Magazine article The Spectator

Murderous Mullah Games

Magazine article The Spectator

Murderous Mullah Games

Article excerpt

Days of God by James Buchan John Murray, £25, pp. 464, ISBN 9781848540668 Montesquieu observed that popular governments are always more vindictive than monarchies. So it proved in Iran in 1979, where the demise of a 2,000-year-old monarchical tradition made most 'Arab spring' revolutions seem like child's play.

More than 30 years on, the descent of Ayatollah Khomeini from a jumbo jet, wearing an American bullet-proof vest, also remains arguably more significant. James Buchan concludes that Osama bin Laden was the extreme Sunni response to Khomeini's clerical dictatorship; and without Khomeini, the Shias' battle for survival would not have played out across the Middle East as violently as it has, including in Syria today.

By the end of 1982, more than 5,000 young people had been put to death in postrevolutionary purges in Iran, which still left Sadeq Khalkhali, Khomeini's butcher-inchief, complaining that 'there were just so many ripe for execution who escaped me'.

The terror trials included charges of 'war against God' and freemasonry. The country's longest serving prime minister, Amir-Abbas Hoyveda, had been found guilty of 'corruption on earth' and shot in 1979. Ancient punishments such as the stoning of women and hand amputation were incorporated into Iran's penal code.

The violence of Khomeini's language provided clues. In one sermon in 1964, he threatened to 'smash' parliament up and 'punch' its deputies 'in the mouth'. One cannot imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury thinking this, let alone saying it, but then the imam was not in the business of managed decline but of imposing God's rule on earth.

Khomeini's rise was underpinned by a centuries-old alliance between Iran's Shia clergy and a merchant class which financed mosques, seminaries and even the chartered jumbo which flew the imam home from Paris in 1979. By contrast, Iran's last ruling dynasty was founded by Reza Pahlavi, a former stable lad made good, who had predicted that akhundbazi ('mullah games') would prove the greatest challenge to his rule. His son, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, though equipped with a copy of Thucydides by the British ambassador, was to lose his very own Persian war.

Iran was so valuable to Britain that, by 1950, Anglo-Iranian (latterly BP) was paying almost three times as much into the British treasury as into the Shah's coffers. As Buchan puts it, 'The population of one of the world's poorest countries helped finance not only Britain's war effort but also its postwar welfare state.'

No wonder then that Sir Anthony Parsons, London's last envoy to the royal court, shed tears at his last weekly meeting with the Shah, who was to pilot his own plane out over the Persian Gulf in defeat. …

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