Iran’s presidency has been a strange institution ever since it was established a year into Iran’s Islamic Revolution. While Iran’s early presidents were meant to represent the Islamic Republic to the world, they could scarcely compete with the powerful and imposing personality of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who claimed to represent God on earth. Since Khomeini’s death in 1989, Iranian presidents have established themselves as the international face of an ostensibly democratic Iran, but have remained subordinate to the absolute power and socially conservative vision of Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And while all of Iran’s presidents have challenged their supreme leader’s powers in some way, most have paid a high political price. Now, ahead of Iran's elections on May 19, IranWire looks back at Iran's past seven presidencies.
Abolhassan Banisadr became the first president of the Islamic Republic on February 5, 1980, just over a year after he had joined Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on the flight that returned both men from exile in France. Khomeini and Banisadr could hardly have seemed more different: Khomeini was an austere and imposing mullah who spoke like a villager, while Banisadr was an urbane, Sorbonne-educated economist. Yet their worlds were not as far apart as might have been assumed. Banisadr was the son of an ayatollah and had been imprisoned in the 1960s for opposing the Shah. He was also a religious theorist who had written about Islamic economics and Islamic government.
Banisadr returned to Iran with deep illusions about Khomeini’s intentions. “Ideologically, Banisadr was in line with those who presented a more modern and inclusive interpretation of Islam,” says Mansour Farhang, who served briefly as the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to the United Nations before resigning over the US embassy hostage crisis. Banisadr, he says, identified strongly with the legacy of Mohammad Mossadegh, the popular Pahlavi-era prime minister overthrown in a CIA and MI6-supported coup in 1953. “His impression of Khomeini was that the ayatollah was not interested in political power but wanted to be the moral guide of the revolution,” Farhang says.
Banisadr, who has lived in Paris since fleeing Iran in 1981, now recalls early warning signs that Khomeini did not intend to follow through on a collection of ideals — such as a promise that clerics would not rule, and that Iranians would enjoy religious freedom — that he seemed to accept while in exile in the Paris suburbs.
“When we were in Neauphle-le-Chateau,” Banisadr says, “we suggested a list of 20 principles to Mr. Khomeini. Except for the one principle of general amnesty, he declared the other 19 to the world. But even on that, he said, ‘Let’s first go to Iran and see what comes.’ When we got to Iran, from the get-go, he showed signs that he was not going to hold to those principles.”
But at the time, Banisadr says, he and other revolutionaries justified Khomeini’s reticence on the basis that Khomeini had just arrived and that the remnants of the Shah’s regime were still in the country.
Banisadr was also troubled by Khomeini’s reluctance to embrace the example of Mossadegh, the icon of national independence and freedom who had died just over a decade before the revolution. While he says he did succeed in getting Khomeini to praise Mossadegh at Friday prayers on one occasion, Khomeini disliked the secular hero and sometimes criticized him. “I told him that he couldn’t destroy Mossadegh because he was part of the historical conscience of Iranian people,” Banisadr says. “No one could push him out of that conscience and he would only damage himself.”
In November 1979, pro-Khomeini students in Tehran took US embassy staff hostage. A few days later, Banisadr became foreign minister. The hostage-taking had been an unprecedented violation of the Vienna Convention protecting diplomats worldwide, but Banisadr put Iran’s case to the world, demanding that the United States return the Shah — who was now suffering from cancer — to Iran to face revolutionary justice. Later that month, he resigned the position, but he also appeared to hedge his political bets. “He had the ambition to be president of Iran, so the resignation did not mean he was going to take an overt and clear position over hostage-taking,” Farhang says. “His position was very ambiguous.”
Banisadr objects to the suggestion that his position was ambiguous. “I haven’t changed my position,” he says. “I said, ‘It is the Iranian people who have been taken hostage by the US.’ I said that to occupy the embassy would be a protest that would declare a few things clearly but it also had important shortcomings.” One of his main objections, he says, was that it would bring foreign affairs into Iranian politics. Banisadr supports a version of the “October Surprise” conspiracy theory that claims American political actors were involved in the hostage affair, which he says, was “planned in the US before being executed in Iran.”
