Khomeinist Consolidation of Power
The unity, discipline, and spirit of cooperation that Iran’s competing factions exhibited in toppling the monarchy broke down almost immediately after Shapour Bakhtiar’s short-lived government fell. The hopes and aspirations of the Iranian population for more inclusive, less repressive governance, democracy, and economic justice never came to fruition. Over the early years of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini and his backers consolidated absolute domestic power ruthlessly while haphazardly guiding Iran into a series of international imbroglios – the takeover of the U.S. Embassy and subsequent 444-day hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq War – rendering the new regime embattled from the onset.
The takeover of Iran by the Khomeinist faction and the imposition of a clerical monopoly on power was not a foregone conclusion. However, the non-clerical factions within the broad-based, multiparty revolutionary coalition underestimated the Khomeinists’ desire to rule Iran, their organizational abilities, and large-scale popular support. The complacency by the non-clerical opposition was in part due to overly trusting Khomeini, believing his repeated public declarations during his Paris exile that neither he nor his clerical backers would hold direct power in a new government, as well as statements that the Islamic Republic would uphold ideological pluralism and respect the rights of women and minorities. Khomeini’s backing of the non-clerical Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister of Iran’s post-Shah provisional government seemingly validated his rejection of direct clerical rule.
Part of Khomeini’s charisma and appeal was his ability to apply an ideological framework rooted in Islamic history and symbolism to give voice to the Iranian people’s social, economic, and political grievances. According to the Khomeinist framework, Islamic revival also solved Iran’s problems. Thus, Khomeini and his backers would seek a full-scale government takeover rather than returning to a separate religious sphere and leaving governance functions to assorted politicians and technocrats. The opposition factions additionally erred in assuming that clerical rule would be short-lived as their managerial incompetence was exposed, underestimating the Khomeinists' willingness to maintain power with an iron grip.
Khomeini and his followers consolidated power in the months and years after the revolution. It was characterized by increasing extremism, bloodletting, and antagonism toward the U.S. and the West that would set Iran inextricably on its repressive, confrontational trajectory. Although Khomeini had set up a largely secular provisional government under Mehdi Bazargan, Khomeini simultaneously sought to increase the power of clerical institutions, most notably vesting significant power in the Islamic Revolutionary Council, which came to operate as a parallel government with the ability to pass laws.
Committed to gradualism and democracy, Bazargan’s role, as drawn up by decree of the Islamic Revolutionary Council, was strictly transitional. He sought to bring the economy and government administration back to life following months of paralysis in the lead-up to the revolution. He laid the groundwork for drafting and adopting a constitution that would usher in Iran’s new political order. Bazargan’s wishes for a gradual, smooth, and orderly transition would be dashed by the untamable spirit of chaos and revolution swirling after the fall of the Shah and the Khomeinists’ accrual of power through various parallel revolutionary bodies.
The Islamic Revolutionary Committee on which Ali Khamenei served was the primary wellspring of Khomeinist post-revolutionary political power. The committee cooperated with Bazargan’s provisional government on certain matters, such as pacifying ethnic uprisings around the country that sprang up after the revolution but ultimately competed with it. One of the Khomeinists’ first orders of business following the Revolution was establishing a formal political party to institutionalize clerical power, create a link between the clerical elite and its base within the citizenry, and construct an official ideology for the nascent state. With Khomeini’s approval, Khamenei was among the founders of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) on February 17, 1979.
Once founded, the IRP set about creating or co-opting existing institutions to consolidate power, destroy the opposition, and mete out justice to those who resisted the Khomeinists’ program. One such important institution in the post-revolutionary aftermath was the revolutionary tribunals set up and monopolized by the Khomeinists, which capitalized on the public’s demand for vengeance against remnants of the Shah’s regime. The tribunals began executing former government officials, military, police, and SAVAK officers just days after the revolution, becoming a weapon against enemies of the Khomeinists deemed counterrevolutionary. Bazargan and other moderate voices within Iran criticized the tribunals for their barbarity and lack of due process, which Khomeini derided as evidence of the “Western sickness among us.”
The Islamic Republican Party also had loose ties to the komitehs, informal, freelance militias operated at the neighborhood level as a primitive security and intelligence service. The komitehs were an extension of the neighborhood committees centered on the mosques that had been a locus for political organizing, demonstrations, and strikes in the years preceding the revolution. After the revolution, the makeshift militias were awash in pilfered arms seized from military armories during the Revolution and were, therefore, more powerful but also less disciplined. The komitehs helped the Khomeinists identify enemies and counterrevolutionaries and used intimidation to try and uphold revolutionary ideology and adherence to Islamic dress and mores. Bazargan strongly opposed the proliferation of the komitehs and their extralegal arrests, confiscations of property, and interference in legitimate government work. However, they served as a useful instrument of terror for the Khomeinists that the nascent state did not have the power to disarm.
Out of the komitehs was born the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), established by a formal decree of Ayatollah Khomeini on May 5, 1979. Tasked with preserving the Revolution, the IRGC’s founding aimed to instill discipline in the haphazardly organized komitehs and create an entrenched base of armed power for the Khomeinist clergy. Iran’s conventional military and security services were viewed suspiciously by the Khomeinists due to their links to the Pahlavi monarchy, and the formation of the IRGC provided an important counterweight to these forces as well as armed insurgent leftist groups that also posed a threat to Khomeini’s power. The IRGC acted under the wing of clerical oversight from the Islamic Revolutionary Council and Islamic Republican Party, giving the Khomeinists what would become their most important independent power base. Picking up on the work of the komitehs, the IRGC made arrests, ran prisons, and interfered in government administration, playing an important role in Khomeini’s efforts to wield ultimate power and eliminate rivals.
