Monday, December 08, 2008 12/8/08-The Ayatollah Khomeini

In today's excerpt--fundamentalism, whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic, can be better understood as a reaction to great suffering or the disruption of rapid change. And so it was that the discovery of oil in Iran in the early twentieth century had led that country to a chaotic rush to modernization. That, coupled with the U.S.-led coup that overthrew the democratically elected leader of Iran and reaffirmed the Shah as dictator, formed the backdrop to the emergence of an angry Ayatollah Khomeini and the terrible 1979 takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran:

"Animosity between the royal house of Iran and the fundamentalists of the dominant Shia Islamic sect dated back to Reza Shah's fierce battle for power with the Shiite clergy in the 1920s and 1930s and was part of a much larger struggle between secular and religious forces. ...

"It had become evident in the mid-1970s that Iran simply could not absorb the vast increase in oil revenues that was flooding into the country. The petrodollar, megalomaniacally misspent on extravagant modernization programs or lost to waste and corruption, was generating economic chaos and social and political tension throughout the nation. The rural populace was pouring from the village, into the already-overcrowded towns and cities; agricultural output was declining. while food imports were going up. Inflation had seized control of the country, breeding all the inevitable discontents. A middle manager or a civil servant in Tehran spent up to 70 percent of his salary on rent.

"Iran's infrastructure could not cope with the pressure suddenly thrust upon it; the backward railway system was overwhelmed; Tehran's streets were jammed with traffic. The national electricity grid could not meet demand, and it broke down. Parts of Tehran and other cities were regularly blacked out, sometimes for four or five hours a day, a disaster for industrial production and domestic life and a further source of anger and discontent. Iranians from every sector of national life were losing patience with the Shah's regime and the pell-mell rush to modernization. Grasping for some certitude in the melee, they increasingly heeded the call of traditional Islam and of an ever more fervent fundamentalism. The beneficiary was the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose religious rectitude and unyielding resistance made him the embodiment of opposition to the Shah and his regime and indeed to the very character and times of Iran in the mid-1970s. ...

"For many years, Khomeini had regarded the [Shah's] regime as both corrupt and illegitimate. But he did not become politically active until about the age of sixty, when he emerged as a leading figure in the opposition to the 'White Revolution,' as the Shah's reform program was called, ... landing in jail more than once and eventually ending up in exile in Iraq. His hatred of the Shah was matched only by his detestation of the United States, which he regarded as the main prop of the [Shah's] regime. His denunciations from exile in Iraq were cast in the rhetoric of blood and vengeance; he seemed to be driven by an unadulterated anger of extraordinary intensity, and he himself became the rallying point for the growing discontent. The words of other, more moderate ayatollahs were overwhelmed by the exile's harsh and uncompromising voice."

Daniel Yergin, The Prize, Free Press, Copyright 1991, 1992, pp. 674-675


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