Feb. 1 marks the anniversary of the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Tehran after 16 years in exile. And Feb. 11, regarded as the crescendo of the Iranian revolution, marks the day that Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister to be named by the shah, went into hiding, leaving a vacuum quickly filled by Khomeini’s supporters, who were visibly surprised by how easily they had won power.
There were no revolutionary battles, no dramatic ups and downs, and no opportunity for heroic shenanigans. The Khomeinist revolution took around four months to achieve victory, not long enough to allow a lot of people to conjure a heroic biography for themselves.
Just a year before the “final victory” on Feb. 11, some of the mullahs who emerged as grandees of the revolution, among them Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati — who now heads the all-powerful Council of Guardians of the Islamic Constitution — were kissing the shah’s hands during audiences for clerics.
Other grandees of the revolution, such as Hojat Al-Islam Morteza Motahari, were on Empress Farah’s payroll as members of the “philosophical” boutique she had set up as solace from boredom.
The revolution had not lasted long enough to establish its ideological colors. Pro-Soviet communists along with kindred Maoists, Castroists, Trotskyites and Titoists believed this was their revolution, as did veteran Mossadeqists, Westernized Third-Worldists, and mullahs of all shapes and sizes.
Trump has not yet done anything concrete against the mullahs apart from expressing sympathy with recent mass protests in Iran. But the fact that he has kept the mullahs guessing about his intentions has already impacted their behavior.
For the first year, the ideological vacuum was filled with the drama around the seizing of American diplomats. Once the embassy hostage drama had become as boring as a second-rate TV soap opera, Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein rode to the rescue by invading Iran, helping fill the new Khomeinist regime’s ideological emptiness.
In the first two years, the new regime kept the revolutionary temperature up by mass executions, purges of the military and civil service, squandering human lives in ineffective maneuvers on the battlefields of Iraq, and assassinating men who Khomeini regarded as potential threats to his hold on power. Using the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah to seize Western hostages added spice to the bland dish the mullahs served.
With the end of the war and Khomeini’s death, the new regime found itself ideologically naked. Then “jihad” against the US was formally adopted as the regime’s core ideology. In that context, adopting an anti-Israeli position was inevitable, if only tangentially.
The mullahs forgot that Israel had smuggled arms to them to fight Saddam, and in an act of gargantuan ingratitude, called for the “elimination of the Zionist entity.” Once the anti-US and anti-Israel themes were established, the regime tried to weave a cobweb of ideological mumbo-jumbo around them.
Under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran launched annual seminars with such titles as “The End of America” and “A World Without Israel.” It also provided an annual platform, always in February, for Holocaust deniers from all over the world. Special prizes were offered for anti-Semitic cartoons, posters, photos and sculpture.
By 2013, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif could claim that the Islamic Republic was scoring one success after another in “exporting” its culture, whatever that meant. The new administration of President Hassan Rouhani felt confident that thanks to support from former US President Barack Obama, the Khomeinist regime could talk like Sweden but act like North Korea.
But it seems that the arrival on the scene of an unknown quantity, Obama’s successor Donald Trump, has confused the mullahs, forcing them to ponder whether it is still possible to hoodwink the Americans and the rest of the world while pursuing repression in Iran and destabilizing policies abroad.
Strictly speaking, Trump has not yet done anything concrete against the mullahs apart from expressing sympathy with recent mass protests in Iran. But the fact that he has kept the mullahs guessing about his intentions has already impacted their behavior. To start with, Tehran has ended provocative naval acts in the Strait of Hormuz and its environs, winning praise from the Pentagon.
Throughout the Obama presidency, Iran’s navy operated “swarming sorties” against US naval units in the region, with small speedboats approaching American battleships like so many gnats trying to sting an elephant. But under Trump, the gnats are keeping away from the American elephant.
In another register, Tehran has also shelved its annual “End of America” and “A World Without Israel” shows. Zarif has issued a few dozen visas for professional Holocaust deniers and anti-Americans, mostly from Europe and the US, but their comings and goings are to be kept away from the limelight.
More importantly, perhaps, the Khomeinist regime, which has not passed a single day without holding some foreign hostages, has not seized any new American hostages. The most high-profile ones still held are dual nationals who had lobbied in the US for the Islamic Republic under the control of Obama’s special adviser Ben Rhodes.
In a bid to counter Trump’s chest-beating about human rights in Iran, the mullahs acted out of character when they chose not to massacre people in the streets during the recent nationwide uprising. More interestingly, all regime grandees, including Khamenei himself, have donned their fake Swedish mask, hiding the North Korean face behind it.
At a regional level, too, the mullahs are trying to talk Swedish. They muse on reducing their footprint in Syria, claiming that they have already won the war for President Bashar Assad. And last Sunday, Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami even offered to give Afghanistan military aid to fight Daesh and its groups installed there.
The next issue on which I expect Tehran to start singing Swedish concerns Trump’s demand for renegotiating the nuclear deal concocted by Obama. The initial tune from Tehran was a “No! No! Nannette” number with a harsh North Korean accent. But recently, I hear a “Maybe baby!” number with a soft Swedish accent.
• 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.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.