The day that changed Iran forever

In this combo image, a young Iranian boy, dressed in an army suit, waves a picture of Khomeini during a rally outside the US embassy in 1979 after Islamic students took 50 US diplomats hostage (left frame). Right frame shows Iranians gathered in Tehran to welcome Khomeini’s return from exile. (AFP & Getty Images / file photos)
Updated 12 February 2019
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The day that changed Iran forever

  • Forty years ago, Khomeini took power on a platform of false promises
  • The politicization of Islam had repercussions for the entire Islamic world

DUBAI: Forty years ago, on Feb. 11, 1979, as the remnants of the last shah’s regime collapsed, the hardline Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, a revolution that altered the lives of millions of Iranians and had lasting repercussions for the Islamic world.

Ten days after returning to Tehran from his 15-year exile, the spiritual and political leader of Iran’s traditionalist Muslims was welcomed by millions on the capital’s streets, but it wasn’t long before public feeling towards Khomeini and his ruling band of clerics changed for good.

“You had a massive popular revolution, and in the early days of the takeover he was certainly not only charismatic but also loved by many,” said Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“But to judge him correctly, that love and recognition was essentially based on false promises that he made to those people. He never really told them what his agenda was, and it took a couple of years for Iranians to realize what this new idea of the Islamic republic meant in practice, and how it changed their lives socially, politically and economically.”

Khomeini quickly shifted from being a popular figure who promised to introduce democracy to Iran’s biggest tyrant. “At no point in history since the arrival of Islam has the religion been as damaged as by what Khomeini and his people have done for
40 years,” Vatanka said. “They set in motion a political process where they politicized Islam and, when they did that, all the policies they implemented that failed were, in turn, also blamed by the people on the religion.”

Much of what is wrong with today’s state of affairs in Iran is because of Khomeini, Vatanka said. “He brought politics into the religious realm and, by doing so, he killed the sacredness of religion. He left it vulnerable to attacks from all corners, and this will be the biggest legacy of the Islamic republic, putting Islam in a whole new light and putting younger generations off.”

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh,  an Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council, agreed that Khomeini’s rise to power had a detrimental effect on the religion. 

“Khomeini significantly changed the traditional Shiite theology, which called for a separation of religion and state,” Rafizadeh explained. “He also influenced the geopolitical, sociopolitical and socioreligious landscapes of the Middle East. More importantly, his imposition of Shiism on Iranian people, paradoxically, reduced religiosity among the next generations.”

Before Khomeini, Rafizadeh said, the clergy were generally respected in Iran as spiritual and holy men. “Khomeini damaged the clergy’s popularity and reputation in society,” he said. “Many Iranian people have a negative view of the Shiite clergy and blame them for the crisis.”

The clerics have enjoyed a long reign. Khomeini held the position of supreme leader until his death in 1989, only to be replaced by the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. “Ultimately, the Islamic republic has been the longest polity in power since the demise of the Qajar dynasty in 1925,” said Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor in global thought and comparative philosophies at the department of politics and international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“Ayatollah Khomeini is not only one of the most important figures of contemporary Iranian history, but also the revolution in Iran has been rightly considered as one of the most pivotal events of the 20th century,” he said. The revolution unhinged one of the most powerful states in the region, as the shah was backed by the US throughout his reign.

Adib-Moghaddam said that Khomeini and his followers managed to monopolize the revolutionary process for their own ends precisely because they refused to compromise.

Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran after 14 years exile on February 1, 1979. (Wikimedia commons)

“We can safely say that the revolution of 1979 will be the last in human history, certainly in terms of the total change that it brought about in the institutional and ideological set-up of the state. Whatever one is inclined to think about the man, Ayatollah Khomeini managed to implement his political agenda against all odds.”

However, Vatanka called Khomeini’s brand of politics a failed model, aimed only at preserving maximum power in the hands of one individual who was not elected by the people but claimed to be democratic.

“Iran would be better off if it didn’t pretend to have elections,” Vatanka said. “Most countries in the Middle East and North Africa don’t have elections, but they are better than those who claim to have elections when they actually don’t.

“The hypocrisy hurts, and the average Iranian sees that — the corruption, the tarnishing of the name of religion and their country, for the sake of a few ideologues running the place.”

Should free elections take place, Vatanka has no doubt the regime would be voted out.

And while the current regime might tinker with the system to reinterpret Khomeini’s legacy, Adib-Moghaddam said it will need full-scale change.

“The democratic aspirations of Iranians have not been met, and the political system in Iran will need to reform more comprehensively at some stage in order to fulfil the original utopia that turned this revolution into a mass movement — the quest for freedom and independence, or as the revolutionaries said: ‘Esteghlal, azadi, Jomhori Eslami (independence, freedom, Islamic republic)’.”

