May 9, 2009


Most Fundamentalist: KHOMEINI’S GHOST: The Iranian Revolution and the Rise of Militant Islam By Con Coughlin (AZADEH MOAVENI, NY Times Book Review)

[I]n measuring the success of Khomeini’s supranational project, Coughlin overreaches. He describes in sweeping terms how Khomeini’s vision for an Islamic state “became the manifesto for Islamic fundamentalist regimes throughout the world.” That can hardly be the case, since the ayatollah’s concept of rule by the clergy (“velayat-e faqih”) is enshrined in a Shia reading of jurisprudence, and can hold no such direct, universal relevance for the majority of the Islamic world, which is Sunni. Coughlin argues that the legacy of the revolution is “as powerful today” as it was when Khomeini came to power in 1979. Such endorsements would brighten any Tehran bureaucrat’s day, but in reality Iran’s ability to extend its ideological influence around the region has never matched its ambitions.

Coughlin tends to define Iran in black-and-white terms, writing that Khomeini “accomplished his lifelong ambition of creating an Islamic state based on the strict interpretation of Shariah law.” He ignores the fact that, despite Khomeini’s best intentions to vest absolute power in the state’s religious leader, the Constitution provides for an elected legislature and declares that the country must be run “on the basis of public opinion.” Though elections have never been free, they remain fiercely contested, and myriad institutions force an opaque but real rule by consensus.

This unworkable, dual sovereignty of the divinely appointed and the popularly elected lies at the heart of Iran’s problems and is the cause of its debilitating factional strife. Coughlin has little feel for the role Iran’s warring factions play in its foreign policy, and often relates only half the story. He paints a picture of Iran as a state in cahoots with Al Qaeda, writing that Tehran masterminded the escape of operatives fleeing from Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden’s son Saad, and provided them safe haven. He states that “the presence of such prominent Al Qaeda militants in Iran . . . was yet another issue that would undermine Khatami’s attempts to improve relations with the West.”

This is a misleading presentation of the facts. It is true that Iranian hardliners played a cat-and-mouse game with the moderate government of Mohammad Khatami, concealing Qaeda fugitives who had fled to Iran. But the Khatami government dispatched agents to hunt down at least 200 fugitives, and put them on planes back to their home countries.

Iranian officials complained at that time that they could not repatriate all of the fugitives. In the case of Saad bin Laden, for example, Iran faced a quandary — Saudi Arabia refused to accept him, and there was no framework in place to hand him over to a third country or party. Tehran sought America’s help in handling these awkward cases, but was rebuffed by the Bush administration.

The remaining question is whether the Grand Ayatollah can save the Republic.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 9, 2009 8:05 AM
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