Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr was elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran in January 1980, but was subsequently impeached in June 1981. Fred Halliday interviewed him in France in August 1981, several weeks after he escaped from Iran. He has formed a government in exile, and is part of the Council of National Resistance.
You are living here in France to organize opposition to the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. But Khomeini still has some popular support, and he is prepared to be more repressive than the Shah ever was. Won’t these differences make it very difficult to oust him?
It is true that Khomeini’s treatment of the opposition is more brutal than was the Shah’s. But his regime is much weaker than the Shah’s. The Shah at least had control of the institutions of state power. Khomeini’s basic problem is that he cannot organize anything. The religious institutions upon which he relies retain their pre-revolutionary character: they are still contesting state institutions, and still act to disorganize.
Khomeini has another problem: To run the country he needs cadres, qualified personnel, and he has not been able to secure their cooperation. The universities were closed and the official thinking was that this would consolidate support among educated people. This has not occurred: if he opens the universities, they will become centers of opposition. It is the same story in the army and in the state administration.
You think that the army is against Khomeini?
They are completely against the mullahs. Indeed if the royalists ever gain ground again, especially in the army, it will be because of the hatred for the mullahs. Khomeini is alienating all sectors of society. He is pursuing suicidal policies. At the start he had 99 percent of the people with him; now he hardly has 15 percent.
Is his support now among the petty bourgeois?
No. lt is more among the dependent section of the big bourgeoisie. They make more profits under Khomeini than they did under the Shah. They are helping the clergy to establish their dictatorship but hoping to take over themselves at a later date. There is no production in Iran — only a basic system of distribution, a situation that maximally benefits the importers and bazaar traders. The security being enforced is security for the bazaar. But despite the regime’s favoritism, the merchants are afraid.
You have talked many times with Khomeini. What does he know? Is it possible to argue with him?
Absolutely not. It is a dialogue of the deaf. He understands nothing.
For example, once we were talking about the economic effects of the hostages crisis and I asked him, “What is the point in holding the Americans hostage?” He replied, “Our regime is consolidating itself. Our enemies are trying to make the Islamic constitution fail. We can use the hostages to get the constitution passed, then to get a president and a legislative assembly elected. Once we have done all that, we can think again. Our internal enemies will have been unable to move because to do so would expose them to the charge of being traitors.” I told him that the Americans would not wait until we had decided we had no more use for the hostages, and that we were dependent on foreign goods. I also tried to explain to him what an economic blockade involves. I told him that production and investment would be impossible, and that even consumption would be reduced because of the restriction of imports. He listened and said: “Good. In the time of the Prophet, people ate only one date per day.” I tried without success to explain to him that economics is not just a matter of consumption: If a people makes a revolution, they have released their energies and if they do not then produce, this will lead to violence. Production is essential. But he did not understand. He saw economic activity only in terms of the quantity consumed. So for him the blockade was a good opportunity.
Who are the people around him? Who talks to him?
At first there were two groups — intellectuals and mullahs. Then the intellectuals left and the only ones remaining were the mullahs. They understand nothing — even less than him.
There is no one with cunning and intelligence near him, no one with a strategic sense?
There was one such person — Beheshti. But he did not have Khomeini’s confidence. Someone very close to Khomeini said to me: “Khomeini hates only those whom the people love. If he is hostile to you it is because the people love you.” Beheshti was hated by the people, so Khomeini favored him. But Beheshti was not a good organizer: He was a man of ruses and arrangements, a fixer.
It is said that Khomeini has his own secret police, the SAVAMA, run by Gen. Fardust, the former head of the Shah’s private investigation bureau. What do you know about that?
People have told me this. They say that the June 1981 coup against me was organized by Fardust, together with Beheshti, Ayat and Baqai, among others. I do not know for sure, and I do not know if Fardust is really running SAVAMA. lt does exist but it is not so important: it is mainly staffed by old SAVAK officials concerned with external intelligence and counterintelligence. The internal functions of SAVAK are in the hands of the Islamic Guards, who have their own intelligence service.