Decoder

Iran's mullah regime

• Iran has had two supreme leaders in its history: Ruhollah Khomeini, who served until his death in 1989, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose life tenure started then. • A supreme leader is considered a head of state, the highest-ranking political and religious authority of Iran. • The supreme leader controls many government bodies, including the armed forces, judicial system, and state television and radio, while acting as a final decision-maker on the amount of transparency in elections, and on matters of the economy, environment, foreign policy, education and national planning. He is considered more powerful than the president. • Supreme leaders are chosen by the clerics who make up the Assembly of Experts. Khomeini was the second-longest serving head of state in the Middle East at the time after Oman’s Sultan Qaboos.


Lebanon’s seabed yields its historic secrets

Updated 3 min 21 sec ago
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Lebanon’s seabed yields its historic secrets

  • Divers find pottery and stone in shipwrecks dating back 2,300 years
  • Discoveries are from Alexander the Great’s siege of Tyre in 332 BC

Forty meters down, on the Mediterranean seabed off the coast of Lebanon, the divers knew they were looking at history.

Among the shipwrecks they investigated this month at 11 sites south of the city of Tyre, they found pottery and stone that had been there for more than 2,300 years.

“The shape of the pottery confirms that it dates back to more than 332 BC,” said the Lebanese archaeologist Dr. Jafar Fadlallah.

Mohammed Al-Sargi, captain of the diving team that found the wrecks, is even more certain. “The pottery and stone found on these wooden ships indicate that they were part of the campaign of Alexander the Great, who in 332 BC attempted to capture the city of Tyre, which was then an island,” he said.

“According to the history books, Alexander built a causeway linking the mainland to the island. These vessels might have been used to transport the stone required for the construction of the road, but due to the heavy loads and storms, they might have sunk.”

UNESCO recognized the archaeological importance of Tyre in 1979, when it added the city to its list of World Heritage Sites. Lebanon’s Directorate of Antiquities, in cooperation with European organizations, has carried out extensive excavations since the 1940s to uncover its historical secrets. They have revealed that the ancient maritime city included residential neighborhoods, public baths, sports centers, and streets paved with mosaics. The discoveries date back to the Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine periods.

During the Phoenician era, Tyre played an important role as it dominated maritime trade. It contributed to the establishment of commercial settlements around the Mediterranean and the spread of religions in the ancient world. It also resisted occupation by the Persians and the Macedonians, choosing to remain neutral in the struggle between the two bitter enemies. However, Macedonian king Alexander the Great considered gaining control of the island and establishing a naval base there to be a key to victory in the war, and he set out in January 332 BC to conquer it at any cost.

The area in which the diving team discovered the wrecks is “an underwater desert with no valleys or seaweed, a few hundred meters from the coast of Tyre,” said Al-Sargi.

“We found 11 sites, some of them close to each other and others far apart. In each location, there were piles of stones and broken pots.

“We continued to explore the sites quietly to keep away fishermen and uninvited guests. We sought the help of archaeologists, who assured us that the discovery rewrites the history of the city, and specifically the campaign of Alexander the Great. So, we decided to put the discovery in the custody of the General Directorate of Antiquities for further exploration and interpretation.”

The most recent find, which Al-Sargi described as a “time capsule,” is only the latest important discovery made by the team in Lebanon.

“In 1997, the divers discovered the submerged city of Sidon,” Al-Sargi continued. “In 2001, we discovered the city of Yarmouta opposite the Zahrani area. In 1997, we discovered sulfuric water in the Sea of Tyre. We conducted studies on fresh-water wells in the sea off the city coast.

“We are not archaeologists and we cannot explain what we have seen. Our role is to inspect and report to the relevant Lebanese authorities and abide by the law.”

Fadlallah, an archaeologist with 40 years experience of working at Lebanon’s ancient sites, picks up the story to explain what he believes to be the significance of the discovery at Tyre.

“The sites are about 700 meters from where Tyre beach was when it was an island,” he said. “The piles of stones were 50 meters to 200 meters apart and the pots seemed to have been broken by a collision because there was not one left intact. This means that these stones and pots were on ships and there was a violent collision between them.”

He said that studies of the remains of the pots suggest that they are of Greek origin.

“There are various forms of them,” he said, “and it is clear that the ships that were carrying them were related to the ships of Alexander the Great during his campaign on Tyre, and they appear to have been hit by storms.”

There are, of course, always skeptics — among them Dr. Ali Badawi, director of archaeological sites in the south at Lebanon’s General Directorate of Antiquities. The pots alone did not constitute sufficient “evidence that the ships belonged to the campaign of Alexander the Great,” he said.

“What was published by the captain of the divers contains unclear details, and the subject should be based on scientific explanations. I think that the sea is wide and piracy was possible at the sites of the submerged ships.

“Exploration operations are taking place in the breakwater area, involving a French mission and Lebanese archaeologists. Before that, a Spanish expedition along with marine archaeologists participated in examining the remains of a ship dating back to the BC era.

“Ship exploration is very expensive, and the city of Tyre was subjected to numerous military siege campaigns and many ships sank. But this does not mean that we will not investigate this new discovery, according to the instructions of the minister of culture.”