by Richard Falk
This piece is crossposted from Global Justice in the 21st Century, the blog of JWE Board Member Richard Falk.
[Prefatory Note: In February 1979, along with two others, I had a meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini. The post below is an edited text of an interview by two Iranian journalists, Maryam Khormaei & Javad Heiran-Nia, which was published a few weeks ago in Iran. As few Westerners had such an opportunity to meet the leader of the Iranian Revolution in a relatively relaxed atmosphere and for an ample length of time, there seemed interest in Iran and elsewhere in my recollections of that meeting. At the time, it was one of the first extended discussions with this mysterious individual who led the revolution from exile, first from Najaf, Iraq, and during its final stages from Paris. One cannot help but wonder about what this religious leader would say of Iran, the world around him, given the passage of more than 40 turbulent years.
It seems his leadership in the early post-Shah period set the Islamic tone for Iranian political life and established a theocratic structure that has persisted for four decades, despite periodic protests, yet achieving durability even in the face of persistent efforts to destabilize the government, accompanied by coercive steps taken by its regional and global adversaries to promote regime change. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States have continuously confronted Iran, imposing sanctions and threatening military action. Efforts of the West overtly focused on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and this goal seemed well within reached as a result of energetic diplomatic efforts during the Obama presidency.
Since Trump became President in 2017 progress toward normalization has ended, and been sharply reversed. Tensions have steadily mounted after the U.S. withdrew from the agreement and Iran gradually discontinued compliance with the breached treaty. As of now, the danger of war cannot be ruled out. I doubt that the situation would be much different if the Supreme Guide of Iran was still Imam Khomeini rather than his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The nuclear proliferation issue is not the only concern of Iran adversaries. Iran’s additional influence in the region and indeed the persistence of an anti-Western outlook in Tehran have kept burning the fires of confrontation.]
Interview on Prof. Falk’s February 1979 Meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Question 1: Toward the climax of Iran’s Islamic revolution, as a member of an American delegation, you visited Iran. What were the objectives of that trip?
Response: I was chair of a small committee in the United States with the name, “Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Iran,” which sponsored events with Iranian students and arranged university speaking visits for some prominent Iranian political figures living in the United States. Our efforts became active within university settings as the revolutionary movement in Iran gathered momentum during 1978.
The Committee had almost no funding, but had dedicated members, and achieved a certain visibility as there was so little attention being given to these historic developments in Iran unfolding with increasing intensity as the months passed. The treatment of these issues in the Western mainstream media was not only mostly very pro-Shah but also quite uninformative, and even uninformed, and minimized the political challenge being posed by this popular uprising.
It was in this context that I received as chair of the Committee an invitation from Mehdi Bazargan to visit Iran as part of a delegation of three persons for a period of two weeks. I was also invited to find two other persons to form the delegation. The stated purpose of the visit was to convey to selected Americans a better understanding of the revolution underway. I felt that it was important to accept this invitation precisely for the reasons given in the letter of invitation. Our objective, then, was to achieve a clearer understanding of the nature and objectives of the revolutionary movement in Iran, and do our best after returning to share the experience and our impressions as widely as possible, and this is what we did.
In this spirit I tried hard to find two persons who would benefit from such a visit, possessed an open mind toward the challenge being posed to imperial rule in Iran, and had some access to and credibility with media and influential audiences back in the United States. My first two choices both agreed without hesitation or conditions to join the delegation. Ramsey Clark was my first choice. He had been prominent in government, having been Attorney General, was part of a well-known American political family, and had quite recently even been considered as a possible Democratic candidate for the American presidency. Besides being extremely intelligent, Ramsey had a high profile that generated media attention and he had a well-deserved reputation for courage and integrity, quietly telling America unpleasant and inconvenient truths without mincing his words.
My second choice was Philip Luce, a prominent religious activist who achieved world fame by his public acts of civil opposition to the Vietnam War. Phil gained widespread notice in the late 1960s when he evaded official protocol to show a visiting group of American Congressmen ‘the tiger cages’ in a Saigon jail used by the government to torture political prisoners. Like Ramsey, Phil was a person of unquestioned integrity, and fearless in searching for the truth in controversial political settings.
