The last great revolution
Early passions have been replaced by a hard-earned pragmatism
By Robin Wright
January 19, 2000
Excerpt from Robin Wright's The
Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran (2000,
Knopf). Wright has reported from 120 countries as a correspondent for the
Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CBS News,
and The Sunday Times of London. She won the National Magazine Award
for her reporting on Iran for The New Yorker. She is also the author
(with Doyle McManus) Sacred
Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam, and In
the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade.
On the dusty highway south from bustling Tehran, an enormous gold dome
rises importantly across the horizon. Heat from the surrounding desert
makes it shiver like a mirage, even in winter. Four spiny minarets quiver
rhythmically alongside it.
The most ornate shrine in Iran -- and one of the largest monuments ever
constructed in the Muslim world over the past thirteen centuries -- was
built in record time above the burial site of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
after he died abruptly from a heart attack in 1989. Disgruntled Iranians
complained at the time that its cost was greater than the annual budget
of Tehran, a city of some 13 million people. Iran's devout boasted that
it was finer than both the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the prophet Mohammad's
tomb in Medina, Islam's two holiest sites. Their message was implicit.
The trip to Khomeini's tomb and the nearby Paradise of Zahra has always
served as a barometer of Iran's revolution. I've stopped there on every
visit. The last time was almost twenty years after the revolution -- and
a decade after the ayatollah's death -- when I sat in the back seat of
a boxy white Paykan taxi, a warm wind threatening to blow off the big scarf
that hid my hair and a tape of the Spice Girls booming from the taxi's
En route, my old friend Lily Sadeghi and I made plans to see a Molière
farce that night at one of Tehran's new cultural centers. We regretted
having missed a local production of Les Misérables, in Persian,
that had just closed after a six-month run.
"We probably wouldn't have gotten in anyway," Lily said. "It
was very popular. It was always sold out."
Then we laughed about all the American tourists who had started coming
to Iran again. Another group had just checked into the Laleh Hotel, the
former Intercontinental renamed for the tulip, a national symbol.
Until just a few months earlier, the Laleh and most other hotels had
big signs emblazoned across lobby walls or on entrance walkways for visitors
to tread on that declared, in English, "down with the usa." They'd
been put up in the heady days of 1979 after the United States Embassy seizure,
at the same time that Khomeini's pledge "America will face a severe
defeat" was painted across the embassy's high brick wall.
But that morning, two decades after the revolution, I'd watched a group
of American tourists assemble in the Laleh's redecorated lobby. They, too,
were going to visit Khomeini's tomb.
Like the world around it, Iran has been -- and still is -- going through
a transformation. Early passions have been replaced by a hard-earned pragmatism,
produced in part by revolutionary excesses that backfired against the clerics
and exhausted the population. Arrogance has given way to realism. The "government
of God" is ceding to secular statecraft. The passage of time has also
helped to restore perspective. The shift is visible even at the tomb of
the soulful Imam [a term of reverence given a Shi'ite religious leader
by popular consensus rather than by formal appointment or vote. Its use
is rare] who in 1979 led a widely disparate movement that ended 2,500 years
of monarchy and then, over the next decade, defined what would replace
The main chamber in the domed tomb is, indeed, magnificent. The foundation,
walls and massive pillars are a polished white marble that reflects the
light of chandeliers and gives the tomb an airy feeling. Persian carpets,
all handwoven silks in richly textured designs denoting Iran's different
provinces, adorn the floors.
In the center is a cage-like chamber of glass big enough to be a room.
It is canopied in green, the color of Islam. Inside, the ayatollah lies
under a six-foot-high block of marble, also covered by a green cloth. Next
to the Imam, under a smaller block of marble, is his son Ahmad, who died
in 1995. The official version is that Ahmad died of a heart attack, although
the grapevine in conspiracy-crazed Iran claimed a variety of more sinister
causes, each of which was fueled largely by the fact that Ahmad was only
in his late forties.
The chamber's glass walls are covered with a silvery-metal grid, in
no small part to prevent the large crowds that once assembled here from
breaking through to the Imam's remains. The faithful still shudder at the
memory of the chaos at Khomeini's funeral, when his shrouded body was uncovered
and tossed around by mourners vying to get a last look or touch. On each
side of the chamber, at eye level, is a slit through which to pass money.
Rial notes used to be piled high inside around the edges. Inside the octagonal
dome above Khomeini are somewhat incongruous stained-glass windows of giant
red tulips with green stems crafted artistically in the simple modernistic
style of New York City's "big apple." In Iran, the tulip is the
symbol of martyrdom as well as the national flower.
