Iran – The ''Golden Age'' That Was Not
29 May 2016
By Amir Taheri
It is now weeks that Iran's political-clerical circles are abuzz about an
''open letter'' written to President Hassan Rouhani by Mehdi Karrubi, a former
Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis) who has been under house
arrest since 2009 after challenging the results of the 2009 presidential
The letter is interesting for several reasons. First, it states that Rouhani
is not responsible for the ''house arrest'' decision and is regarded as no
more than a channel for transmitting the letter to real, un-named
decision-makers. This means that Rouhani is basically an actor playing the
role of president and that, in effect, Iran lacks a government in the normal
sense of the term.
Secondly, Karrubi's letter is designed to transform his image as a radical
activist of long-standing into a new convert to reform and moderation, if not
Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, however, Karrubi belonged to the
hardline faction of the Khomeinist establishment. In 1993 he even led the
Islamic Republic's delegation to the so-called Islamic Peoples' Congress,
hosted by the late Hassan Al-Turabi in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. There,
the gathering of Islamist militants from more than 70 countries elected him as
a member of the nine-man Leadership Council with the mission to spread their
brand of Islamism across the globe. Members of the council included such
luminaries as Al-Turabi himself, Algeria's Abbassi Madani, and Osama bin
It is understandable that Karrubi should be sore about being put under house
arrest as the enemy of Khomeinism, an ideology that he had done more than many
others to defend and spread.
However, it is the third reason why Karrubi's letter is of particular
interests to us. Here Karrubi tries to present the reign of the late Ayatollah
Ruhallah Khomeini, or ''Imam'' as his supporters like to call him, as a golden
age in which no one could suffer arbitrary arrest let alone being put under
house arrest without charge. Karrubi's reading of Khomeini's tenure as ruler
is too preposterous to merit a detailed rebuttal.
In his decade as a despot, Khomeini presided over tens of thousands of illegal
executions, ordered the massacre of thousands of ethnic minorities, sent more
than 1.2 million Iranians to jail for short, medium and long periods, and
drove an estimated 4.5 million into exile.
Khomeini was even bad news for the mullahs. In fact, since Iran was converted
to Shi'ism by the Safavids in the 16th Century, no ruler has killed,
imprisoned or exiled so many mullahs. Under Khomeini, on the average, relative
to the size of their community, the number of clerics, including students of
theology, who were in prison, was higher than that of any other social
Khomeini set up a special Clerical Court to deal with mullahs and students of
theology who dared defy his arbitrary rule. The so-called court, still in
existence, had no legal or theological basis and was answerable to no one, a
state within the state. It sentenced dozens of mullahs to death, among them
ayatollahs such as Abdul-Reza Hejazi who a year earlier, had been elected
Tehran's number one deputy in the Islamic Majlis, and Hussein Daneshian a
member of parliament from Abadan. Also executed were such senior clerics as
Mehdi Mahdawi, Isfahani Herawi and Muhammad-Hassan Tehrani.
Many clerics suffered torture in Khomeini's prisons. Among them were
Ayatollahs Razi Golpayegani, Jalili Kermanshahi, Mahdi Haste'i, Ali Maqsudi,
Reza Sadr and Morteza Shirazi. Among mid-ranking mullahs sent to prison by
Khomeini were such noted religious scholars as Hassan Rasa, Kazem Mar'ashi,
Haibbalah Ashuri and Rastegari Qomi.
Khomeini also did something no other Shi'ite ruler of Iran had done in 500
years: de-frocking senior clerics on spurious charges.
The best estimates put the number of mullahs de-frocked by
Khomeini at over 80. These included Ayatollahs Sayyed-Ali Hashemi, Jawad
Manaqebi, Ali Noghani, Taqi Qomi-Tabatab'i, Ali Tehrani, Ali-Naqi Jalali, and
However, the worst case for pious Shiites was the de-frocking of Grand
Ayatollah Muhammad-Kazem Shariatmadari, who was the ''Grand Marj'a al-Taqlid''
(Source of Emulation) in Iran at the time. The Grand Marj'a of all Shiites at
the time was Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Kho'i in Najaf. Khomeini sent one of
his thugs, a certain junior mullah named Muhammadi Reyshahri, to invade
Shariatmadari's home in Qom, take off his turban and bring him to Tehran under
When unable to put his hands on mullahs he didn't like or was jealous because
they were outside Iran, Khomeini ordered their de-frocking or sent hit-squads
to assassinate them abroad. In some cases, he ordered that the family of a
mullah in exile be taken hostage to force him to return to Iran.
One notorious case was that of Ayatollah Muhammad-Hassan Tehrani who had
managed to flee to Germany but agreed to return to Tehran after his family was
held hostage by Khomeini. Soon after his return he was executed with a single
shot in the head after suffering torture in prison.
Karrubi may see Khomeini's reign as a ''golden age''. But he forgets the late
ayatollah's almost childish meanness and cruelty.
When Ayatollah Muhammad-Hussein Alawi Borujerdi was told by his doctors that
he needed to go to Europe for medical treatment Khomeini refused him a
passport. The ''Imam'' was taking revenge for real or imagined humiliation
that, as a young man, he had suffered in the entourage of Grand Ayatollah
Muhammad-Hussein Borujerdi in the 19040s (Alawi was a son-in-law of Borujerdi).
Khomeini is also suspected, though without concrete evidence so far, of having
ordered the ''quiet murder'' by poison of Ayatollah Muhammad-Reza Shirazi,
settling his score with the Shirazis of Karbala, a prominent clan of Shiite
clerics who accused the self-styled'' Imam'' of initiating a ''bed'ah''
(innovation) which is regarded as a theological sin. When Muhammad Shirazi
died, Khomeini prevented the family from burying the ayatollah in the precinct
of the Masoumeh Shrine in Qom. Khomeini ordered that Shirazi be buried in the
women's quarter of the nearby graveyard.
Again, the ''Imam'' was settling personal scores with the Shirazi clan.
Karrubi's letter pretends that putting mullahs under house arrest did not
exist in Khomeini's ''golden age.'' That, too, is false. Khomeini's own
designated heir Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri died under house arrest
as did Grand Ayatollah Hassan Qomi-Tabatabai who had the street where his
house was located in Mash'had closed with a wall and an iron gate guarded by
Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Grand Ayatollahs Sadeq Husseini Shirazi and
Sadeq Rouhani were also put under house arrest in Qom. Khomeini even put his
own grandson, Hussein, under house arrest after the latter, then a student of
theology, criticized his grandfather's ''arbitrary decisions.''
Mr. Karrubi's presentation of Khomeini's decade as a ''golden age'' is
disingenuous to say the least. In all those years, Karrubi and many like him
either remained silent or justified the crimes committed by the ''Imam''.
Compared to what would have happened to him under Khomeini, the treatment that
Karrubi has received could be regarded as cordon bleu.
This does not mean that one should approve of Karrubi's house arrest which is
illegal, inhuman and mean.
What is important is to remember that if you are silent, let alone approving,
when someone is subjected to injustice, the same could one day also happen to
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005,
he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.