tehran has a vast outside area for rallies on notable days, but inside the atmosphere is more one of reverence, with people quietly praying. Likewise, the house in Khomein—200 kilometers north-west of Esfahan—where Khomeini grew up until he left at 17 for the seminary in Arak, is a place of spiritual pilgrimage for many Iranians.

Acres of newsprint and webspace devoted this month to the fortieth anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Revolution have contained surprisingly little about its leader. Yet Khomeini and his legacy are as important to the Islamic Republic as was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to the Soviet Union.

Both men spent years in exile. Both then ruled for a relatively short period of time—10 years for Khomeini, six for Lenin. Both mixed a belief in the international character of the revolution they led with a sense of Slavic or Iranian nationalism. Both combined a deep ideological worldview—Lenin’s atheistic Marxism and Khomeini’s Shia Islam—with a talent or instinct for pragmatism.

In 1964, American historian Bertram D. Wolfe wrote about Lenin in a way that might apply equally well to Khomeini:

In practical politics Lenin was too much a realist to rely on scholastic exegetics for the real outlines of his solutions. Sometimes the citations suggested a fertile line of thought; more often his line of thought suggested relevant quotations to lend authority to his decisions… [Lenin] was a flexible tactician, a steersman changing the course of his skiff with every hidden rock and every twist and turn in the rapids…This flexible inflexibility…did not spring from hypocrisy or arrogance or lust for power. It sprang from the unshakable conviction of his own rightness.

Khomeini likewise adjusted the tiller.

Khomenei’s Innovations

In 1953, when a CIA-backed coup overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh after he attempted to nationalize oil, Khomeini supported Fedayan-e Islam, a militant Islamist group that opposed Mossadegh. But he was also close to Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Borujerdi, Iran’s leading marja al-taqlid, or preeminent Shia cleric, who remained suspicious of politics up to his death in 1961.

Khomeini’s notion of vilayet-e faqih (“governorship of the jurist”), developed in lectures in Najaf in 1969-70 that reached Iran on cassette tapes, envisaged the marja al-taqlid or a group of leading clerics overseeing the state. Yet, in 1989, Khomeini backed a constitutional amendment that allowed a relatively lowly cleric, Ali Khamenei, to succeed him as supreme leader.

Khomeini’s whole notion of vilayet-e faqih was an innovation in Shia thought within a tradition of wrestling over how mankind should govern itself until the return of the twelfth Iman, the tenth-century Shia leader whom the faithful believe will one day reappear from occultation. In his biography of Khomeini, Baqer Moin dramatizes Khomeini’s return to Iran on February 1, 1979, 16 days after the departure of the shah, as a moment where his charisma propelled him from exile to a figure who shaped the country’s destiny.

The atmosphere was frenzied. As soon as Khomeini stepped off the plane, flanked by fawning admirers and helped by a steward, the cry of Allahu Akbar went up. The chant “Khomeini, O Imam,” which had become standard revolutionary ritual in Neauphle-le-Chateau, was sung by schoolchildren to welcome him, almost drowned by shouts of “Khomeini, O Iman, we salute you, peace be upon you.” A personality cult was in the making; overnight Khomeini had been transformed into a semi-divine figure. He was no longer a grand ayatollah and deputy of the Imam, one who represents the Hidden Imam, but simply “the Imam.” In Arabic the term ‘Imam’ is used to describe a leader or prayer leader, but in Shi’i Iran, where the title was reserved for the twelve infallible leaders of the early Shi’a, among ordinary people it carried awe-inspiring connotations. In encouraging its use, some of Khomeini’s supporters clearly wanted to exploit popular religious feelings and to imply that he was the long-awaited Hidden Imam. The senior traditional clergy never accepted this title. As for the revolutionary clergy, the more scrupulous among them believed that they were merely adopting a practice which had developed among Arab Shi’a ….

Khomeini’s journey that day from the airport to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, where protestors slain by the Shah’s security forces were buried, was slowed down, writes Moin, by “the sheer size of the crowd, estimated at several million.” Mourners at Khomeini’s funeral, 12 years later, would be even more numerous.

Citing the Imam

Long after Lenin’s death in 1924, Communists not only queued to visit his embalmed corpse in Red Square but quoted his words as quasi-sacred texts to justify this or that course of action. Trotskyists cited Lenin’s “last testament” warning that Stalin was “rude” and should be removed as the Party’s general-secretary. In his 1926 Problems of Leninism, Stalin quoted passages from Lenin criticizing Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution”.

Likewise, in Iran’s Islamic Republic various factions have quoted Khomeini to justify their approach.  For some conservatives, republicanism is almost incidental. Mohsen Gharavian, a leading student of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, told me in 2006:

The basis of a republic is people’s votes and people’s demands and views. However, in an Islamic state the basis is God’s rulings which are defined by jurisprudents and ulema [religious scholars/clerics]. Then people fulfill allegiance with the state which will be based on God’s rulings. Of course, when we talk about a republic, we may define it from the Western point of view. In Islam, a republic and the state are the same, because people are religious and accept God’s rulings and vote for them. 

Reformists, by contrast, put great weight on Khomeini’s statements on republicanism and elections. Many of the Students Following the Line of the Imam who seized American embassy hostages in 1979, including spokeswoman Massoumeh Ebtekar, have become leading advocates of reform.

