Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1984).
After the plethora of books seeking to account for the Iranian revolution, it is refreshing to find a volume which dares to tackle the complexities of the immediate post-revolutionary years and the new institutions and policies of the Islamic Republic.
Bakhash, a former editor of Keyhan newspaper, and an eyewitness to the revolutionary events, set out to write “as a journalist and a historian” a book intended to “capture both the immediacy and historical significance” of the momentous events during and after the revolution. As a journalistic account, the description of events struck me as surprisingly drear, providing little feel of the vivid, tumultuous and often bewildering days that made up the revolutionary period.
The book comes into its own when analyzing the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the central dramatis personae who seized the political stage. There is Khomeini, the charismatic “idol smasher,” whose latent network of followers became the nucleus of the revolutionary organizations from 1978 on; there is Mehdi Bazargan, first premier of the Republic, who acknowledged the impotence of his own government as a “knife without a blade” before resigning in 1979; there is Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, Khomeini’s disciple and first president of the Republic until his precipitate downfall and exile in the summer of 1981.
Bakhash provides detailed analyses of the political struggles and the debates about the Constitution, the role of the faqih and the competition between the Majles and the Council of Guardians. He also devotes considerable space to the ideological and practical struggles over the economy, focusing particularly on the process of nationalization and the land question. Bakhash shows that far from Islam providing a coherent ideological framework for practical action, these debates revealed intense doctrinal disputes among the clergy and with lay political figures. Arguments for the legitimacy of private property in Islam were countered by an Islamic requirement for social justice and more equitable economic relations. The desire for a strong centralized government ruled by Islamic law was undermined by revolutionary fervor and spontaneous activities such as the seizure of land by peasants.
But the focus on central individuals means there is little analysis of the broader class forces involved. The focus on debates within Islam leaves open questions about the relative weakness of other ideological positions and the collapse of the secular opposition. The “Islamic Revolution” remains an event sui generis. Bakhash shows that while the clergy possess a broader base than the Pahlavis, they still do not “reign” but “rule” through the use of “repression and propaganda as instruments of political control.” He has written a detailed and useful account of the first five years of the Islamic Republic. We must await further historical assessment and comparative analysis, including an examination of the roots of despotism as a recurring theme of Iranian political life.