Ali Reza Nobari studied mathematics in France and was finishing a Ph.D. in operations research at Stanford University in California when the Iranian revolution occurred. He helped to fund the newspaper Enqelab-e Islami and served as governor of Iran’s Central Bank during Bani-Sadr’s presidency. Eric Hooglund and Joe Stork spoke with him in Washington, DC in December 1981.
If you could have seen where the revolution stands now, would you have participated in it three and four years ago?
Yes. Although the revolution has gone astray, I think the positive consequences are of more weight. The revolution was essentially against the system of Pahlavi despotism that ruled Iran for 57 years, and before that the Qajar monarchy. One key factor that enabled that system to last so long was the reactionary component in the religious ideology, which gave the kings legitimacy. In this context, Khomeini’s opposition to the Shah, even back in 1962, was positive. Over the 15-year period from 1962 to 1977, progressive writings by Shariati, Bani-Sadr and Khomeini himself helped to express a new ideology, integrating more progressive elements.
What have been the main economic achievements?
The nationalizations of banks, insurance companies, foreign trade and so on. The majority of the mullahs were against the land reform bill, but Khomeini convinced them not to raise their voices against it. I remember some of them claimed that seizing land from the landowners is against Islam. But the progressive clergy supported it. This was an expression of the “natural alliance” between Bani-Sadr’s line and the progressive clergy. This is something that many people — from Bakhtiar to the extreme left — do not understand. Our alliance with the progressive clergy and against people like Bazargan was a very natural one. The Bazargans were not inclined to carry out these nationalizations and other reforms. The Central Bank’s relationship with the US during the nine months of the Bazargan government essentially remained the same as in the time of the Shah. The deposits were left in the same banks. That’s why the US was able to freeze Iranian assets so readily. During Bazargan’s nine months the clergy and Bani-Sadr were to the left of the government.
The problem was that Khomeini, who could declare these reforms with one stroke because of his grasp on the people, had acquired unlimited power. This charisma of his gradually became a destructive force. The reactionary elements both in his personality and his ideology found room to grow in this political vacuum. When the constitution was being worked out by the assembly of experts, I remember Bani-Sadr telling me that on far-reaching economic reforms you could easily get the mullahs’ yes. A friend of mine — he is now in prison — inserted an article in the constitution about the ecology, lt was easy to convice the mullahs to put an article into the constitution to protect the environment. But you had to discuss for ten or twenty hours, to no conclusion, whether a man’s shirt had to have long sleeves to be Islamically acceptable. These things used to consume these people so much that major national problems were not seriously addressed, with devastating consequences.
What role did the hostages affair have in this process?
The hostages affair was one crucial point of inflection in the course of the Iranian revolution. Khomeini’s source of political strength is the crowds. Aside from a small number of people like Bani-Sadr and Yazdi outside Iran and people like Beheshti, Khamenei, Rafsanjani from inside, other political leaders had not been with Khomeini. Khomeini took power essentially with the support of the masses. He knew that as soon as this seething crowd calmed down, he would no longer be on top. But the Shah was not there anymore, and to make the factories work you do not need crowds. You need managers, you need universities, you need these kinds of things. Now he would bring out the crowds for his own sake. This tremendous force which helped to carry out so many widespread reforms now was used to stifle democracy.
Khomeini understood what a big asset the hostages were. The crowds were out again, one million strong in front of the embassy. Khomeini used them against the intelligentsia and the bureaucrats, those who potentially could be counted on the side of Bazargan or even Bani-Sadr. The hostages affair restructured political alliances, lt put the Bazargan camp on the same side with Bani-Sadr, against the clergy and the IRP.
Did you think that Khomeini still might swing to your side against Beheshti and the IRP?
We had such illusions, but they definitely diminished over the last three months. The majority of us had seen Khomeini as a person with impeccable motives. Maybe he wasn’t knowledgeable about this or that, maybe he made mistakes here and there, but we thought we could correct his mistakes. I myself wrote to him. Bani-Sadr used to write many letters, telling him, “Here, you should say this,” and so on. For a year and a half, two years, we had this sense that Khomeini had not sided with either us or the IRP. We had this sense that whoever saw him more often could secure his allegiance. That’s why we always pushed Bani-Sadr to go to Khomeini.
By the end of the first six months, definitely by the time the hostages were taken, we had concluded that Khomeini would not act except in response to tangible political and social forces. We were conscious of how other revolutions had deviated, and tried to prevent that. We were mistaken to think that Khomeini was uncommitted. I believe now that Khomeini had made up his mind from the beginning to side with the IRP. He strung us along til the last day. Khomeini would allow Bani-Sadr to become president but would put Beheshti in charge of the IRP, knowing they would fight each other. He gave Bani-Sadr the power to appoint heads of the newspapers, and three days later he himself appointed Yazdi to head Keyhan. We were correct that Khomeini would not do anything unless popular forces pushed him, and we tried to mobilize popular support for our program.
Why did you not publicly oppose Khomeini earlier?