For all its splendor, the tomb is now a place of unusual informality.
Non-Muslims and foreigners are welcome; unlike in mosques, men and women
mix freely together here. Out of either reverence or curiosity, almost
everyone who enters heads first for Khomeini's chamber.
As I peered inside it, a small middle-aged woman next to me wept softly,
reciting a prayer and touching the metal with rough hands stained with
henna. Then, having paid her respects, she walked over to join a group
having a picnic lunch.
Throughout the cavernous tomb, groups were spread across the carpets,
eating or chatting, while children played tag or raced to slide across
the marble floor in their stocking feet; two boys even kicked around a
small soccer ball. Some loners, mainly but not exclusively men, were curled
up against the wall napping.
Outside, on the vast plaza that surrounds the tomb, the atmosphere was
quite social, almost festive. A row of outdoor cafés offered an
assortment of sweet delicacies. On the other side of the plaza, souvenir
kiosks sold T-shirts, beach towels, key rings, pinup posters and even large
bamboo blinds featuring Khomeini's image, as well as cassette tapes of
the ayatollah's last will and testament -- in Persian, English, French,
German and Arabic.
"With a tranquil and confident heart, joyous spirit and conscience
hopeful of God's grace, I leave you, sisters and brothers, and depart for
the eternal abode," one poster proclaimed, quoting Khomeini, who is
depicted ascending to heaven on a rainbow.
Judging from the purchases, T-shirts were clearly more popular than
the Imam's last will and testament.
Like the crumpled rials around the grave, profits from memorabilia were
being used to expand the complex. Construction was already under way on
an addition designed to spread across some five thousand acres and include
an Islamic studies university as well as a seminary, hotels for pilgrims
and a shopping mall, all at a cost of at least $2.5 billion. The tomb will
eventually become the center of a suburb, complete with its own metro stop.
For a weekend afternoon, the tomb was lightly populated -- roughly two
hundred people in a facility that could hold several thousand. The count
went up when a class of preteen girls, just old enough to don the headscarf
and body cover of Islamic modesty, filed in with their teachers. The tea
men at the outdoor café said the tomb still bustled at holidays
and revolutionary anniversaries and during various pilgrimages.
"They keep coming and coming," said one, shaking his head,
in a tone of curious disbelief that once might have been considered dangerously
The last stop for many visitors before leaving the plaza is a large
chunk of smoothed white stone that features an embossed bust of Khomeini.
The image is almost translucent. That day, a few Japanese tourists and
several Iranian schoolgirls were lined up to have their picture taken in
front of it. With the Imam peering across their shoulders and the domed
shrine in the background, the photo is the ultimate souvenir in the Islamic
republic. It captures what even the most dogmatic clergy now concede is
part of Iran's past.
The passions once evoked by Ayatollah Khomeini may have waned, even
withered, as the tough realities of running a large country with a complex
economy have taken precedence. But the idea behind the revolution led by
the Imam still had historic importance two decades later -- perhaps in
some ways even more than when it started.
Its significance also extended far beyond Iran, the Middle East, the
broader Islamic world and even the twentieth century, for one simple reason:
It is the last great revolution of the Modern Era.
The singular political theme of the Modern Era -- and particularly the
twentieth century -- has been empowerment, or the spread of political,
economic and social rights to the earth's farthest corners, to all its
diverse ethnic groups, races, religions and, perhaps last of all, to both
genders. Dozens of countries can claim revolutions in the name of empowerment
since the English Revolution of the 1640s created a modern precedent. But
fewer than a handful represented seminal turning points. They set the pace,
defined goals, provided justification and, most important, introduced a
viable new idiom of opposition later adapted or imitated elsewhere.
Two revolutions particularly shook political conventions by introducing
new ideologies: In toppling the Bourbons of France, the Jacobins of the
eighteenth century introduced equality and civil liberty as the basis of
modern democracy. In the early twentieth century, the Bolsheviks overthrew
the Russian Romanovs in favor of classless egalitarianism.
The ideas that emerged from both revolutions in turn helped to topple
monarchies and petty tyrannies worldwide and then defined the political
spectrum that replaced them. The pace accelerated as demand for political
participation spread after World War II. However misguided in application,
the empowerment embodied in democracy and socialism inspired popular uprisings
from China to Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s, independence movements from
Algeria to Zambia in the 1960s and 1970s and, finally, the penetration
of democracy from the Soviet Union to South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s.