Such divisions extend to international relations. By 2000, Ebtekar referred to “misunderstanding and incomprehension that the embassy takeover revealed.” When President Mohammad Khatami called for a ‘dialogue among civilizations’, conservatives highlighted Khomeini’s warnings over colonialists and their conspiracies. But a recent radio documentary from the BBC’s Jim Muir marking the Revolution’s fortieth anniversary highlights Khomeini’s authorizing, while still in exile in France, talks between a leading member of his entourage and an American diplomat in Paris.

In a perceptive book Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran, published in 2002, Mehdi Moslem, an Iraq-born Iranian scholar, argued that in contrast to the Russian and Chinese revolutions “the ideological difference and bickering among pro-Khomeini forces has progressively increased rather than abating throughout the post-revolutionary years.” Although the various factions, wrote Moslem, pushed different interpretations of a “religiously sanctioned Islamic state,” none could claim definitive endorsement from Khomeini who by “oscillating and changing his views on major issues during the ten years of his leadership…[had] offered differing and at times conflicting readings on what constitutes a ‘true’ Islamic Republic.”

Charismatic Authority

But no one has approached the charisma of Khomeini. With Khamenei as leader after 1989 the institution of vilayet-e faqih had to change, as Mohsen Milani wrote in 1994:

The new faqih has neither Khomeini’s phenomenal popularity nor his religious credentials. Khomeini, a unique product of unique historical circumstances, is simply irreplaceable. It was Khomeini who made the institution of Velayat-e Faqih powerful, not the other way round. His immense power was not based on the constitution, as Khamenei’s is, but on his charismatic leadership, his status as a marja, and his undisputed role as the leader of the Islamic Revolution

Max Weber, the German sociologist credited with first analyzing charismatic leadership, identified a number of means for succession. In Weber’s terms, Khamenei’s rise to the leadership was a mixture of designation by the original leader, designation by qualified staff (the Assembly of Experts, the elected clerical body constitutionally charged with choosing a leader), and “office charisma,” a kind of sanctification or consecration.

Many analysts have contrasted Khomeini’s charismatic leadership with today when, writes Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, “power in Iran is professionalised, sober and pragmatic.” Many leading clerics feel free to criticize Khamenei: Adib-Moghaddam cites Ayatollah Ali-Mohammad Dastgheyb who, in 2009, wrote to other senior clerics denying that any supreme leader was designated by God and calling for the curtailment of Khamenei’s powers since he was not a marja-e taqlid.

While Khomeini oversaw Iranian politics sitting on a carpet in Qom, Khamenei has vastly expanded the leader’s office in Tehran as the center of a vast web reaching into the provinces, the clerical establishment, the armed forces, and the government. Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of politics at Syracuse University in New York, tells me that after nearly 30 years as supreme leader Khamenei is a “micro-manager with an intri­cate knowledge” of Iranian poli­tics. “Khamenei had big shoes to fill replacing Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. He overcame being a junior cleric by becoming an insti­tution builder.”

The choice of a successor to Khamenei, now 79, will lie, just as it did in 1989, with the Assembly of Experts, whose 88 current members face re-election in 2022. Neither of the two men commonly seen as frontrunners—Ebrahim Raiesi, head of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, and Sadegh Larijani, the current judiciary chief—is a leading cleric. Nor are they particularly charismatic. How such considerations will weigh with the Assembly’s mainly elderly clerics remains to be seen.

Gareth Smyth, who has reported from the Middle East since 1992, was 2003-7 the chief correspondent of the Financial Times in Iran.

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  1. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (may the almighty be pleased with him) was a genuine leader of Iranian nation. He breathed new life in the Iranian nation which had been under foot of the brutal, terrorist Shah imposed by the outsiders. He brought pride and dignity to the country. May his soul rest in peace and may his legacy continue.

  2. @alimostofi, really? and your friends the Saudi head choppers that want to cannibalize Iran are the good guys? You should be proud because Reza Pahlavi is on the Saudi payroll. Now tell me this, isn’t it you who’s the terrorist?

  3. The first Iranian revolution replaces an absolute monarchy with a constitutional one. This was challenged by spiritual father of Khomeini ‘Sheikh Fazlollah Noori’ who considers the democracy being a weakening tool not only for the monarchy but also the clergical system. However an English supported coup caused to rise of a new dictator and a new artificial kingdom of absolute
    Monarchy. This was against both institutions of constitutionalists and religion. So both started to challenge the new dictatorship. The first push by constitutionalists yielded Mosaddegh government which was again demolished albeit his time with a brand new American coup. So all gathered around the religious-resistance point which was well fitted by Khomeini as only a point of agreement between all spectrums of resistance. This is supported by thet interesting fact that he was never declared as a Marja-Taghlid by any of his contemporary Marja,s and clergical system that considered him too radical. In fact many of his circle like Beheshti, Khamenei and Rafsanjani prooved to be more intelligent and far more pragmatic than him but all undrestood his pivotal role on people’s acceptance and so all preferred to move in his charismatic shadow and still do. This is an overview of the situations that gave him the unprecedented popularity and charisma wave to ride on comfortably. In fact the Khomeini phenomena was the mean of finding back the stolen sovereignty of Iranian people (even though not in a perfect shape) which was deteriorated as a result of a continuous UK and US intervention against Iranian democracy or as Persians name it ”Mashrooteh”.

  4. No reference to khomeini’s reactionary opposition to land reform or voting rights for women or his allowing temporary marriage and stoning to death etc. It is ridiculous to compare him to Lenin — what economic transformation did khomeini lead? None. He invites more comparison to Stalin. Lenin did not have billions in foreign banks as khamenei does. This article lacks balance.

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