The Fight for Iran's Political Future Revolution Leaders Struggle for Power in Tehran

By and Erich Follath

Part 2: The Road to Theocracy

Qom, the holy city of the Shiites, a center of resistance, in the early 1960s.

In 1953, the CIA backed a coup against the democratically elected, nationalistic Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and helped bring the shah, who had temporarily fled the country, back into power. But not everyone was willing to bow to the new leader. Religious leaders, angry over the confiscation of their property and a modernization campaign contemptuous of religion, came together in Qom. A descendant of the Prophet Mohammed is buried in Qom, a city considered so holy that not even the shah dared to close all of its Koran schools, or madrassas. To this day, Qom is a place of behind-the-scenes struggles over power in Iran.

Montazeri, Rafsanjani and Khamenei were among the students who engaged in heated discussions in the shadow of the golden Fatima al-Masumeh shrine and on the lawns of the madrassas. All three condemned what they perceived as an outrage against their religion and a selling-out of the country. And they had an idol, a shared über-father figure whose indictments of the godless regime had them mesmerized: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a gifted speaker with fiery eyes, a dark voice and uncompromising rhetoric. He promised his students a revolutionary goal: the road to a theocracy, one that would not bow to any outside efforts to control it.

Montazeri, the son of a small farmer, had a modest childhood. When he was sent to study at the seminary in Qom, every dinar counted. Rafsanjani comes from a far wealthier family that owns estates and a pistachio business. When Khamenei arrived in Qom, he was the only one of the three who had come from a prominent religious family. His father was a mullah at a mosque in Iran's other holy city, Mashhad.

The shah expelled Khomeini in 1964. After initially spending time in Turkey and then neighboring Iraq, Khomeini eventually went into exile in the French village of Neauphle-le-Château. While in exile he quietly managed to unite the various opponents of the regime. Charismatic and conscious of his power, he also gave his blessing to the strikes staged by the communists, whose ideology he did not share. Cassettes of the imam's speeches were distributed in Iran's bazaars. Neither the shah's intelligence agency, SAVAK, which was supported by Israeli trainers, nor the many CIA agents stationed in the country were able to control Khomeini's underground activities.

Showing His Teeth

The hated SAVAK was notorious for torturing its victims. Many were imprisoned, and serving a prison term became a mark of honor for the opposition. In total, Montazeri, Rafsanjani and Khamenei spent almost a dozen years behind bars. After being released, they began to agitate for their idol once again, but the eldest and poorest of the three young revolutionaries took his religious studies especially seriously. Montazeri soon acquired the rank of an ayatollah ("sign of god"), and even attained the rank of marja or grand ayatollah, of whom there were fewer than one dozen at the time.

The two others only managed to attain the lower rank of hojatoleslam. This would eventually present a serious problem for Khamenei, but less so for Rafsanjani, who was already developing a reputation for his business acumen and political astuteness. He came to be known as a smooth operator, a shark who could show his teeth when he felt it was necessary.

The West supported the shah until the bitter end, in the knowledge that "his" Iran, with the world's second-largest natural gas reserves and its third-largest oil reserves, was an important energy supplier. But the shah, on his Peacock Throne, was no longer able to contain the rebellion. To avoid a major bloodbath, he left the country for good in January 1979.

From his exile in Neauphle-le-Château, Khomeini had already appointed a revolutionary council consisting of himself and four other men. One of them was Rafsanjani, whose outstanding talents as an organizer had caught the imam's attention. The zealous Khamenei was allowed to give revolutionary speeches in Mashhad. Though not part of the inner circle at first, Khamenei, at Rafsanjani's suggestion, "and after long debate, was added to the revolutionary council as a sixth member," as Mohajerani recalls.

Montazeri, who had a stronger relationship with revolutionary leader Khomeini than anyone else, worked closely with the imam to develop a constitution for the theocracy they had envisioned. In return for his loyalty, Khomeini soon made Montazeri his deputy -- to the disappointment of Rafsanjani and Khamenei. If they hoped to hold onto their power, the two men had to come up with a new strategy.

