Abolhassan Banisadr, who died at the age of 88, was a thoughtful Islamic intellectual, trained in France, who accepted the presidency of Iran in 1980 despite his opposition to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s concept. velayat-e faqih (“Government of the Islamist jurist”) – effectively Islamic dictatorship.
Banisadr faced the myriad contradictions that emerged after the 1979 Islamic revolution from the debate over the role of Islamic clerics in the Iranian constitution following the overthrow of the Shah. The contradictions began with the US Embassy hostage crisis that year, but were accelerated by the conduct of the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
Khomeini had gone into exile in France in October 1978 and when he arrived there he was taken directly to Banisadr’s home, which he considered to be a link with the opposition movement abroad, with the Westernized Iranian intelligentsia. and with Western politicians.
Admirers and sycophants alike descended on Banisadr’s tiny apartment in the Paris suburb of Cachan until neighbors complained about the noise, and Khomeini was moved to the nearby village of Neauphle-le-Chateau. When, after the Shah’s departure, Khomeini returned to the Air France plane in spectacular triumph to Tehran in February 1979, Banisadr was with him.
In France, Khomeini had promised democracy and a secular government. “Until then”, writes Banisadr in My Turn to Speak: Iran, the Revolution and Secret Deals With the US (1991), Khomeini “had never stopped talking about liberation and freedom of expression, but from this moment, he was purely seeking power. ”
Khomeini urged the Iranian prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, to include Banisadr in his cabinet, but Bazargan refused. He told Khomeini that Banisadr regarded everyone with contempt, refused to work as a team, and had no previous experience, “not even running a Koranic school”. Nonetheless, Banisadr quickly became a member of the Revolutionary Council, then Deputy Minister of Economy and Finance, briefly Acting Foreign Minister in 1979, and Minister of Finance in 1979-80.
As foreign minister, Banisadr told Khomeini that the American hostage-taking had undermined the credibility of the revolution. Khomeini counter-argued, convinced that the crisis supported his domestic policy by appeasing his critics on the left. “The hostage taking has increased our credibility … As long as the hostages are in our possession, they will not dare to do anything,” he told a disgusted Banisadr.
Banisadr was elected to a four-year term as president on January 25, 1980, garnering 75% of the vote, indicating the strength of the laity, the splits within the Islamic Republic party and the support he received from Khomeini. Wrongly, he saw in it a mandate to “repair” the revolution and save it from “a handful of fascist clerics”. He saw it as a rejection of the IRP, when in fact the party, reflecting power-hungry die-hard clerics, was on the verge of ramping up and destroying it.
From the start, his presidency was contested by members of the IRP, whose leader, Ayatollah Hosseini Beheshti, went so far as to say: “The president counts for nothing. As Banisadr’s criticism of his clerical enemies and of Khomeini’s personality cult intensified, Khomeini’s support for him waned.
In January 1981, Banisadr’s supporters were arrested and his attempts to prevent executions by Sadeq Khalkhali, the “suspended judge”, were repulsed. He claimed that the clerics had prolonged the war with Iraq to resolve internal problems. He believed that the army should wage the war while Khomeini favored the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards). Banisadr spent a lot of time at the front to be absent from the conflict in Tehran, but it strengthened his enemies there.
In June, Banisadr called for resistance to the dictatorship, a direct challenge to Khomeini amounting to treason. On June 21, the Majlis (lower house) dismissed Banisadr. He went into hiding, protected by the People’s Mojahedin of Iran or MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq) and the Kurdish Democratic Party. At the end of July a member of the MEK was executed and the next day Banisadr and the head of the MEK, Massoud Rajavi, boarded a Boeing 707 piloted by a partisan which flew in Turkish airspace and finally landed. in Paris, where Banisadr and Rajavi were given political asylum.
Banisadr was born in Hamadan, in the foothills of the Alvand Mountains in west-central Iran, to a successful landowning family. His father, Nasrollah, a cleric (and school friend of Khomeini), wanted him to train at the Faiziyyeh major seminary in Qom but Banisadr decided to study at the University of Tehran where he became a supporter of the Front. secular national founded by Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh became Prime Minister in 1951 but was ousted in favor of the Shah by the CIA in 1953.
After being briefly arrested for his activism, Banisadr traveled to France and studied sociology at the Sorbonne, where he began a doctoral thesis on the destruction of Iranian society under the absolute monarchy of the shah and the domination of the United States.
Banisadr sought an Islamic government based on freedom, national independence, social justice and prosperity, concepts he developed in Paris where he taught at the Sorbonne, writing on Shiite Islam and on its hero Mossadegh. His political and economic solution was a return to a reformed Islamic ideology cultivated by sociologist Ali Shariati, whom he met in Paris. He attacked the shah’s suppression of freedoms and Western consumerism which he saw as eroding Islamic society. Ironically, later he will find most of these sins committed by the Khomeini circle.
After leaving Iran in 1981,
Banisadr lived in Versailles for the rest of his life, under police surveillance after being targeted by suspected Iranian assassins. He had founded a newspaper, Engelab-e Eslami, in the 1970s and now he has relaunched it in Paris; he wrote books and articles; and he gave occasional interviews.
In 2009, he denounced the behavior of the Iranian government after the disputed presidential elections which kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. He said the government “retains power only through violence and terror” and accused its leaders of amassing wealth for themselves at the expense of ordinary Iranians.
He is survived by his wife, Azra Hosseini, whom he married in 1961, and three children, Firouzeh, Zahra and Ali.