First elected Iranian President Bani Sadr had a dream

First elected Iranian President Bani Sadr had a dream

Abol Hassan Ban Sadr, Iran's first elected president following the Islamic revolution, died in a hospital in France on October 9. He was living in France for the past four decades far away from Iran where he, like many of his compatriots, wanted a political system where social justice as enshrined in Islam would be established in conjunction with democracy. People would elect their representatives; the clerics would guide the people over the pattern of social justice. The pre-screening of candidates contesting for parliament by the Ayatollah and his approval of the elected president were not in the political doctrine activists like Bani Sadr, Ibrahim Yazidi and Sadek Qutubzadek had envisioned. Bani Sadr and his friends fought against the autocratic regime of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and were imprisoned number of times in their youth. They wanted an end to monarchy and were inspired by nationalism championed by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh who nationalised oil industry was removed from power by a league of colonial powers led by the United States in 1953.

Bani Sadr's father was also a cleric and a good friend of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Bani Sadr gradually leaned toward nationalism and democracy but did not subscribe to theocracy in the country. Given the autocratic rule at home, Bani Sadr immigrated to France at his early age, studied economics at Sorbonne University and later taught in the same university. His education and later on teaching in the university in France reinforced his commitment that a political system having convergence of democracy and social justice would be the panacea for political malfeasance in Iran.

The 1975 Algiers peace agreement sponsored by Algerian president Hoare Bumedin called upon Iran and Iraq to deny their territory to the dissidents of neighbouring country. Ayatollah Khomeini had been living in exile in Iraq. He had a decent cottage adjacent to the shrine of Imam Aly at Najaf where he would meet with the opposition leaders and activists from Iran. Following the peace agreement, Khomeini was asked to leave Iraq. He did not have many options. He could have opted for Algeria, but it was certain that the Algerian government would put severe restrictions on his political activities. Khomeini felt confident that Iranian youths led by Bani Sadr living in France and committed to Islamic principles and nationalism would provide impetus to anti-monarch movement, and so he decided to take refuge in Paris.

Bani Sadr accommodated Khomeini in his apartment in Paris and relocated his family elsewhere. Bani Sadr and his friends translated Khomeini's speeches into English, French and Arabic, tape recorded and circulated in Europe, in the Middle East and smuggled into Iran. Khomeini decried corruption and oppression of the Pahlavi family, their aberration of Islam and Shah's close relationship with the United States and Israel. The tape recorded messages of Khomeini created profound impact inside Iran and transformed the anti-monarch movement into a popular uprising. Thousands of people came out in the streets defying the law enforcing agencies, staged large rallies and demanded an immediate end of monarchy. As the situation turned intractable, the Shah suffering from cancer decided to move to the United States for treatment in January 1979. His departure was hailed as the end of the monarchy. On the following month, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran with his entourage and declared victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The intellectuals in Khomeini's inner circle comprising  Bani Sadr, Ibrahim Yazdi, Shariati and others though subscribed to Islamic revolution did not have a blue print of the government in the post-revolution Iran. Their economic agenda was sketchy - called for nationalisation of oil and big industries, banks, insurance companies and private business holdings of Shah. There was no outline of the pattern of the government. There was no reference whether the country would embrace federalism or unitary system. The status of the regions and regional governments remained opaque. They were, however, unambiguous that the "clerics as an entity" would have no role in the governance of the country.

Bani Sadr and other intellectuals lost sight of the fact that the clerics and students of madrasas constituted a powerful component in the anti-Shah movement. After Khomeini returned home, the clerics became confident of their role and decided not to withdraw from the political arena. They claimed to understand Islam better than the Western educated intellectuals who had worked with Khomeini during his days in exile. Khomeini, himself a product of madrasa, gradually fell prey to the influence of the clerics. Following the referendum on April 1, 1979 Iran was declared as an Islamic Republic. Khomeini, at the urging of the clerics, created Revolutionary Guard- a paramilitary force enjoying overwhelming authority over the implementation of decrees issued by the supreme leader from time to time. The clerics drew their students and acolytes in the newly created auxiliary force. Their presence was conspicuous everywhere, and they even enforced "black long dress" for women to wear outside home. In 1981, following Khomeini's decree that a cleric may not hold the presidency, Bani Sadr was elected president scoring three-quarters of the votes. He pledged, "we are going to create a new order in which deprived people will not always be deprived." Bani Sadr, however, could not consolidate his position as the events went far beyond his control. The US embassy hostage crisis and Iraq's invasion of Iran compounded the tumult for the government.

The Revolutionary Guard turned belligerent and spearheaded the purge everywhere and in all sectors. Senior army officials, police personnel, administrators, government officials, educationists, bankers, businessmen, contractors came under scrutiny. The purge did not exempt even schools at village levels. Shah loyalists or sympathisers were either executed or dismissed from service. The reckless and promiscuous purge created void in all segments of the society and virtually made the government dysfunctional. The drafting of the young for the war efforts and massive purging made people petrified. They wanted to leave the country but only a few could make it. Bani Sadr later said about Khomeini, "I was like a child watching my father slowly turn into an alcoholic. The drug this time was power."

Bani Sadr wanted a negotiated settlement of the hostage crisis. But the hard liner students and the Revolutionary Guard opposed any concession from the government. The result was a stalemate.

The Shah had made the army a paramount force equipped with superior firearms. The army lost many Generals and senior officials due to purging. Consequently, the army lost its fighting capacity. Nonetheless, it reorganised quickly and confronted the Iraqi army with all its might. After initial setback, the army started regaining the lost territory and pushed the enemy back. Saddam Hossain realised that Iraq would not win the war. He proposed for ending the war. But Khomeini insisted that Saddam Hussain must step down before any cease-fire could be considered. President Bani Sadr favoured the initiative of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) to bring the war to an end. But Khomeini's intransigence frustrated OIC's efforts. The war brought immense death and destruction in both countries. Saddam Hussain, reportedly with US Ambassador's concurrence, triggered the war but Khomeini's preposterous precondition kept the war prolonged for eight years.

President Bani Sadr found that the clerics and the Revolutionary Guard were increasingly gaining political grounds transforming them into "a state within the state" capable of thwarting policies of the government. He poignantly realised that Khomeini was more with the hardliners making it impossible for his government to take steps in the achievement of the lofty ideals that he and his colleagues had dreamed during their days in exile. In June 1981, the hardliners impeached President Bani Sadr.

In July 1981, Bani Sadr boarded an Iranian Air Force Boeing 707 and escaped to France with Masood Rajavi, the leader of the leftist militant group Mujahideen-e-Khalq. After his escape, Bani Sadr remarked, "Khomeini bears heavy responsibility for the appalling disaster that has befallen the country. To a large extent, he has imposed this course upon our people."

Bani Sadr died at the age of 88. His colleagues who had worked with Ayatollah Khomeini for the establishment of democracy and social justice based on Islamic principles have also passed away. Iran is now at the hands of new leadership who are confronting different challenges. The ideals for which Bani Sadr and his comrades had struggled have not been accomplished. Now not many Iranian would deem them quintessential.


Abdur Rahman Chowshury is a former official of the United Nations.

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