Eight years of Khomeini transform Iran

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Tehran eight years ago, after almost 15 years in exile, the Iranian capital erupted. Millions of frenzied Iranians mobbed the ayatollah's cavalcade as it inched through the sprawling city on Feb. 1, 1979. Men and women wept rapturously. Many shouted ``God is great'' and ``The holy one has come'' until they were hoarse. Others trotted by the entourage until they dropped from exhaustion.

``Not since Lenin was sent across Germany in a sealed train in 1917 to Petrograd's Finland Station to lead the Bolsheviks against the Czar has a revolutionary leader's return to his homeland seemed so full of portent as Khomeini's arrival in Iran,'' one American reporter was moved to write at the time.

Today those words seem uncannily prescient. On the eighth anniversary of that cathartic turning point in Iranian history, the Khomeini-inspired rebellion is now widely ranked as the second most important revolution of the 20th century - second only to the 1917 Russian upheaval in terms of ideologies introduced in the world political arena.

The Imam's followers have much to celebrate on Feb. 1. But they also have deep cause for concern, for the revolution's early phases have been turbulent.

Under Khomeini's guidance, Iran has been transformed from a monarchy to the world's only theocracy, radically altering the status quo in the Middle East.

More important to the Imam, Islam, the world's only major monotheistic religion that is also a complete political system, is now seen as a viable alternative form of government. The impact has been felt in rumblings throughout the Islamic world.

On a broader level, the Islamic Republic has challenged the concept of a bipolar world divided into capitalist and communist blocs. To many third-world nations that resent superpower pressure or domination, defiant Iran is a role model.

Khomeini has kept the pledge he made on his return: ``We must settle our accounts with great superpowers and show them that we can take on the whole world ideologically, despite all the painful problems that face us.''

The Iranian mullahs' survival tactics have often been brutal. But Iran has survived the grisliest war in modern Mideast history as well as diplomatic ostracism and economic sanctions. Along the way, it has cowed both Moscow and Washington.

Militarily, Iran has stunningly pushed back the better-trained and better-equipped Iraqis. Barring a major input of arms, cash, or foreign troops, Baghdad now has little hope of winning what President Saddam Hussein in 1980 thought would be a quick invasion and victory.

``Victory is not achieved by swords; it can be achieved only by blood,'' Khomeini told Iranian troops. ``Victory is not achieved by large populations; it is achieved by strength of faith.'' Islamic fervor and the concept of sacred ``martyrdom'' are weapons that have given Iran the current edge.

Economically, Iran has challenged the concept of modernization. Progress and development, Khomeini has argued, need not necessarily mean Westernization. Iran's rejection of imitation and dependence on foreign-designed development schemes has set another significant precedent.

The Shah's emphasis on industrialization and the cities has been shifted to agriculture and rural areas. Banking has been overhauled along Islamic lines. The same philosophy has been applied to culture, as most vestiges of what Khomeini termed ``Westoxication'' have been eliminated.

Thus the first goal - entrenchment of the revolution - has been achieved. ``Khomeini-ism,'' or rule by Islam, is now likely to survive the ayatollah.

Yet the ambitious revolution has also fallen far short of many early goals. The ``oppressed,'' in whose name the revolution was carried out, are not much better off economically than they were under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Resources are still inequitably divided, partly because of disputes among bureaucrats and theologians about land reform and nationalization. The war's exorbitant costs, only a fraction of which involve weaponry, and falling oil prices have crippled the economy.

Despite its early promises, the theocracy's human rights record has been as dismal as the Shah's. The government has come down particularly hard on religious minorities, leftists, and moderate Muslims. Debate in Tehran's majlis (parliament) is often feisty, but public dissent is limited. The press is strictly controlled.

The responsibility is not just Khomeini's. Indeed, Iran's revolution is no longer a one-man show. Frail and reportedly ailing, Khomeini still sets the tone. But the religious bureaucrats have gained increasing power in carrying out policies. The Imam steps in mainly to arbitrate disputes, as he did recently to settle Iran's domestic crisis over secret dealings with the United States.

And his word is final. Few in power dare challenge a decision, since the ayatollah's credentials and popularity continue to be so pivotal to the regime's future.

Shortly after Khomeini's return, British author David Hirst explained the Imam's impact and appeal; the statement holds true eight years later.

Iranians, Mr. Hirst said, ``may eventually reject the ayatollah's uncompromising doctrines. Some already do. But they could not fail to be moved by his unswerving integrity of purpose, his fearless opposition to tyranny, nor, observing the simplicity of his life - a few rugs to sit on, lentil soup, and prayers five times a day - could they fail to be reminded of the classic virtues of the early caliphs. It can be said of Khomeini, as a historian said of Martin Luther, that he represents `the arraignment of a degenerate civilization before the majestic bar of an uncorrupted past.'''

Robin Wright, a former Monitor Middle East correspondent, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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