Cliff May

Iran's rulers have never lacked for apologists in the West. As Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin note in "Eternal Iran," in the years immediately preceding Iran's revolution, Khomeini was making "Islam sound compatible with Marxism. Examples of his simple, direct rhetoric - delivered in emotionally powerful speeches - are ‘The lower class is the salt of the earth'; ‘In a truly Islamic society, there will be no landless peasants'; ‘We are for Islam, not for capitalism and feudalism.' Khomeini changed traditional Shi'ite interpretations to make them revolutionary rather than quietist, to support the oppressed masses (the mostazafin) instead of the meek. This marriage of Third Worldism with Islam was the potent mixture that let clerical activists take charge of the opposition to the shah."

Many of my fellow reporters danced at that wedding. On February 12, 1979, Time magazine reported "a sense of controlled optimism in Iran. ... Iranians will surely insist that the revolution live up to its democratic aims. ... Those who know [Khomeini] expect that eventually he will settle in the Shi'ite holy city of Qum and resume a life of teaching and prayer. It seems improbable that he would try to become a kind of Archbishop Makarios of Iran, directly holding the reins of power. Khomeini believes that Iran should become a parliamentary democracy, with several political parties."

A New York Times editorial reassured readers that "moderate, progressive individuals" were advising Khomeini. The Times predicted the Ayatollah would provide "a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third-world country."

Prominent politicians and diplomats were equally clueless. President Carter's U.N. ambassador, Andrew Young, called Khomeini "some kind of saint." William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Tehran, compared Khomeini to Gandhi. A State Department spokesman worried about the possibility of a military coup, saying that would be "most dangerous for U.S. interests. It would blow away the moderates and invite the majority to unite behind a radical faction."

I did not read the Islamic revolution as they did. It seemed to me unlikely that the moderates would prevail over the radicals, or that the true believers would be patient for very long with those they regarded as apostates.

I remember asking an Iranian journalist if he really thought the mullahs would permit criticism by secular types like him, and whether the kids now carrying AK-47s would quietly return to their schools, factories and farms. He waved away my questions but I bet doubt crept up on him before the authorities shut down his newspaper and student supporters of Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy.

In the wider "Muslim world" there were many people who understood exactly what was happening. Steve Coll writes in "Ghost Wars" that although Khomeni was a Shi'a, and therefore "anathema to many conservative Sunni Islamists ... his audacious achievements inspired Muslims everywhere."

I would argue that beyond inspiration, there was rivalry: Iran was being transformed into the first, modern jihadi state. Where was the Sunni equivalent? Not Saudi Arabia: Despite the infidels-as-vermin sermons routinely preached in its mosques, members of the "royal family" were all too comfortable in the fleshpots of the West. Not Pakistan: Though increasingly Islamist, its western-trained military officers were not about to lead a global insurrection. The seeds of a non-state, Sunni, jihadi/terrorist movement were soon planted. Watered with immense oil wealth, they would sprout from the deserts as al-Qaeda a few years later.

The Shah was a despot. But Iran's ruling mullahs and their Revolutionary Guards have been far more brutal, oppressive and lethal. The election results announced last June - so transparently falsified - only added insult to injury. Since then, Iranians by the tens of thousands have been putting their lives on the line, waging a revolution against the Islamic Revolution.

For more than three decades, I've hoped that one day I'd be able to return to an Iran that was not ruled by theocrats and thugs. That's still possible - no thanks to Western leaders who so far have displayed neither courage nor convictions.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.