The three of us made the trip without deep prior personal associations, although we had known and respectd each other and were friendly, having cooperated several times in the past on anti-war political projects. During the somewhat arduous trip to a country in the midst of a popular revolution, we got along very well, and enjoyed each other’s company, despite the extremely tense times we experienced in Iran. We also cooperated in sharing our impressions subsequent to the trip.
Question 2: How different was what you witnessed in Iran from the US media narratives about the Iranian revolution’s character?
Response: The differences were dramatic, and rather disturbing. The US media conveyed very little understanding of the character of the movement in Iran, and was perplexed by its strength and outlook. At the time, the Shah’s government was a close ally of the United States in the midst of the Cold War, and Iran’s strategic location with respect to the Soviet Union made it very important to Washington to keep the Shah’s regime in control of the country. As well, the US Government, having played an important role by way of covert intervention in the 1953 coup that restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne displacing a democratically elected leader, there was a particularly strong commitment made in Washington to doing whatever was necessary to crush this nonviolent mass movement led by a then still rather obscure religious figure living in exile, and portrayed as a remnant of the Middle Ages. It was deemed unthinkable within the United States government that such a seemingly primitive movement of the Iranian people could produce the collapse of the Iranian government that had formidable military and police capabilities at its disposal, possessed a political will to use lethal ammunition against its own people when challenging the government in a series of unarmed demonstrations. The Shah’s government had also gained the geopolitical benefits of a ‘special relationship’ with the most powerful state in the world, and in return was deeply invested in upholding the regional and global interests of the United States. In such a setting Western media was uncritical, reflecting the propaganda and ideological outlook of the government, and was not a source of independent and objective journalism. There was some confusion arising from the fact that Islamic forces had been seen as anti-Marxist and anti-Soviet, and until the Iranian developments, were not seen as a threat to Western interests.
It was in such an atmosphere that we hoped that we could bring some more informed and realistic commentary on the unfolding revolutionary process in Iran, including identifying its special character as neither left nor right, seemingly led by a religious leader who remained virtually unknown in the West. It was even unclear to us at the time of our visit whether Ayatollah Khomeini was the real leader of the movement or only a temporary unifying figurehead, whose political role would end as soon as the Shah was removed from power. We hoped to provide some insight into such questions, as well as to understand whether the new political realities in Iran would produce confrontation or normalization with the United Stats. Was the U.S. now prepared, as it was not in 1953, to live with the politics of self-determination as it operated in Iran or would it seek once more to intervene on behalf of its geopolitical agenda and in support of its political friends?
Indeed, we did have some effect on the quality of Western media coverage of the developments in Iran. Ramsey Clark and myself were invited to do many interviews and asked to describe our impressions of what was happening in Iran by mainstream TV channels and print outlets. As a result, at least until the hostage crisis in the Fall of 1979, discussion of Iran politics became more informed and some useful political debate emerged, at least for a while, on the implications of this Islamic challenge to the entrenched Iranian political and economic leadership.
Question 3: You met the then Prime Minister of Iran Shapour Bakhtiar on the same day when Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran. What was Bakhtiar’s assessment of the developments including Shah’s departure?
Response: We had the impression from our meeting that the Prime Minister was himself uncertain about the situation and his own personal fate. Of course, we met with Mr. Bakhtiar at a tense time, only a very few hours after the Shah was reported on the radio as having abdicated, abandoning his throne by leaving Iran, seeking asylum. Bakhtiar had a reputation. of being hostile to intrusions of religion in the domain of politics, and had a personal identity strongly influenced by French culture along with its very dogmatic version of secularism. When we met, the city of Tehran was in a kind of frenzied mood, with cars blowing their horns in celebration, and posters of Khomeini appearing everywhere. We had trouble maneuvering through the traffic so as to keep our appointment in the official office of the Prime Minister.