Start of a New Regime

Paris, on a bitterly cold February night in 1979.

A new era was about to begin. Traveling on board a specially chartered Air France jet, the revolutionary leader, with an uncharacteristic smile on his face, made the journey from Paris back to Tehran. Millions lined the streets of Tehran as the limousine carrying the reformer passed by. The imam captured the Iranian capital in a triumphant march.

The old regime was dissolved, and within a few days the roaring current of the revolution had turned everything upside-down. In a referendum approved by an overwhelming majority, the people endorsed the "Islamic Republic" in late March. The concept of "velayat-e-faqih" ("rule by Islamic clerics") is a unique construct, a mixture containing elements of democracy and the papal Vatican, as well as traits of a North Korean-style dictatorship.

Although Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, formally accepted the institutions of a parliamentary democracy, he created for himself -- in consultation with Montazeri -- an office that rules supreme over all elected bodies. As "religious leader," he established the guidelines of politics, and he controlled the armed forces, the intelligence services, the judiciary, the parliament and the media. The only curbs on his power were the position of prime minister and a body known as the Assembly of Experts. The Assembly, which consists of 86 theologians, has the right to unseat the religious leader and appoint a successor. But as long as the religious leader is a person who can unite the entire people and is uncontroversial, that right remains theoretical.

Rafsanjani became the speaker of the parliament. Khamenei survived an attack by left-wing extremists fighting against the theocracy, losing the use of his right arm in the process. Khamenei's "martyrdom" helped advance his career, and it helped him attain the office of president in October 1981.

The three comrades became caught up in the dynamics of the revolution, and they became convinced that anyone who could pose a threat to the theocracy had to be exterminated. "When the shah gave us freedoms, we drove him out of the country. We won't make that mistake ourselves," said Rafsanjani. Montazeri, too, initially believed that the revolution had to be consolidated with all possible means. "Dead trees must be cut down," he said.

Drinking Poison

When students occupied the US Embassy in Tehran, the three men waited to see how Khomeini would react. And when the imam gave his blessing to the effort, they supported him. The hostage crisis would last 444 days, and the images of blindfolded diplomats being paraded before the cameras would be burned into the collective consciousness of Americans -- just as the images of Iraq's attack on their country, with American logistical support, remained etched into the memories of Iranians.

One of the imam's slogans read: "War until Victory." The eight-year conflict, imposed upon Tehran, cost roughly a million lives and ended in a stalemate. The fact that it ended at all was Rafsanjani's achievement. He dared to challenge the official position, and he convinced Khomeini, who was prepared to sacrifice more and more units of child soldiers, to agree to a cease-fire. Khomeini, for his part, said that signing the cease-fire agreement felt like drinking "a cup of poison."

The end of the hostilities was one of the few compromises in the first decade of the Islamic Republic. Khomeini, with the help of his three confidants, promoted the export of religion into the region and was behind the establishment of Hezbollah ("Party of God") in Lebanon, which he encouraged to commit suicide attacks. At home, the regime took a relentlessly harsh approach to governing the country. The range of victims of its arbitrary administration of justice was expanded beyond former supporters of the shah and "infidels" to include homosexuals, drug addicts, prostitutes and 14-year-old boys who had dared to make jokes about the imam. All were executed.

Rafsanjani and Khamenei remained silent when it came to the regime's excesses. After brief hesitation, they supported Khomeini's fatwa, declared on religious grounds, against writer Salman Rushdie, the author of "The Satanic Verses," which was the equivalent of a call to commit murder. But Montazeri could no longer reconcile keeping silent with his conscience. He wrote urgent letters to Khomeini, suggested pardoning the heretical author and sharply condemned human rights violations in Iran. The man the revolutionary leader had once publicly described as "the fruit of my life" fell out of favor. In March 1989, Khomeini expelled his designated successor, saying: "You are not worthy of this office."

Rafsanjani and Khamenei didn't lift a finger to help Montazeri. Instead, they saw his ouster as their golden opportunity. By that point, they knew that the country's supreme leader had cancer, and that Montazeri's demotion was their chance to rise to power.


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