Iran’s Turning Points
By ROBIN WRIGHT June 3, 2014
Twenty-five years ago, on June 3, 1989, the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini died, abruptly, after a decade in power. He left the world’s only theocracy in turmoil, having recently fired his heir apparent and having triggered worldwide condemnation for the death-sentence fatwa he had decreed against author Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses.”
But in the year before his death, Khomeini also made one of the toughest decisions of his life. After holding out on repeated U.N. calls for a cease-fire, he finally ended the Middle East’s bloodiest modern war: the eight-year conflict with Iraq that had produced some 180,000 Iranian deaths and half a million casualties since Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980.
“I had promised to fight to the last drop of my blood and to my last breath. Taking this decision was more deadly than drinking hemlock,” Khomeini said in mid-1988. “To me, it would have been more bearable to accept death and martyrdom. Today’s decision is based only on the interest of the Islamic Republic.”
Reluctantly, Khomeini understood that the conflict’s end was critical to sustain a flagging revolution, ending near-existential economic costs and reenergizing a drained society. He demonstrated some realism, even practicality. It was the other bookend, along with the revolution, that shaped his legacy. He signaled that sustaining the state was more important than winning the war.
This month also marks the 25th anniversary of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s rise to power. Iran’s second supreme leader, now aging, faces uncannily similar challenges, with existential decisions and consequences again on the line. He will have the last word on any deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers to ensure that Tehran never achieves a nuclear bomb. The stakes are even higher than in the Iran-Iraq war.
The most recent diplomatic talks did not go well. After months of each side defining its priorities, the first stab at drafting a long-term deal only accentuated the profound divisions between Iran and the “P5+1,” a coalition of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. A July 20 deadline looms.
Tehran’s obstinacy in cooperating with the international community has cost it dearly since 2006. A sequence of ever-tighter sanctions since then has steadily whittled away at Iran’s commerce and oil industry; its currency has plummeted 60 percent over the past three years. Iran has little to gain by holding out.
Ayatollah Khamenei has never had the charisma, clout or standing of his predecessor, who united millions to end more than two millennia of dynastic rule. But in the coming weeks, he faces a decision that will once again determine the Islamic Republic’s future, as well as his own legacy. Like Khomeini, he too can succeed only by acknowledging that the people and the state take precedence over either theocratic rule or revolutionary hubris.