Do the Soviet Union and the Tudeh have a major role in recent events?
The Russians and Tudeh collaborate closely. There is one thing to be clear about the Tudeh: people in Iran do not forget the past — the Soviet role in Iran, and the Tudeh participation in the 1953 coup.
But they did not take part in that coup. This is a myth.
They are regarded by the Iranian people as having done so. Before the coup they contributed to weakening Mossadeq’s government, and when the coup took place they did nothing even though they had a military organization within the army. That amounted to collaboration. The younger generation of Marxists hate them even more because they see the Tudeh as having been traitors to Marxism, and they blame the failure of Marxism in Iran on the Tudeh. Only the old cadres from the 1940s and early 1950s remain. Talk of a Tudeh coup in Iran today is quite unfounded: The Russians are in too weak a position to make a coup; the Afghan situation has created great suspicion of the Soviet Union in Iran. The army itself is very anti-Tudeh, and the party does not have the means to make a coup.
How do you evaluate Soviet policy on Iran? They are often attacking you as pro-American, and they have recently denounced your successor, Raja’i, as being too pro-Chinese.
They want to prevent a strong independent government from emerging in Iran. They would prefer to have a government dependent upon them and if not then they want a stable regime with which they can talk. They are also concerned about the effects of Iranian developments on their Central Asian republics. I myself also condemned their intervention in Afghanistan in the strongest terms, and they know very well what I stand for. I am not a liberal, but I have a plan to make Iran independent and this would be the end of their project in Iran. So it is natural that they should attack me. They know as well that the future of their allies in Iran is tied to this regime: if the regime goes under, then the Tudeh Party will too.
Mr. Bani-Sadr, Khomeini’s intentions were clear from the very beginning, as was his character. It was a mistake to think that democrats could work with this man. Yet you supported Khomeini from the beginning, both before and after becoming president you lent support to the regime’s repression. You accepted the suppression of the newspaper Ayandegan in August 1979; you went on television to justify the execution of opposition leaders in the Turkoman-Sahra area; you gave general support to the Islamic dictatorship. People say that it is good you have broken with this regime, but that this is too late. The support you gave to Khomeini’s project showed that you lack political judgment and realism. How would you reply to these criticisms?
Some groups who did nothing in the revolution and who are based outside the country imagine that they can destroy me by this kind of propaganda. Well, when Khomeini was in Paris I did agree with him, but who was against him? Two days before he came to Paris I prepared a list of 19 points on which we wanted him to make his position clear. These included the role of the ‘ulama’, the place of women, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, and so on. I asked him for clear answers and he gave them, repeating them several times. He seemed to be, if not a revolutionary, then at least a man of progressive views.
The first time I felt he was not the man I believed him to be was when I went, with Beheshti, to discuss Khomeini’s objections to the new Islamic constitution. This was before the Council of Experts election in August 1979. He said that a woman could not be president of the republic. I reminded him that in Paris he had said this was possible. He replied: “Yes, I said many things in Paris. But I do not consider myself bound by them.” I then realized that there was no guarantee he would not change his positions as the objective situation changed. For my part, I did not change my positions but rather intensified my activity, with the aim of creating a political atmosphere among the people that would make Khomeini adhere to the commitments he made in Paris.
As for your particular criticisms: I never approved of executions. On the contrary I opposed them. One reason is that as a result of the Shah’s dictatorship people had no memory of what had happened in our country: only through open trials of those responsible could such information have come out. I wrote an editorial in my paper against the closure of Ayandegan, two or three on the executions, several on what was going on in Kurdistan. Who except for myself succeeded in destroying the ideology of the dictatorship and in discrediting Khomeini? lt is easy for others to say they were against what was going on — but their mouths were closed. Only I spoke out all the time.