We found Mr. Bakhtiar cautious and non-committal, and possibly intimidated, not by us, of course, but by the dozen or so others in the room who were never introduced, and wore clothes associated I our minds with security personnel. We assumed that at least some of these anonymous individuals were from the SAVAK, and maybe explained partly why Bakhtiar seemed so uncomfortable and nervous while talking with us. When we asked his help in arranging a visit to prisoners confined in Evin Prison, he seemed unsure of his authority to deal with our request until he received guidance from one of the official advisers present in the room. After a short, whispered instruction, the Prime Minister told us that a visit could be arranged on the following day so that we could meet with the political prisoners, but that we would not be allowed to enter the part of the prison reserved for common criminals. We were surprised by this manner of imposing a limitation. We had, if anything expected the opposite, permission to meet with the common criminals but not the political prisoners. After being at the prison, we realized why this distinction has been made. The political prisoners seemed treated reasonably well, possibly because regarded as members of a future ruling elite, while the ordinary criminals held no interest for the governing leadership past or present, and were confined to crowded cells often with no windows. Although we only met with political prisoners, we walked through the prison past the cells holding common criminals, with ample opportunity to note how bad were their living conditions.
Overall, we were left with not much clarity about how Bakhtiar viewed the future of his caretaker government. We had no real opinion on whether what he was saying to us with the others in the room was what they wanted him to say, or expressed his real views, or maybe reflected some sort of compromise. Would he be soon replaced, and his own role challenged as unlawful, or even criminal? We had the impression of a frightened bureaucrat lacking in leadership potential, at least under the prevailing revolutionary conditions. Maybe our impressions were distorted by the reality that our visit took place at such a tense and difficult moment of uncertainty, which soon turned out to be transformative for the country and its people. As a result, my impressions of this sad and entrapped individual may leave too negative a picture of his political character. A day or two earlier or later might have produced a quite different set of impressions.
Q: What was the Central Intelligence Agency’s assessment of the Iranian revolution’s developments? Did CIA have a lucid exact assessment of the revolutionary forces and Iran’s future political system?
Response: As far as we could tell, we had no direct contact with the CIA, but did meet with the American ambassador to Iran at the time, William Sullivan, who despite being a diplomat had a counterinsurgency background with a militarist reputation. He gave us a briefing that was much more illuminating as to Iranian developments than was our meeting with the Prime Minister a few days earlier. Sullivan acknowledged that the U.S. was caught off guard by both the character and the strength of the movement, and was struggling to keep up with events. He told us that the Embassy had previously constructed no less than 26 scenarios of political developments that might threaten the Shah’s leadership, but not one was concerned about a threat to the established order mounted by an Islamically oriented opposition. The American preoccupation, reflecting Cold War priorities, limited its concerns to containing the Marxist and Soviet-oriented left, and the belief that to the extent there was a political side to Islam it was aligned with the West, sharing its anti-Communist agenda as seemed evident in the setting of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
Somewhat to our surprise, Sullivan spoke of his acute frustrations in dealing with the Carter presidency, especially with the National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who he claimed to be unwilling to accept the finality of the Shah’s loss of power or of the outcome of the revolutionary movement. Sullivan told us that he advocated coming to terms with the emerging new realities as representing America’s national interests, but he spoke very clearly of the resistance to this view at the White House. Sullivan partly attributed this stubbornness to the influence of the Iranian ambassador on. Brzezinski, a view later confirmed to me by frustrated State Department officials.
Q: What were the issues discussed at a meeting you had in Neauphle-le Chateau with the late Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini and how would you describe his personality?
Response: We met for a long time, maybe three hours, and covered many issues. During the conversation, after some rather long introductions on our sides about our experiences in Iran, we listened and responded to concerns expressed by Ayatollah Khomeini. After that we posed a series of questions. I will mention here a few topics discussed that have a lasting interest.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s initial preoccupation and understandable concern was whether the U.S. Government would try to repeat the intervention of 1953 or would be prepared to live with the outcome of the revolution. Of course, we were not in a position to give anything other than a guess. We did think there was less disposition by the U.S. to intervene than 25 years earlier, given the lingering sense of failure associated with the Vietnamese intervention. At the same time, we realized the strategic importance attached to keeping Iran allied to the U.S. in Cold War contexts and of the personal as well as ideological closeness between Carter and the Shah, especially after the Carter family spent New Year’s Eve in Tehran as the Shah’s guest in 1978, and Carter made his famous toast about the Shah being surrounded by the love of his people.
