WASHINGTON -- It was the end of November 1978, and I was congratulating myself on having a wonderful idea. Iran was once again in the news, and a figure of threat and dread no less than the Ayatollah Khomeini was in Paris, preparing to head back to Iran to take power.
With a leader like Khomeini, who had been in exile in Najaf, Iraq, under the rule of the U.S.-supported Shah, it would, I presumed, be extremely difficult to get in touch with him. He hated the West. We had overthrown some of the country's best leaders and kept Khomeini from power all during his exile. I expected the worst.
So I phoned the Reuters news agency, always a great source of numbers, data and good advice. They gave me the Ayatollah's number at once. On that number, a Western voice answered and said, "If you can be here Thursday before the Ayatollah's prayers, he can see you; otherwise he cannot."
Later, I would discover that the civilized voice on the phone was that of Ibrahim Yazdi, University of Texas-educated and one of the pro-Western young men ready to take over through using the old man.
In a small French house in the village of Neuphle-le-Chateau, I met the "great man." I was sitting on the floor on a Persian rug, covered with a black abaya, and when he came into the room it was as if some great black moth had floated in after me.
When he sat on the floor across from me, all my attention was drawn to his eyes. They were like two black coals, burning and unforgiving. And when I dared to scan my eyes over the entire figure sitting there, I felt waves of evil emanating from him.
What would the new Persian state under him be like?
"It will be a democracy."
What will women be able to do?
"They can be anything. They can be doctors, or lawyers, or professors ... Whatever they are capable of."
Doesn't this go against the Quran?
In short, everything he told me was a lie. It was at this point that I realized I was becoming only the most recent opportunity for Khomeini to illustrate the old Persian tradition of "dissimulation." The Persians, or Iranians, had been conquered over the centuries by anyone who was around: Mongols, Sunnis, Zoroastrians, Turks, Hittites; and in order to protect their religion and its texts, the Persians had developed a concept, dissimulation.
Other cultures lie to defend themselves, but dissimulation was more a holy act to keep their own men from being killed and their own culture from being wiped out.
Once in power, with the Shah of Iran driven to the ends of the Earth, the new rulers practiced their own dissimulation, using it to drive away all comers. They took the American Embassy officers hostage for a year, until the new president, Ronald Reagan, scared the devil out of them and the hostages were let go.
So now, in this year of the 35th anniversary of the revolution, it might well help us to see what kind of world the ayatollahs and their senior aides have brought to flower.
In Khomeini's Islamic Republic of Iran, we have a prime example of the first Islamic all-powerful state in modern times. Then, almost immediately, came the brutal war with Iraq, in which the West sided with secular Iraq. It was a horrible war, with millions dead.
When I went out to the front lines east of Basra in Iraq in 1983, the desert was littered with bodies; yet, the bodies were all covered with sand, giving the eerie impression that they were just sand-covered bumps in the road.
After the war ended as senselessly as it began -- nobody really won -- Khomeini continued to establish his Islamic state; he expanded it to Lebanon, where he organized the terrorist group Hezbollah, which still plays a crucial role in the government; he sponsored other terrorist groups up to his death in 1989. And now his Islamic Iran is supporting President al-Assad against the United States in Syria.
But what now? Iran has a reasonably liberal president, Hassan Rouhani, who gives every sign of wanting the country to look westward. Indeed, it shows every intention of doing that. Iran could now be heading toward a new life with the West and its values -- or, it can always snap back to the medievalism of its political and religious past.
If it embraces the West, this would be one of the great political pivots of modern history -- something like the Chinese making up with Nixon and Kissinger. What a victory for democracy and for reason it would be to have Iran back in the exchange of serious nations.
- Politics & Government
- Religion & Beliefs
- Ayatollah Khomeini