That model is North Korea, which Khomeinists present as a paragon of heroic resistance against the American “Great Satan.” The daily Kayhan, believed to reflect the views of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently ran editorials praising North Korea’s “brave defiance of arrogance” by testing long-range missiles in the face of “cowardly threats” by the US. In one editorial last month, the paper invited those who urge dialogue with the US to learn from North Korea’s “success in humiliating the Great Satan.”
The editorial provoked some critical responses from the “reformist” wing of the ruling clique, with president Hassan Rouhani’s unofficial spokesman expressing regret that Iran was being asked to downgrade to the level of “a pariah in a remote corner of Asia.”
Nevertheless, last month Kim Yong Nam, president of the North Korean People’s Assembly, was given red-carpet treatment during a 10-day visit to Tehran at the head a 30-man military and political delegation. He was granted a rare two-hour audience with Khamenei. During his stay, he inaugurated North Korea’s new embassy, which has an expanded military cooperation section.
At first glance, the Khomeinist “republic” and the regime in Pyongyang seem to have little in common. It might appear that the only thing they share is a primitive version of anti-Americanism, an affliction that affects many others, even in Western democracies, albeit in milder forms.
Seen by Khomeinists, who pretend to be sole custodians of the only true religion, the Kimists, who regard religion as confused mumbo-jumbo, must be regarded as adversaries if not outright enemies. Yet such is their mutual attraction that the Kimists have even allowed the Khomeinists to set up a mosque in Pyongyang provided they do not try to convert North Koreans.
In the spring of 1979, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the dynasty and grandfather of the present supreme leader Kim Jong Un, was among the first to congratulate Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini on the seizure of power by mullahs.
A few weeks later, Khomeini, then stationed in Qom, broke his rule of not talking to foreign emissaries by receiving North Korean ambassador Chabeong Uk for a long session during which the ayatollah dictated a message of friendship to Kim Il Sung and invited “the masses of Korea” to expel the Americans from the peninsula.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980, Kim Il Sung was the first to offer assistance to the Islamic Republic by supplying its version of the Soviet Scud missiles. In January 1981, invited by Iran, the North Koreans set up a military advisory mission in Tehran to help the newly created Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to develop tactics and strategies in the war against Iraq.
The alliance between Tehran and Pyongyang has its roots in a 1989 visit to North Korea by a mullah who learned much from its ruling despot — and who now leads Iran in the same way.
One tactic quickly adopted by the Iranians was the use of “swarm attacks” by masses of teenagers sent to clear Iraqi minefields at the cost of thousands of lives, a tactic that Kim Il Sung had developed in the Korean War against the Americans.
North Korea became one of only two nations to sign a military pact of sorts, including joint staff conversations, with Iran. (The other is in Syria which signed in 2007.)
Iran’s top contact man with the North Korean military mission was Khamenei, then a mid-ranking mullah operating as deputy defense minister. The new friends started military cooperation in 1982 with special emphasis on helping Iran develop a range of missiles.
Getting to know the North Koreans, Khamenei developed a profound admiration for their “discipline and readiness to sacrifice for their struggle.” But it was not until six years later that Khamenei, by that time named president of Iran, could express that admiration directly in a state visit to Pyongyang.
According to those who accompanied him on that visit, he saw North Korea as the “ideal state” that lacked only religious faith.
“Khamenei was impressed by how everything worked like the clockwork,” says Hassan Nami, a member of the entourage. “The fact that in North Korea the individual was dissolved in the collective symbolized by the supreme leader overwhelmed Khamenei.”
Khamenei’s visit to North Korea in May 1989 was the first to give him the feeling that he was the rising leader of a rising new power on the world scene. The North Koreans declared a holiday for schools and factories to mobilize a million people to line the streets to greet him. In a rare gesture, Kim Il Sung himself went to the airport to meet the visitor. The North Korean despot then chaired a special session of the People’s Assembly to hear Khamenei’s speech, which included a thinly disguised invitation to Koreans to return to religious belief.
In the end, however, the North Koreans adopted nothing from Khomeinism while Khamenei adopted much of Kim Il Sung’s ideology.
Kim’s “juche” (self-reliance) doctrine became Khamenei’s “eqtesad muqawemati” (resistance economics). Khamenei also adopted Kim’s reliance on missiles, caused by the fact that North Korean had no access to modern warplanes, as the main plank of his defense doctrine. The revival of the Shah’s nuclear program was also inspired by Kim who believed a weaker nation enhances its position by owning the ultimate weapon.
When it comes to Khamenei’s rejection of compromise with domestic or foreign adversaries, again Kim was the teacher. Kim preached absolute independence, which meant total disregard for international law, something that Khamenei has made an article of faith for the Islamic Republic.
Going down the list of Khamenei’s beliefs, including his reliance on the military for the survival of the regime, in many cases the real teacher was not Khomeini, but Kim Il Sung.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books. Twitter: @AmirTaheri4.
— This article first appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat.