Journalist's Primer on The Khomeini Regime

IN THE NAME OF GOD: THE KHOMEINI DECADE by Robin Wright, New York: Simon & Schuster, 284 pp., $19.95

`RARELY, if ever, has a revolution claimed such absolute justification,'' says Robin Wright about the overthrow of the Peacock Throne in 1979.

Never mind that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini tilted a referendum on forming a new government by insisting on a yes-or-no ballot, with Islamic republic as the only choice. The imam proclaimed April 1, the day the results were announced, to be the first day of ``the government of God.''

What Iran really got was a ghastly and protracted April fool's joke: political assassinations, purges, human-wave warfare, air piracy, hostage taking, rampant executions, widespread shortages, inflation, and international ostracization.

This tumultuous period is recapped by Wright's new book, ``In The Name Of God.'' With just seven chapters, a scant 25 pages each, the book doesn't probe deeply into the characters of Iran's new rulers, the workings of the 20th century's only theocracy, or the internal and international intrigues that captured the world's attention.

Rather, it is a primer on ``The Khomeini Decade,'' as the book is subtitled. The author, a journalist who has worked for this and other newspapers, recounts and interprets events reliably, with a few exceptions.

She skates onto thin ice, for example, with the statement ``during this period, Iran ended its role as protector of the Persian Gulf.''

If it ever had such a role, Iran exercised it only in its own behalf, as in 1971 when the Shah seized Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, small Arab islands near the mouth of the Gulf.

The author's overly terse account of the 1987 riot in Mecca, in which 402 died, implies that what weapons the Iranian pilgrims had were improvised at the scene: ``stones, bricks, and sticks, the latter pulled off of banners.''

For this evidence of non-premeditation she relies overmuch on an op-ed piece in the Washington Post by a Pakistani pilgrim, who used exclusively Iranian accounts to bolster his own observations. ``Facts on File,'' the other source that Wright cites on the hajj clash, at least includes a Saudi version in which Iranians pulled concealed knives from their robes. Wright chose to omit this.

Most odd is her failure to grasp the United States' reason for reflagging Kuwaiti tankers: ``If the Reagan administration wanted to ensure freedom of navigation, Tehran argued, then it should pressure Saddam Hussein to end the tanker war. The puzzling inconsistency seemed only to prove to the theocrats that, after 14 months of courting Iran, Washington now actively sought a confrontation. As always when cornered, the Islamic Republic struck back.''

What inconsistency? The US wanted only to preserve freedom of navigation for neutral shipping in the Gulf. Iran and Iraq were free to harass each other's ships without US interference. Unfortunately for Iran, it could not strike Iraqi shipping because there was none. Iraq's outlets to the Gulf - Basra and Faw - were blocked or destroyed.

So Iran tried to pressure Iraq via the United States via Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other nominally neutral Arab states sharing the Gulf. Had Iran not widened the war through direct attacks and indiscriminate mine sowing, the US would never have become involved.

These lapses in Iran's favor aside, the author deftly and fairly capsulizes 10 years of chaos. The mullahs will find numerous passages less than ingratiating, particularly the insinuations that Iranians widely believe they were better off under the Shah. And they yearn to reach out to the West, despite such stunts as renaming the street in front of the British Embassy after IRA hunger-strike martyr Bobby Sands or painting American flags on the pavement in front of hotels so that visitors can tread on them.

The Khomeini decade ended with his death last June 3. By then it was abundantly clear that ``the government of God'' had failed popular expectations, its pretensions shattered. ``To survive a second decade, Iran's revolution will almost certainly have to redirect its energies, focusing less on exporting the revolution and more on domestic problems.''

Now, as Wright says, ``Even with its oil wealth, Iran cannot reconstruct and develop alone; Western technology and expertise are vital in keeping the Islamic Republic in the twentieth century. ...the revolution will have to come to grips with its limitations.''

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