Skepticism Abroad, Powerful Rivals at Home
In the US State Department, which was preoccupied with getting the hostages released, Banisadr’s presidency was seen as bad news. Whereas US diplomats had been able to deal with members of the previous interim government — the recently-resigned Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi — Banisadr was unfamiliar. “It showed me that we were going to have a difficult time because we didn’t know this man,” says Henry Precht, who headed the State Department’s Iran Desk at the time. “I never heard any sensible utterance from him that suggested he was on the same level of statesmanship as Bazargan. He had a vague and imprecise personality.”
Nor were there high hopes in the White House, although some officials recognized that Banisadr was, at least in the context of a chaotic new revolutionary order, a relative moderate. “I saw him as someone we might be able to deal with,” says Gary Sick, who served as the principal White House aide for Iran during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. “The negotiations that he oversaw would have had the hostages turned over to the Iranian government formally — that would be the first step — and then the government could release them. Having them held by people who were outside the government was a huge complication that we hoped to resolve. But Khomeini did not want to do that and Banisadr had very limited power.”
Whereas Khomeini had promised during his French exile to retreat from political leadership, the recently-enacted constitution of the Islamic Republic had made him all-powerful. Within the new system, a factional dispute emerged between politicians on one hand, and clerics and revolutionary ideologues centered around the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) on the other. At first, Banisadr believed he had the ayatollah’s ear. “He used to do his best to persuade Khomeini, based on national interest and using Islamic vocabulary,” Farhang says. “He was convinced initially that Khomeini could be persuaded to take more moderate positions. He used to blame people around Khomeini, specifically Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, who he said were pushing Khomeini in a more radical direction. Khomeini’s position evolved, and it surprised Banisadr.”
Banisadr’s quarrels with more radical revolutionaries took many forms. With Khomeini’s support, his chief rival, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, pursued a campaign of political terror using revolutionary committees and revolutionary guards to coerce and control the Iranian society, something Banisadr and his supporters—notably members of the revolutionary People’s Mujahidin Organization—opposed. The IRP gained control of Parliament and fought a long battle with Banisadr over the appointment of a prime minister until Khomeini forced him to accept the IRP choice, Mohammad-Ali Rajai. After Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, the politics moved to the battlefield where Banisadr—officially head of the armed forces—held authority over the army but could not gain control of the pro-IRP Revolutionary Guards.
Although Khomeini sometimes tried to mediate the dispute—for example by upholding Banisadr’s role as head of the armed forces—he overwhelmingly sided with those pushing for a religious dictatorship. Banisadr began to refer explicitly to the re-emergence of dictatorship in Iran. In May 1981, he told the French press that Iran was succumbing to lawlessness and political repression, that authorities were carrying out widespread arrests, and that he had personally seen extensive evidence of torture. “It's just like before, man has no rights, they arrest him and eliminate him just as one throws out garbage,” he told the newspaper, Le Matin. Speaking at an air force base in Shiraz that June, he called for resistance to dictatorship.
Two days later, Khomeini stripped him of his commander-in-chief role. On June 21s, the IRP-dominated parliament impeached him with Khomeini’s support. Facing death threats, he went into hiding and fled back to France with Masoud Rajavi, head of the People’s Mujahedin. The two men founded an opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, but Banisadr soon fell out with Rajavi and left the group, which later supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, alienating the majority of Iranians.
While Banisadr’s presidency of Iran had been brief, it set a precedent for a long-running series of tensions between Iran’s presidents and supreme leaders. “Banisadr came to a fork,” Farhang says. “He could submit to Khomeini and remain president of Iran and become a major figure within the regime, or he could challenge Khomeini over questions of civil liberties and human rights and jeopardize his life. It is rare in Iranian political history that someone reaches that point and decides against submissiveness to power. In that sense, whatever you think of his politics and ideology, Banisadr was unique in the post-revolutionary era.”
Arash Azizi interviewed Abolhassan Banisadr for this article.
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