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On Thirtieth Anniversary of Khomeini’s Death, Signs that his Legacy is Fading

By Jazeh Miller

On Tuesday, Al Jazeera reported that thousands of Iranians were expected to gather near the tomb of the Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death. Khomeini died approximately 10 years and two months after helping to usher in the conclusion of the Iranian Revolution and then spearheading the establishment of a system known as velayat-e faqih and characterized by the absolute authority of religious clerics.

Drawing upon testimonials from Iranians who left the country some years after the revolution, Al Jazeera conveys the message that this system was generally not what the Iranian people wanted, although not all of them were aware of it at the time. Many had focused on the goal of throwing of the modern but brutally repressive rule of the Shah, and had simply taken it for granted that the final outcome would be an improvement upon the preexisting situation.

The report notes that even among conservatives, there is a general sense that Iran is in the same position as it was prior to the revolution, with the only difference being the precise nature of the oppressor. Because of this, it is estimated that as little as 10 percent of the Islamic Republic’s population of 80 million still supports the government today. That being the case, Al Jazeera notes that this week’s memorial gatherings for the regime’s founder are largely contrived affairs, with a handful of staunch supporters traveling or being bussed to Tehran's Behesht-e-Zahra.

Meanwhile, in an editorial at UPI, the former Member of the European Parliament Struan Stevenson wrote in an op-ed that an even more thoroughly contrived commemoration is scheduled to take place next week. As Stevenson describes it, “Crowds will be herded into the Khomeini mausoleum” by “the Iranian regime’s gestapo,” to participated in “orchestrated cries of ‘death to America’.” There, the will hear from the regime’s current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who has wielded absolute authority since his predecessor’s death on June 3, 1989.

Both Al Jazeera and Stevenson used the seminal anniversary as an opportunity to explore Khomeini’s lasting legacy. And although each assumed a very different tone in so doing, both appeared to affirm the same underlying conclusion. Al Jazeera described a casual turning away from that legacy over time, accompanied by a growing impulse to debate it, despite open debate over such matters being unlawful. Such activities as “insulting” the supreme leader or the regime’s founder are grounds for criminal charges in the Islamic Republic, and may even be punishable by death.

As Stevenson emphasizes, this violent and repressive legal code is deeply rooted in the history of the Islamic Republic, and specifically in the judgements and fatwa’s of the founder. It was one such fatwa that set the stage, in 1988, for the systematic execution of an estimated 30,000 political prisoners. This massacre, which entailed the hanging of teenagers and pregnant women, was the spark of conflict between Khomeini and the successor he had initially designated for his position. “Because he had dared to complain,” Stevenson writes, “Hossein Ali Montazeri was removed as Khomeini's successor and detained under house arrest for the rest of his life.”

Based on this and other features of Khomeini’s 10-years in charge of the fledgling theocracy, Stevenson does not hesitate to describe the regime’s founder as a “psychopath” who ushered in the “complete destruction of [a] once prosperous country.” Al Jazeera is more circumspect, avoiding specific examples of Khomeini’s legacy of repression while crediting him with inspiring some sense of national strength in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. But one place where both articles seem to distinctly agree is in saying that the founder’s legacy is unlikely to stand the test of time.

Both articles point to the attitudes of ordinary Iranians and members of the country’s organized Resistance movement to suggest that the Iranian people are exerting pressure in the direction of a new change of governance. This conclusion is affirmed by the countless protests that have taken place in recent months to convey a message of regime change through slogans like “death to the dictator.”

Those slogans were first popularized at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, during a nationwide uprising that began in the city of Mashhad before spreading to more than 100 cities and towns. This uprising inspired a series of smaller protests across the country, and the overall movement was characterized as a “year full of uprisings” by Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

However large the crowd is that gathers near Khomeini’s tomb this week or next, it will undoubtedly be dwarfed by both the scale and the diversity of the anti-government protest movement that is still active even now. This contrast reflects the trends that have been recognized by Al Jazeera, Stevenson, and others – trends that allow current democratic advocacy to overwhelm the legacy of the founder of the Islamic Republic.

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