But that pattern of global change has had one large gap: the Islamic
The Muslim world is a vast and vital area that accounts for more than
50 of the world's 191 countries. It stretches from Indonesia on the Pacific
Ocean to Morocco on the Atlantic, from Kazakhstan in chilly Central Asia
to Saudi Arabia on the warm Persian Gulf, from Somalia in drought-plagued
east Africa to Nigeria on Africa's fertile west coast and from Yemen on
the Red Sea to Lebanon on the Mediterranean.
The Islamic bloc also accounts for one of every five people on earth
-- or more than one billion who have been excluded from the political process
for most of the Modern Era. As home to the final functioning monarchies
and the largest number of authoritarian regimes, it is today the last bloc
to hold out against the tide of democratic reform that has swept the rest
of the world.
In this context, Iran's upheaval is arguably the Modern Era's last great
revolution. It effectively completes the process launched in the West by
other ideologies that were adopted by or adapted to all other parts of
Like its earlier counterparts, Iran's Islamic revolution introduced
a new ideology to the world's modern political spectrum. [In 1984, the
State Department held a closed-door conference on Iran. Marvin Zonis, director
of the University of Chicago's Middle East Institute, concluded at the
time, "The message from Iran is in my opinion the single most impressive
political ideology proposed in the twentieth century -- since the Bolshevik
Revolution. And if we accept that Bolshevism is a remnant of the nineteenth
century, then I argue that we've had only one good one in the twentieth
-- and it's this one. . . . This powerful message will be with us for a
very long time -- no matter what happens to Ayatollah Khomeini."]
In a region where members of the opposition have often been imprisoned
or exiled, it established the precedent of using Islam -- a familiar, legitimate
and widely available vehicle -- to push for empowerment. It provided a
format, if not a precise formula, for the last group of undemocratic regimes
to make the transition. And despite Western portrayals of it as a force
spinning Iran back thirteen centuries in time, the sixteen-month upheaval
in Tehran demonstrated that Islam could be a distinctly modern idiom of
political opposition in both tactics and goals.
The product has been unique: Although thoroughly Islamic with several
unique twists, Iran has become a modern republic based on a unique blend
of Islamic and European law, most notably borrowing ideas from France and
Belgium. It calls for national, provincial and local elections in which
all males and females vote as of age fifteen. It stipulates term limits
for the presidency and allocates parliamentary seats for Christians, Jews
and Zoroastrians -- at least token acknowledgment of individual or minority
The impact of Iran's revolution on its brethren has also been obvious:
It ignited the budding Islamic movement that emerged out of the 1967 and
1973 Arab-Israeli wars and spurred on opposition movements throughout the
Muslim world. In the 1980s, the trend was most visibly linked to radicalism,
from plots to overthrow the emir on the tiny Persian Gulf island of Bahrain
to the Islamic takeover in Sudan, Africa's largest country, from the assassination
of President Anwar Sadat in Egypt to the campaign against American diplomats
and Marines in Lebanon.
Less visible and more important, however, were the quiet efforts to
produce Islamic alternatives to failed state institutions, from schools
and clinics to farm co-ops and welfare agencies. Islamic groups struggled
to create a new civil society -- the network of associations, unions and
clubs for workers, teachers, engineers, women, doctors, youth and other
sectors that became a means of addressing problems their governments ignored.
In the 1990s, tactics among key political groups increasingly shifted
from the bullet to the ballot, with the rise of political parties trying
to work within the system rather than from outside it in countries such
as Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen and Kuwait.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the trend is far from
climaxing. For years, empowerment in the Islamic world will be a major
theme of political change -- be it peaceful as in Jordan, bloody as in
Algeria, or tumultuous as in Indonesia. Iran's revolution may therefore
not be the last revolution; other societies may well have national revolts
that topple outdated ideological systems.
And in the end, no Islamic country is likely to duplicate the Iranian
experience. Its excesses diminished interest in emulating Tehran, except
among a tiny corps of extremists. The costs were too high, the results
too controversial. The Shi'ite character of the revolution also makes it
unlikely to be repeated among Sunni governments, which most other Muslim
governments are. Finally, strong indications that the specific Iranian
model may yet fail -- albeit for economic rather than ideological reasons
-- will make other societies wary of imitating the Islamic Republic.
Yet whatever happens, Iran's revolution will still rank as the Modern
Era's last great revolution, because Tehran paved the way for using Islam
to push for empowerment -- not only politically. Just as the Reformation
was critical to the Age of Enlightenment and the birth of modern democracy
in the West, so too have Iranian philosophers advanced a reformation within
Islam that is critical to lasting political change.
In some ways, Iran might seem an unusual place for the last great revolution.
The Islamic world is as diverse as it is vast.
