Iran remains immersed in Khomeini's rigid legacy

January 11, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh | Gelareh Asayesh,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEHRAN, Iran -- "Look at them," the woman says in disgust. "They are stepping in his blood."

She turns away from what is offending her, a group of young women whose hair puffs out from beneath their hejab, the head covering required by Islam.

"Wasn't that what this war was about, for us to be an Islamic country, for everyone to wear the hejab?"

"He" is her young son, Amir, dead three years now. "This war" was the one that claimed his life, the war against Iraq, which she believes was fought to protect the revolution.

She is a chance-met stranger sitting in the arrivals section of Mehrabad International Airport. Only her dark face, settled into permanent lines of unhappiness, is visible within the rustling black veil that covers her head and body. Tears gather in the corners of her eyes when she takes out her wallet and shows the black-and-white photograph of a handsome, sober young man.

He was 20 when he was killed. He had just returned to the front after recovering from a leg wound.

"I begged him not to go," the mother says. "I was holding on to his leg. He said, 'Are you willing for the Iraqis to overrun our homes, molest our women?' I said, 'Yes, yes, I'm willing.' He said, 'No, don't say that. Say I'm not willing for that to happen.' "

She sighs. "He was a profound believer. He was willing to do anything for the Imam."


In today's Iran, there is only one "Imam." Though the word describes the descendants of the prophet Mohammed so revered by Shiites, and though Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has been dead more than a year, "the Imam" refers only to him.

Hated abroad and disparaged by secular Iranians at home, he nevertheless shaped the revolution and the Islamic Republic that grew out of it. His interpretation of Islam is still the law here.

He remains the source of all political legitimacy. And his followers, Iran's fundamentalist masses, are ever-watchful for a departure from his way.

Perhaps it is not surprising that one of the most common slogans here is, "Khamenei's leadership; a continuation of Khomeini's way." Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei has replaced Ayatollah Khomeini as Iran's supreme religious leader.

But Ayatollah Khomeini was far more than the country's leader. He was that most elusive and most bewitching of all things for a people and a nation: a hero. His very lack of accommodation to what was popular made him an object of fervent devotion.

Unlike the shah, whose power was a chimera, enforced by his police, Ayatollah Khomeini's power derived from his ideas and actions. Today, Ayatollah Khomeini's words are on walls and sidewalks, on placards and in public buildings here.

His values are the values of revolutionary Iran, often in contradiction with more recent practices and long-standing national traditions.

In Iran, the families of youths "martyred" at the Iraqi front receive congratulations rather than condolences because Ayatollah Khomeini preached that dying for Islam was an honor.

Government employees are discouraged from wearing nice clothes or eating rich foods in the course of duty because they are to set an example of the unimportance of material things.

The country has been isolated from the Western world because Ayatollah Khomeini preached defiant independence and self-sufficiency.

And Iran fought Iraq, an Islamic neighbor and historic enemy, for eight years because Ayatollah Khomeini believed that justice would prevail. When he accepted a cease-fire two years ago, he said it was like drinking poison.

That decision was a public acknowledgment of the gap between the ayatollah's unyielding concepts of right and wrong, and pragmatic necessity.

In Ayatollah Khomeini's absence, it remains for his successors to come to terms with other of his values.

Though Ayatollah Khomeini's followers admired him for his unbending nature, practical needs, as well as that segment of Iran's population not single-mindedly religious, demand compromise. After 11 years of war and isolation, even religious Iranians are sapped by the price of ideals that once invigorated them.

The shah's Iran isolated the country's devout masses. Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran has done the same to secular Iranians, many of whom live in exile.

The challenge for Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his partner in power, Ayatollah Khamenei, is to reconcile Iran's secular people with its religious, its practical needs with its revolutionary ideals. Iran after the revolution is beginning to take shape, and it is likely to be a shape distinct from both the shah's Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran.

Iran's new leaders must turn Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution into stable rule. And they must do it without leaving "Khomeini's way."


Inside a green-domed tomb of latticed iron, girdled in Koranic script, the Imam rests beneath a marble slab. On Fridays, the Iranian weekend, men and women, their shoes checked outside with an attendant, come to pray and caress and kiss the metal grill that separates them from the gravestone.

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