I sacrificed the presidency — which meant nothing to me — in order to win in three wars I was fighting. One was against Iraq and another was against the American blockade: I did not win either of these completely, but neither was I defeated. In the third war, I defeated the ideology of the regime. The ideology of authoritarianism was not only political and monarchical but it was also religious: Velayat-e faqih means the complete authority of the religious jurist. My opposition to this authoritarianism did not begin during the revolution, but before. All that I subsequently did was based on this opposition to authoritarianism and in favor of liberty and the responsibility of the individual. By demonstrating its weaknesses to the people day by day I myself have destroyed this authoritarianism. I am the first president in the history of humanity who brought out a newspaper day after day with criticisms of the government. Khomeini now felt a growing popular resistance. This resistance did not come from people like Bakhtiar or Nazih, or from leftists in the West.
As for the criticism that I acted too late, my problem was that I remained on my own. Others left the regime but they did not remain in opposition: Bazargan and his people are still sitting in parliament, The Tudeh is still with the regime. Then there is the National Front. What is it doing? What did it ever do? Then there is the Islamic left — Peyman and his people. They are working with the IRP. Many of the others who criticize me are pro-American. I was alone, but I continued my fight with a few associates and my opposition was an authentic one. I have passed the test. Others left Iran because they defended dictatorship and dependence. I left power — although Khomeini asked me to stay on condition that I kept my mouth shut — and I risked my life because I wanted to defend freedom and independence.
People have not forgotten how I prevented Iran from collapsing after the Iraqi invasion. The army was finished and Saddam Hussein had invited thousands of journalists to celebrate his victory. I stopped this. I published articles, I made speeches. But the people have a certain attachment to the idea of religious government. This is not a new idea in Iran — it has been there from ancient times, you can see it in the Shahnameh of the poet Ferdousi. lt is not easy for the people to abandon this idea of a religious regime. Yet this has now happened. Who succeeded in bringing this miracle about? Was it I or those who denounce me?
But there were other political forces who did not need your encouragement, such as the Kurds.
Even in Kurdistan there was an ideology of authoritarianism. I am not talking about Qassemlu. He is a product of the revolution itself, since before that he was in Paris in despair. People imagine that I have now been destroyed and that only Khomeini remains. This is a fantasy. I remain.
One has the impression that the Islamic project is incapable of solving Iran’s problems, and what political content it has is dictatorial. Yet you still seem to believe in it. What grounds do you have for this?
I succeeded in my dealings with the army, in resisting the Iraqis. I succeeded in the economy, by defeating the US blockade. But these had nothing to do with Islam. Oh yes, they did. Look — my actions were based on the principles of Islam. The economic principles you advance have been common currency in Parisian and Western left circles for many years. They are derived from the works of people like Charles Bettelheim and Samir Amin. lt was not Muhammad who produced these ideas, lt has been said that you are Samir Amin, with quotes from the Qur’an. You advocate an anti-imperialist economic project. You just use Islamic themes to make these ideas more presentable in the Iranian context. Not at all. The basic principles do derive from the Qur’an. European and Marxist philosophies are based on the concept of a relationship of force, or contradiction. Insofar as one believes in such a relationship of force, solutions to problems will not be found in a liberating spirit. Liberalism is based on such an individualistic conception of the relationship of forces, Marxism on the relationship of forces between groups and classes. Everyone tries to realize his social project by affecting the balance of forces.
I have developed a critique of these principles, and in the Qur’an I have found another set of relationships without force, derived from the relation between man and God. This latter relation must be without force, since it would make no sense for God and man to relate through force. This principle enables us to develop a new system of planning and action; it has led to something as marvelous as the Iranian revolution. When Khomeini was talking in Paris, he derived all he said from these basic principles. We formulated these ideas and Khomeini voiced them. The mouth was Khomeini’s but the pen was that of those who had accepted these principles. Everyone was convinced. Even the Marxists said: “If this is Islam, we accept it.” The principles produced a real unity. The same thing was evident when I was elected president. I was not elected by any party. When I sat on the Revolutionary Council, I sat alone, lt was in this way that I won the confidence of the people. They knew that I would not compromise.