But Iran is particularly unique. It is the only overwhelmingly Shi'ite
country in a bloc that is some 85 percent Sunni Muslim. It is an aberration
from both the Middle East and south Asia, the two regions it bridges. It
is the only Muslim state of Aryan people, the Indo-European race whence
Iran gets its modern name.
Ethnically it also stands alone, with Arabs to the west, the Central
Asian mix to the north, Indo-Afghan-Pakistanis to the southeast and assorted
Asian Muslims to the far east. Even Tajikistan, a northern neighbor and
the only other Farsi-speaking country in the world, is Sunni Muslim.
Iran stands apart geographically, too, because of two great mountain
ranges, the Alborz and the Zagros, and three great bodies of water, the
Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
Yet those attributes are also reasons why Iran was a logical place for
such sweeping political innovation.
First, Shi'ite Islam demands that the faithful fight against injustice
and tyranny, even if it means certain death. Islam's so-called second sect
was born out of a sense of persecution by a seventh-century dynasty that
usurped leadership of the new Islamic world -- and spawned a sense of outrage
that lives on today. Shi'ite clerics also have a mandate to mobilize and
direct their flocks into action, not just to advise them. That power explains
why Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as a natural leader to unite both secular
and religious opposition against a twentieth-century dynasty.
Islam, which makes no distinction between the powers of Caesar and God,
had also long been a nationalist force in Iran. Shi'ism had been a source
of national identity -- even among those less than devout -- since it was
introduced in 1501 by the new Safavid Dynasty to create a sense of common
identity separate from the Ottoman Empire, which was ruled by Sunni Muslims.
And even into the twentieth century, Iran was a country of feudal fiefdoms,
tribes and ethnic groups whose rivalries ran deep -- hence the historic
need for strong leadership or a binding social force, or both.
Second, Iran was politically more experienced than virtually any other
Muslim state. Most countries were created or gained independence from European
colonial powers only in the twentieth century. But Iran had a long, if
somewhat varied, history of sovereignty.
Third, with more than 2,500 years of civilization, Iranians have a sense
of historic importance and of a role in shaping the world. Iran has produced
centuries' worth of great writers and philosophers. It also had the intellectual
environment that stimulated questioning, new ideas and, eventually, a revolutionary
Fourth, as a crossroads between East and West and a target of invading
armies from ancient Greece to contemporary Britain, Persia had long exposure
to ideas from the outside world. Iranians absorbed and adapted many of
the traditions, ideas and skills from other cultures to their own ways,
from the early medicine of the Jews and the religion of the Arabs to English
as a second language. Along the way, they were also influenced by the Greco-Roman
legacy and the Judeo-Christian values that, together, formed the basis
for Western revolutions since the Age of Enlightenment.
Fifth, the quest for empowerment in Iran did not simply explode unpredictably
in 1979. The trend of the entire century, particularly two earlier upheavals,
centered on ending dynastic rule.
The Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11 was sparked by the weak Qajar
Dynasty's decision to dole out political and economic concessions to Britain
and Russia. Britain won the exclusive right to tap Iran's oil.
To curtail powers that allowed the king to give away the country and
to rid Persia of foreigners who challenged religious and social traditions,
a powerful alliance of the clergy, the intelligentsia and the bazaar merchants
launched a protest. Prolonged instability forced the Qajar monarch, in
1906, to accept demands for Persia's first constitution and its first parliament
-- both of which limited the king's powers.
In 1953, the last Pahlavi shah, also weak and also heavily influenced
by foreign powers, faced a similar challenge from the National Front. The
front, led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, was a four-party coalition
that advocated constitutional democracy and limited powers for the monarchy.
But the shah's attempt to have Mossadeq dismissed backfired, forcing the
monarch to flee to Rome. The last dynasty looked as if it had fizzled --
until the CIA and British intelligence orchestrated riots that forced Mossadeq
to resign and allowed the young king to return to the Peacock Throne for
another quarter century.
The revolution was thus an extension of earlier challenges. With attempts
at evolutionary change repeatedly blocked, revolution became the alternative
route to empowerment.
But the political endgame in 1979 marked the Modern Era's last great
revolution not only because of its success in scrapping one of the world's
oldest kingdoms. What happened after the revolution may be even more important,
particularly the way Iranians, often in defiance of the government, adapted
the Islamic system in creative and progressive ways.
During the Islamic republic's first two decades, new approaches to everyday
issues produced everything from an internationally acclaimed cinema to
an alternative press, from novel family-planning programs to women's activism.
These nonpolitical innovations are virtually certain to produce the revolution's
real legacy -- and to have a far more enduring impact in the wider Islamic
world than Iran's political system will have.