Ayatollah Khomeini was also concerned about whether the military contracts with the United States would be fulfilled now that there would be a change of government in Iran. This line of questioning gave us a sense that Ayatollah Khomeini had a rather practical turn of mind, and followed rather obscure policy issues closely.
At the same time, this victorious leader volunteered the view that he hoped that soon he would be able to resume his religious life, and explained his intention to take up residence in Qom rather than Tehran, which seemed consistent with such an intention. Ayatollah Khomeini told us that he has reluctantly entered politics because in his words ‘there was a river of blood between the Shah and the people.’
When we asked about his hopes for the revolutionary government, this religious leader made clear that he viewed the revolution as an Islamic rather than an Iranian occurrence, that is, a civilizational rather than a national triumph. He stressed this interpretative perspective, but without any sectarian overtones. He did go on to say that he felt that the basic community for all people in the Islamic world was civilizational and religious, and not national and territorial. Ayatollah Khomeini explained in ways I subsequently heard from others in Iran and elsewhere, that territorial sovereign states built around national identity did not form a natural community in the Middle East the way they did in Europe.
Ayatollah Khomeini also made clear to us that he viewed the Saudi monarchy was as decadent and cruel to the people as was the Shah, and deserved to face the same fate. He felt that dynastic rule had no legitimate role in Islamic societies.
We also asked about the fate of Jews and Bahais in the emergent Islamic Republic of Iran, aware of the close working relationships of these two minorities with the Shah’s governing structure. We found the response significant. He expressed the opinion that Judaism was ‘a genuine religion’ and if Jews do not get wrongly involved in supporting Israel, they would be fine in Iran. His words on this, as I recall them, were ‘Judaism is a genuine religion, and it would be a tragedy for us if they left.’ He viewed Bahais differently because of their worship of a prophet after Mohammad, leading him to adopt the view that Bahais were members of ‘a sect’ and did not belong to ‘a true religion,’ and thus adherents of the Bahai faith would not be welcome in the new Iran. Afterwards, I learned that Ayatollah Khomeini intervened to oppose and prevent genocidal moves being advocated in relation to the Bahai minority living in Iran, but I have no confirmation of this.
Q: What was the last US Ambassador to Iran William Sullivan’s mission? He is known to be an anti-riot man. Did he give any intellectual help to Iran military or SAVAK (the secret police, domestic security and intelligence service in Iran during the reign of the Pahlavi)?
Response: Of course, Sullivan never would tell us about his covert activities, nor did we ask. He had the reputation of being ‘a counterinsurgency diplomat’ as he had served in Laos as an ambassador during the Vietnam War. It was at a time that the embassy was being used to take part in a Laotian internal war that included directing US bombing strikes against rebel forces.
With this knowledge, I was invited to testify in the U.S. Senate to oppose Siullivan’s confirmation a year or so earlier. Unfortunately, my testimony did not prevent him from being confirmed as ambassador to Iran, although several senators at the time indicated to me privately their agreement with my testimony, but were unwilling to oppose President Carter’s choice so early in his presidency. When in Iran I urged the meeting, and Ramsey Clark was skeptical at first, saying that he had had an unpleasant encounter with Sullivan some years earlier. I convinced Ramsey that the credibility of our trip would be compromised if we made no effort to get the viewpoint of the American Embassy. We did make an appointment, Sullivan’s first words as we entered were “I know Professor Falk thinks I am a war criminal..” Yet he welcomed us, and talked openly and at length about the situation and his efforts to get Washington to accept what had happened in Iran. In retrospect, I think he hoped we would be a vehicle for making his views more publicly known.