My generation had learned that one of the reasons that the Mossadeq movement failed was the antagonism between Kashani and Mossadeq. Kashani had support among the masses; Mossadeq had the intellectuals. Mossadeq did not have the party structure to bring along the masses, but Kashani did. I believe Mossadeq was right. Many religious friends of mine who studied with me in California took Kashani’s side. For five or six years we feuded over who was correct, historically. But we agreed on the fact that this antagonism was one cause of the failure of the Mossadeq revolution.
We perceived that our revolution was against the superpowers. We wanted to start a revolution that would spread throughout the Middle East, get rid of Saddam Hussein and Sadat. We had these plans, these dreams. If you found yourself in power tomorrow, I don’t think that you would change your goals and dreams overnight.
What do you mean you had plans?
Plans in the sense that you approve a certain budget, allocate support to certain revolutionary movements. We wanted to publish an Arabic version of Enqelab-e Islami. We had an Arabic version of our radio to reach the masses of the world.
You thought you were at the head of a movement that was going to sweep the whole region?
We wanted that. We also knew that the whole world was against our revolution, and we needed the unity of the masses to be able to face the threats from abroad. The army was still there, there could be a coup d’etat. The economic boycott had started. We could not feel safe. We came to the conclusion that unity of our people was essential to face such immense threats. From this premise you derive the unity of leadership. As soon as the leadership of the revolution is divided, the popular unity is gone.
Bani-Sadr understood when they imposed Raja’i on him that there would be a split between him and Khomeini. But he did not want to be cursed in history as the person who initiated the split with Khomeini, destroying unity, leaving the country prey to foreign intervention. He wanted to ensure that when the split became public knowledge, the people’s level of consciousness would be high enough so that at least the majority would be able to conclude who’s right, who’s wrong. This called for very delicate political maneuvers by Bani-Sadr. Bani-Sadr did not take any steps that he thought people could not absorb at that stage, lt’s not easy to stand up to a person like Khomeini, who by a wave of his hand would put people like Shariatmadari under house arrest.
When did the split become conclusive?
Bani-Sadr’s speech was on September 8th, just ten days before Iraq attacked. I was there. Bani-Sadr said that though he might have differences with Khomeini, he would never execute any decision against Khomeini. The same night, three of our top opponents attacked Bani-Sadr on TV for naming Khomeini. From then on, I felt, Bani-Sadr could not accomplish his strategy of increasing people’s awareness gradually. Things had been set in motion. Khomeini concluded from Bani-Sadr’s speeches that he was building up a new following of his own, without directly attacking the top. Bani-Sadr did not have the resources for such a major undertaking. One of the main reasons that we lost was the lack of organization. Otherwise they could not have gotten rid of us as easily as they did.
Would it have been possible to create an organization which could rival the IRP?
No. Shariatmadari tried, and he did not succeed. We tried to establish what we called offices of cooperation between the president and the people. Once the mullahs decided to close the offices, they had the club wielders and the clergy. We had nobody. It’s as simple as that. Had Khomeini decided to stay neutral in this matter, Bani-Sadr’s forces would definitely have been able to overcome the IRP. But Khomeini himself was leading the orchestra.
At what point did it become clear to you that the game was up?
In early March 1981 Khomeini made a decision of sorts. Bani-Sadr gave a big speech on the anniversary of Mossadeq’s death in the university. We knew Khomeini hated Mossadeq. He had sent two or three messages to Bani-Sadr that he shouldn’t make this speech. The hizbollahis warned they would disrupt the rally. But Bani-Sadr told them, “I do not want a leader as important as Mossadeq to go down the drain just because Khomeini doesn’t like him.” The IRP had attacked and closed down many offices, many newspapers and nobody had opposed their sheer brute force. At that meeting Bani-Sadr asked the people to oppose these club wielders. The people rushed them, and seized 67 of them. They carried their weapons and identity cards to the podium. Bani-Sadr read these cards to the public, showing that these hizbollahi were linked to the Revolutionary Guards, the komitehs and the IRP. They were not “irresponsible elements.” They were part of the organized opposition.
We understood that night that the lines were now drawn. That night Khomeini announced that he would not meet with anyone for ten days. On the tenth day, he called in Beheshti, Bazargan and Bani-Sadr. Beheshti demanded that Khomeini dismiss Bani-Sadr as chief of the armed forces, and also not let him make speeches. Khomeini forbade Bani-Sadr from speaking in public but he kept him as commander-in-chief. He nominated a three-man council to adjudicate further differences. We concluded that Khomeini had decided to get rid of Bani-Sadr. Bani-Sadr’s only weapon, the only means he had to reach the masses, was his speech. From then on we started to feel this cold sweat on our brows. Things moved very fast.
What was Khomeini’s relationship with Bani-Sadr back in Paris?
