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.


US-backed fighters closing in on Daesh gunmen in eastern Syria

Updated 16 February 2019
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US-backed fighters closing in on Daesh gunmen in eastern Syria

  • President Donald Trump said the White House will make an announcement about Syria on Saturday
  • Groups said that some 200 Daesh gunmen surrendered Friday

BAGHOUZ, Syria: A US-backed force in Syria is closing in on Daesh militants in a tiny area less than a square kilometer (square mile) in eastern Syria, and will soon declare the defeat of the militant group, a commander with the group said Saturday.
The capture of the last pocket still held by Daesh fighters in the village of Baghouz would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq — their so-called “caliphate” that at the height of the group’s power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.
“We will very soon bring good news to the whole world,” said Ciya Furat, a commander with the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, speaking at a news conference at the Al-Omar Oil Field Base in the Deir Ezzor province.
President Donald Trump said the White House will make an announcement about Syria and the fight against Daesh by the end of Saturday.
“We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate and that will be announced over the next 24 hours,” Trump told journalists at the White House on Friday.
An Associated Press team in Baghouz Saturday, hundreds of meters away from the last speck of land where Daesh militants were holed up, saw several aircraft overhead and two airstrikes hit the area. SDF fighters said were fired by the US-led coalition.
The Syrian Democratic Forces declared the final push to capture the village a week ago after more than 20,000 civilians, many of them the wives and families of foreign fighters, were evacuated.
Since then, SDF commanders say they have been surprised to discover that there were hundreds more civilians in the enclave, after they were brought up by the militants from underground tunnels. Their presence has slowed down the SDF advance.
Furat, the SDF commander, said Daesh fighters are now besieged in an area that is about 700 square meters (840 square yards). He said that SDF fighters were able to liberate 10 of their colleagues that were held by Daesh.
Furat’s comments were carried by Kurdish news agencies, including Hawar News.
“We are dealing with this small pocket with patience and caution. It is militarily fallen but civilians are used as human shields,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told The Associated Press. Bali added that the SDF believes that Daesh gunmen are also holding previously kidnapped Syrians in the area.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said SDF fighters are almost in full control of the area once controlled by extremists, adding that there might still be Daesh fighters hiding in a network of underground tunnels.
The Observatory said that some 200 Daesh gunmen surrendered Friday, days after about 240 others surrendered and were taken by SDF fighters and members of the US-led coalition.
“The defeat of Daesh will come within days,” Furat said. He added that after the physical defeat of Daesh, the SDF “will continue in its fight against Daesh sleepers cells.”
Despite the expected defeat on the ground, activists and residents say Daesh still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency. The group has claimed responsibility in recent months for deadly attacks, mostly in Iraq, more than a year after the Iraqi government said the extremists have been defeated after losing the northern city of Mosul in 2017, the largest they held.