He made the point that there were no social forces ready to fight to keep the Shah in power. The business community, or national private sector, was alienated by the Shah’s reliance on international capital to fulfill the ambitious state development plans, the so-called ‘White Revolution.’ The armed forces were also not favorable enough to the throne to fight on its behalf, complaining that the Shah’s abiding fear of a coup being mounted against him, created distrust of his own military commanders, and led him to frequently shuffle the leadership in the armed forces. This resulted in a low level of loyalty, and helps explain why the military watched the political transformation take place without showing any pronounced willingness to intervene, despite being nudged toward aggressive action against the movement, especially in the context of a provocative visit by an American NATO general at the height of the revolutionary ferment. The general was widely reported to be exploring whether it was plausible to encourage the Iranian military to defend the established order.
We also asked about what would happen to the surviving leaders from the Shah’s government who had been accused of crimes against the Iranian people. Ayatollah Khomeini responded by saying that he expected that what he called ‘Nuremberg Trials’ would be organized to hold accountable leading figures from the fallen government, and some from bureaucratic backgrounds, including SAVAK officials. We wondered why this plan was not later followed, and why those from the Shah’s regime accused were often executed after summary, secret trials. We knew that some of those who had led the revolution had received support from the CIA during their period as students overseas or even when serving as mosque officials, which would be damaging and confusing if made public at a time of transition in the governing process and an accompanying anti-American atmosphere. It is important to remember that until the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Western intelligence assumed that the anti-Marxist approach of those of devout Islamic faith would make all religiously oriented personalities strong allies of Western anti-Communism, a view that persisted to some extent until after the Afghanistan resistance to Soviet intervention which was headed by Islamic forces, and was only decisively shattered by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the United States.
Q: Why did the liberal–Islamist groups fail to secure the support of Ayatollah Khomeini at the end of the day?
Response: It is difficult for an outsider like myself to comment on the internal politics in such a revolutionary period. The situation in Iran was still fluid, and worries about a counterrevolutionary coup to bring the Shah back to his throne a second time were widespread and understandable. Added to this, the change in Iran came so quickly. Several secular personalities of liberal persuasion told us that ‘the revolution happened too quickly. We were not ready.’
Ayatollah Khomeini while still in Paris, seemed originally to believe that liberal Islamically oriented bureaucrats would be needed to run the government on a day to day basis. He may have envisioned a governing process relying on technical experts, especially to achieve good economic policies and results that he thought necessary to keep the support of the Iranian masses. Such expectations seem to be not entirely consistent with the vison of Islamic Government set forth in his published lectures, available to us in English, that were written while he was living as an exile in Iraq. His insistent theme in that text was to adopt the view that a government consistent with Islamic values could not be reliably established on democratic principles without being subject to unelected religious guidance from top Islamic clerical scholars as the source of highest political authority.
We also were aware of several other explanations for this about face on the governing process. Some in Iran believed that Ayatollah Khomeini only discovered his political popularity after he returned to the country, and this made him believe he had a mandate to impose a system of government that reflected his ideas. Others offered the opinion that he became convinced by his entourage of advisors that the revolutionary spirit and agenda was being lost by the liberals, and hence were urging him to take direct and visible charge of the government to protect the Islamic spirit and substance of the revolutionary movement. And finally, there arose the view that the liberals were given a chance, and their performance disappointed Ayatollah Khomeini, leading him to reenter politics and move to Tehran to lead the country. As far as I know, this story of transition from the Pahlavi Era to the Islamic Republic remains veiled in mystery and controversy. Hopefully, before long the mystery will disappear with the appearance of more authoritative accounts of what transpired after the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran.
What we do know is that what was established in this transition period has survived for more than 40 years despite being faced with threats, provocations, harsh sanctions, and even a variety of covert interventions intending destabilization. Arguably, Iran has been as stable as any country in the region, and more stable than most. This is impressive, although it does not overcome some criticisms directed at violations of basic human rights of people in Iran and its own regional expansionism.