WASHINGTON – When I traveled to a small town outside Paris that early winter morning to interview the Iranian Shiite leader, the mysterious Ayatollah Khomeini, a veil of historic disaster was already hanging over the Middle East. But who was this man? Very few outside Iran seemed to know.
The small French summer house where I found him in December 1978 was buzzing with activity, but also with an undercurrent of threat. Would I be “respectful” of the Great Man? Of course. Would I wear the abaya, the head-to-toe black covering of religious women? If I had to.
Then they bundled me up in robes from head to toe and placed me (and, thankfully, my pen and notebook) on a Persian rug inside an empty room.
I remember mostly the ayatollah’s eyes. They were like great black burning coals. With his large black turban and angry white beard, he reminded me as he entered of nothing so much as an ancient biblical prophet, and I felt waves of evil surrounding his figure.
Because the regime of the American-supported modernizer, the cancer-ridden Shah of Iran, was already teetering on collapse, I first asked the ayatollah what kind of Iran he would build, if he became the nation’s leader? Oh, a democratic one where all were equal, was the reply. And what would be a woman’s place? Women would be free to go to the university, to do anything!
Anyone who knew even a little bit about the ayatollah’s highly conservative form of Islam would realize the early Persians learned how to “dissimulate” or lie to strategically protect the faith from invaders. So I did not take any of this very seriously. And I was surely right.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution, and it did indeed shake the entire Middle East – immeasurably, irrevocably, inexorably – like an existential earthquake. Countries from Egypt to Jordan to Tunisia to the Gulf States feared their unemployed youth would turn to fervent Islamic fanaticism or even terrorism, and many did.
On this painful anniversary, it might help us to look upon Iran, historical Persia, with new eyes. We know that Khomeini’s closed, regressive and often cruel regime has supported destructive forces across the region. But also note that the highly reliable Financial Times led off a full-page analysis of Iran this week by quoting as typical a “child of the revolution,” who now says, “It was a mistake to topple the shah’s regime.” This new sympathy for the old rule of the shah is a stunning development.
Still other young Iranians told the paper they were “fed up” with the current regime’s “hypocrisy” and with the “exploitation of Islam for political purposes.” They often angrily compare their impoverished Iran with developed and rich South Korea.
As Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council wrote this week in The Washington Times, since 1979, Iran’s economy has dropped from 17th to 27th place in the world, “one of the steepest declines in modern history. ... Iranian citizens are now 30 percent poorer than they were in 1979.”
All of this makes me remember that, soon after Khomeini came to power in February 1979, I interviewed Yasser Arafat, then leader of the P.L.O., in his hideaway in Beirut. This usually inscrutable and often incoherent man was almost delirious with joy that night.
“I sat up there, I sat up there,” he kept saying, “with him! We reviewed the troops together, and I ... was ... up there!” Translated that means he had just been in Tehran with the ayatollah and they had been together, up on the reviewing stand, overseeing the marching, shouting, fanaticized troops of the Islamic revolution.
But a too-often ignored rule of history that these men never seem to learn is that the ego gratification and demagogic fervor of reviewing troops does not a nation build.
There have been great liberal Muslim societies across history: Al-Andalus in Spain, the Mughal Empire in India, the (more-or-less) Ottoman Empire in Turkey and many more. The great universities of ancient times, from Damascus to Baghdad, saved the universal works of Greece for all of us. Today you could add Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Dubai and especially Oman to an imperfect but impressive modern list of Islamic countries that choose moderate, step-by-step development over reviewing troops.
President Trump is obsessed with the repressive Revolutionary Guard parts of Iran, but as we can see this February, 40 years later, much of Iran is yearning and burning from within for transformation. That is the Iran we should be helping to realize itself.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.