Banisadr: the post-revolutionary Iranian president who fled into exile

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Paris (AFP)

Abolhassan Banisadr was the first Iranian president after the 1979 Islamic revolution, but fell out with its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, during a turbulent year in power and became a dissident in France.

A student activist and imprisoned under the Shah, Banisadr was a Paris-based dissident while pursuing his studies, before a second tumultuous exit from Iran saw him return to exile after his dismissal by the Islamic Republic of which he strongly resented. criticized the leaders.

Born on March 22, 1933 into a clerical family, he was since his teens a supporter of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who worked to end foreign interference and nationalize the oil industry, but was ousted in a coup. State supported by the West.

Banisadr became a staunch opponent of the Shah, the country’s new ruler, and in 1963 he fled Iran and settled in Paris, being part of Khomeini’s inner circle when the Ayatollah moved to France.

He was on board the plane that brought Khomeini back to Iran on February 1, 1979 after the shah fled.

Banisadr won a landslide victory in the January 1980 elections, to become the first president in the country’s history, enjoying popular support and especially that of Khomeini who, as supreme leader, was the final arbiter of all decision making.

– Disagree with the hardliners –

Intellectual and non-religious, Banisadr was considered a moderate among the early post-revolutionary Iranian rulers. But the circumstances quickly got out of hand.

The seizure of the American embassy in Tehran by students in November 1979 triggered a 444-day hostage crisis, a breakdown in relations with the United States, and a growing radicalization of the uncomfortable regime. the gentler inclinations of Banisadr.

With the deterioration of his relations with Khomeini, he saw his political position undermined by the approval by parliament in August 1980 of the popular hardliner Mohammad Ali Rajai as prime minister.

Rajai, who unlike Banisadr came from a humble background, was a populist and also one of the political heroes of the controversial 2005-2013 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Meanwhile, the outbreak of war with Iraq in September 1980 plunged Banisadr, much more comfortable delivering speeches blending a singular combination of philosophy, religion and socialism, in the role of commander-in-chief. to which he was singularly ill-suited.

Already at odds with extremists and unable to convince with his often interminable speeches, a series of battlefield setbacks put him under pressure, his detractors accusing him of mismanaging the war.

In June 1981, Khomeini removed Banisadr from his post as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and parliament, and then decided to remove him from office.

Rajai won the subsequent presidential elections, but was killed less than a month after taking office in a bomb attack.

Risking arrest, Banisadr fled Iran for the second time in his life, alongside People’s Mojahedin (MEK) leader Massoud Rajavi whose organization had supported the shah’s ouster but is now blamed for the series of attacks shaking Tehran.

They were secretly evacuated from Iran in a plane piloted by Colonel Behzad Moezzi, a former elite officer in the Shah’s air force. Moezzi himself also remained in France, dying on January 11, 2021.

– “October surprise” –

In France, Banisadr was granted political asylum and enjoys police protection.

Living quietly outside Paris, he allied himself with the MEK and his daughter Firouzeh married Massoud Rajavi.

However, they divorced and Banisadr himself fell out with the MEK becoming a more independent critic of the regime.

Still concerned about the US Embassy hostage crisis, he argued for the so-called “October surprise” conspiracy theory which claimed that secret talks had ensured that the release of staff was deliberately blocked until the assumption of office of Ronald Reagan in exchange for weapons. .

When authorities ruthlessly cracked down on the 2009 protests against Ahmadinejad’s disputed election victory, Banisadr claimed the regime had ordered voter fraud and was on the verge of collapse.

“The regime is approaching the abyss and clinging to power only through violence and terror,” he said.

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