My views now obviously differ from my views then. Bani-Sadr was the most useful to him in Paris. Khomeini’s speeches in Paris, the formulations of the ideology of revolution, were mostly exact phrases from Bani-Sadr. So we thought that Khomeini definitely liked Bani-Sadr and depended on him, and that if he was just as nice to Bani-Sadr’s enemies — like Qotbzadeh, Yazdi, Beheshti — then maybe it’s because he wants to be friends with everybody. Bani-Sadr pushed Khomeini not to receive Bakhtiar, and convinced Khomeini that the Shah would leave. There was heavy pressure from Iran, from all sectors of the popular leadership, that Khomeini was too extreme and the Americans would intervene to back up the Shah. Their army would smash us, they said, they would kill maybe ten thousand and we would lose even this democracy that we have won. Bani-Sadr convinced Khomeini not to compromise, so Khomeini owes what he has to Bani-Sadr, in my view.
After the war with Iraq started, Bani-Sadr spent a lot of time at the front, lt seemed there was some kind of an alliance growing there that Khomeini saw as threatening.
Bani-Sadr gave a lot of importance to the territorial integrity of Iran. Iran’s armed forces were in such bad shape when the war started that Bani-Sadr even accepted Raja’i as prime minister in order to put that fight behind him and be able to go into the war with a functioning government. He sent a message to Beheshti and Khomeini that he would resign after winning the war, so they should cease the political attacks and let him do his job. We thought that the other side would be as patriotic as we were. But it was clear that if Bani-Sadr fought the war successfully he would be much harder to defeat politically. They were such bastards that they preferred for Bani-Sadr to lose on the battle front. They delayed the victory so that they could get rid of Bani-Sadr much sooner. We came to this conclusion too late, maybe six or seven months after the war started. So that brings us to March of 1981. Right. I told Bani-Sadr, “You cannot win the war because they won’t let you.” There were many “proposals” from this Islamic Conference and other delegations, with some honorable ways we could have ended the war. Khomeini, of course, rejected them, lt was obvious that he didn’t want the war to end until they could get rid of Bani-Sadr. I remember hearing excerpts from a Radio Baghdad broadcast saying that Bani-Sadr is on the battle front because he prefers Iraqi shells to the squabbles and attacks of the mullahs. I related this jokingly to Bani-Sadr. He said it was true.
The fact that Bani-Sadr was fighting for the independence of Iran made him very popular within the army ranks. The army, through this fight, was politically rehabilitated. Bani-Sadr never thought along the lines of a coup because he understood that any movement away from the front would have endangered the front. Moreover, he always believed that a coup would just change him into a kind of dictator. He preferred to go down in history as a person of political integrity and high principle. Don’t forget that Khomeini still had a lot of charisma with the troops. It’s not that Bani-Sadr necessarily could have pulled off a coup. He was the second-ranking man in the country, but he did not have real power. He could never become Khomeini. He wanted to achieve more legality in the country and less dictatorship. A coup would be a move in the opposite direction.
What have been the lasting consequences of the revolution in the different economic sectors?
You should not separate the economic from the cultural elements. I really put a lot of emphasis on this cultural breakthrough, the ideological change of the whole atmosphere in Iran. Take land reform. The idea of giving a piece of land to a peasant is one thing. His thinking he deserves that piece of land, and should work on it, is just as important. I don’t think land reform, or jihad-e sazandagi or nationalization of the banks will ever be turned back.
What about the workers’ councils?
The councils were at a very high pitch during the first months of the revolution. I’m not sure they had much impact. I would like to believe, though, that because the workers have had that experience they won’t forget it easily.
What happened to the councils?
For one thing, they definitely operated against the new authority, the clergy, the new state apparatus. Secondly, there were in fact some grounds for limiting their course. The councils did not turn out, in many instances, to be councils truly representing all whom they claimed to represent. They had mostly handpicked leaders.
Picked by whom?
Let’s say they represented a distinct political minority. The leftist groups looked at the councils as their political instrument, and they tried to control them. They were not workers’ councils in the classic self-management sense. Now they’ve become another instrument of the IRP. There were constant quarrels within the councils, and between them and the management. The councils very often kicked the government appointees out during the time of Bazargan. Bazargan would sent a colonel to an army unit, they would kick him out. He would send a second one, they would kick him out. After a while, you got a feeling that maybe these councils were not working very well, from the point of view that you have to manage the economy and the system somehow. The councils ended up incorporating a kind of anarchy. You say you can’t separate economic changes and political and cultural developments, but you can talk about their economic dimensions. The constitution definitely incorporates articles that are very progressive in the traditional sense of the word — nationalization of many sectors of industry, for instance. But nationalization of industry gives the state apparatus power over the whole country. That’s why it is difficult to assess if all this is positive or negative because the main ingredient, freedom, is not there.
Do you believe that your defeat was inevitable?
Some of us who have escaped prison and execution have discussed this in Paris. Bani-Sadr and I do not believe that we were fated to lose. But its true that we were a minority. For instance, on the question of due process for the Shah’s henchmen, it was not the left who asked for this or the religious leaders. It was 20 or 30 people like us. They would laugh at us, but we had learned from history that if you do not have due process for a Hoveyda, the next day you might not have due process for yourself either. In the sense that we were such a small minority, then this defeat was inevitable, yes. When I saw how hard we worked, eighteen, twenty hours a day with all our strength, no vacation, no rest, and still we couldn’t catch up. There were so many huge tasks.