Another source of Khomeinist power was the Foundation for the Dispossessed (bonyad-e mostazafan), the name given after the revolution to the former Pahlavi Foundation. This charitable organization held the Pahlavi family’s assets. The Khomeinists additionally confiscated properties and businesses held by other elites during the Shah’s reign, creating a massive endowment that the Khomeinists used to provide jobs, charity, and social services to poor and working-class Iranians, inculcating loyalty and creating a powerful base of support.
This network of clerical institutions constituted a parallel state, preventing the provisional Bazargan government from ever wielding significant power. As the Khomeinist clerics came to dominate, they enforced ideological conformity and behavioral controls on the Iranian public. Through the Islamic Revolutionary Council and Islamic Republican Party, the Khomeinists succeeded in placing representatives throughout government departments across the country, crowding out competitors and ensuring their dominance over the official, provisional government. This state of affairs led Bazargan to comment that he had become “a knife without a blade.”
The Khomeinists’ political power, and the Islamist direction of the revolution, would become entrenched following the wrangling over Iran’s new constitution. Under the regime of fear established by the Khomeinists, 97 percent of respondents voted affirmatively in a referendum, asking whether or not they favored an Islamic Republic. Buoyed by this support, Khomeini backed off his initial support for a more secular, democratic draft constitution that was formulated during his exile to Paris. He denounced its proponents, including Bazargan, as “enemies of Islam.” Khomeini’s deputies in the IRP set about ensuring that the eventual constitution would enshrine Khomeini as Iran’s Supreme Leader, upholding the notion of velayat-e faqih.
Immediately after the referendum, Bazargan’s government announced preparations to elect a Constituent Assembly with nearly 300 members representing various factions. By mid-May 1979, however, the Islamic Revolutionary Council pulled the rug out from under this plan, unilaterally declaring that a 73-member Assembly of Experts would instead finalize the Constitution. The smaller assembly ensured that the Khomeinists could rig the vote and crowd out dissenting voices from the Assembly. Khomeini and his followers denounced those who protested their maneuvers as “counterrevolutionaries against Islam, communists, or misguided people,” a menacing threat that had a chilling effect in the prevailing atmosphere of bloodletting. The Khomeinists launched a campaign to popularize the concept of velayat-e faqih, which to that point, remained unknown to Iranians outside of Khomeini’s inner circle and most devoted followers. According to Khomeini biographer Baqer Moin, “one after another, members of the clergy joined the bandwagon to advocate a form of government that many Shi’i jurists regarded as unorthodox.”
Concurrent with the campaign to boost support for velayat-e faqih, the Islamic Republican Party violently quashed dissent from those who favored a more pluralistic constitution. Over 40 opposition newspapers were shuttered, with some of the largest being turned to the bonyad-e mostazafan. A political faction created in March 1979 by remnants of the National Democratic Front, made up of secularists with a leftist bent who were unhappy with Bazargan’s ineffectual gradualism, staged a series of demonstrations during this period over the constitutional process, freedom of the press and expression, and clerical overreach. Khomeinist gangs and the IRGC attacked these demonstrations and the headquarters of various opposition political parties. Against this backdrop, hundreds of thousands of modern, middle-class, educated Iranians emigrated to escape the revolutionary fervor, reducing the constituency for more liberal parties.
While some factions of both secular and religious bents opted to boycott the vote for the Assembly of Experts, those representing opposition factions who did contest it faced violence and propagandistic smear campaigns. Predictably, the elections for the Assembly yielded a body dominated by clerical and laypeople followers of the Khomeinist line. According to Baqer Moin, by the time the Assembly of Experts convened in August 1979 for their deliberations, even peaceful resistance to “Khomeini’s brand of Islamization became, from this point onwards, virtually impossible.”
The Assembly of Experts produced a constitution that was “far more clerically oriented and potentially authoritarian” than the original draft constitution, according to Iran expert Nikki Keddie. It was clear to Khomeini’s backers within the Assembly that there was no serious opposition to the notion of velayat-e faqih, so they institutionalized the role of the Supreme Leader and established clerical supremacy over the state, laying the foundation for a theocracy. The constitution explicitly named Khomeini as faqih for life, granting him extensive powers and imbuing him with divine authority to rule; he was only accountable to God. The constitution established Islamic jurisprudence, as interpreted by the faqih, as the foundation for the country’s laws and legal system and limited personal freedoms to what was permissible under Islam. The constitution retained some republican elements, including a president, prime minister, and majles, but all were subordinated to the Supreme Leader. The constitution also codified a role for the IRGC, tasking the organization with “guarding the Revolution and its achievements,” ensuring a primary vehicle for clerical power would be enshrined within the state.
Only a handful of members in the Assembly voiced opposition to the expansive powers granted to the faqih. One such opponent noted that the faqih must be proficient in not just religious affairs but also in administering statehood's politics, economy, and day-to-day functioning. The path of clerical training was not ideal for inculcating such qualities. He went on to presciently note that a marja of Khomeini’s stature could embody the role. However, finding a successor who could replicate his leadership qualities would be virtually impossible, noting “several centuries may pass before a man with his superior qualities and characteristics … arise again.”
On November 4, 1979, while the constitution was being finalized, Iran’s relations with the U.S. met an irrevocable setback, which the Khomeinists would capitalize on to push through their constitution and further violently consolidate power. As the leader of the provisional government, Bazargan worked to retain relations with the U.S. despite the Khomeinists frequent demonization. Ayatollah Khomeini was always convinced that the U.S. would not easily give up its decades of investment in a resource-rich American gendarme central to its regional hegemony. In May 1979, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution condemning the excesses of Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionaries, leading to denunciations by Khomeini, followed by massive, broad-based demonstrations against American interference in domestic affairs.