The Ayatollah and the Gipper

In 1964, two men, both approaching old age, gave speeches that would launch two of the most important political careers of the twentieth century.

The two speeches were delivered at opposite ends of the earth, one in the Grand Mosque in Qom, the other in a Los Angeles theatre, and had very different themes, one denouncing the Shah of Iran for his capitulation to America, the other supporting Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. But the speakers had something fundamental in common, an innate ability to articulate deep-rooted traditional conservative values in a way that ordinary citizens could understand, and at a time when those values were being undermined by the twin threats of liberalism and communism.

The speakers were both well-known in their respective spheres, Shia theology and Hollywood, but they were relatively new to politics. Yet it was politics that would define them. They both reached the pinnacle of power at same time but they never met. It would be interesting to imagine what they would have talked about if they had.

Ruhollah Khomeini had been sent to jail a year earlier in 1963 for insulting remarks about the Shah, and had only recently been released. He knew that if he stepped out of line again, he would risk a significantly harsher punishment, but the stakes were much higher than one man’s liberty. Both his beloved country, and his faith, were under threat, and he had to speak out.

The Shah had just agreed, in return for US$200 million to spend on American weaponry, to give all United States military personnel, advisors and their families living in Iran immunity from prosecution. It was a capitulation to a foreign colonial power no different to the concessions handed to the British and Russians by the corrupt Qajar dynasty in the nineteenth century. Everybody in Iran knew it. It just needed someone to say it. And Khomeini did just that:

“They sold us… If an American servant, an American cook shoots one of your [beloved religious leaders] in the middle of the bazaar, tramples him underfoot, Iran’s police have no right to stop him. The courts of Iran have no right to try him! Or even question him! He has to go to America! There in America, the masters have to settle the matter… They’ve given the people of Iran a status lower than that of American dogs… Why have they done this? Because they needed a loan from America… They have sold us to America.”

Iran’s heavily censored newspapers obviously could report on the speech but Khomeini’s disciples quickly printed out thousands of copies, and before long, just about everyone in Iran was aware of his message. It struck a very raw nerve.

This time, the Shah was determined to get rid of the troublesome priest once and for all. He exiled Khomeini to Turkey. But Khomeini did not stay there very long. He relocated to Najaf in neighbouring Iraq, site of the most important shrine in Shia Islam. From there, he continued to taunt the Shah, but more importantly, he spent time reading and thinking, and devising a radical new political philosophy, known as the Guardianship, or Governance, of the Jurist, that would dominate Iran for decades to come.

In 1964, Ronald Reagan’s star had faded to the point where it was barely visible. He had long ago been passed over for leading man roles in Hollywood, even in cheap B movies, and his lucrative job as a pitchman for the General Electric Corporation was coming to an end as well. The Goldwater speech was Reagan’s last chance to reconnect with his beloved audience, and reconnect he did.

Reagan’s themes were familiar and well-worn; big government, the sanctity of property rights and individual liberty. But he spoke with an urgency about the impending threat to American core values from the Godless communists abroad and the welfare state liberals at home in a way that made his audience wake up. Echoing Khomeini, he accused the Johnson administration of selling out ordinary Americans to the enemy.

“Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state have told us they have a utopian solution of peace without victory. They call their policy ‘accommodation.’ And they say if we’ll only avoid any direct confrontation with the enemy, he’ll forget his evil ways and learn to love us. All who oppose them are indicted as warmongers. They say we offer simple answers to complex problems. Well, perhaps there is a simple answer, not an easy answer, but simple: if you and I have the courage to tell our elected officials that we want our national policy based on what we know in our hearts is morally right.”

The audience leapt to its feet and applauded, and over the next few days newspaper editorials and television pundits enthused over the bright new hero and defender of American freedom. The Republican faithful soon gave Goldwater up as a lost cause and many looked to Reagan for salvation. However, Richard Nixon was in the front of line for the presidential nomination in 1968 and he duly won it. Reagan served his presidential apprenticeship as governor of California, and by 1976, he was the popular favourite for the Republican nomination. This time, however, he was up against the incumbent Gerald Ford and party politics won out in the end. Ford lost badly to Jimmy Carter and the party faithful once again felt they had picked the wrong man.

When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran in triumph in January 1978, Reagan was back in the relative political wilderness again, content to broadcast his folksy message on his radio show and bide his time.

But, unbeknownst to Reagan or anyone else in America at the time, it would be Khomeini who would play a key role in ushering in and even accelerating Reagan’s next campaign for the White House.

The liberal establishment in Tehran, who took over the reins of government after the Shah fled the country, thought they could control Khomeini. They thought the Ayatollah could play a useful role in stirring Iranian revolutionary and religious ardour but that they could keep political power for themselves. In the end, it was revolutionary ardour that defeated both the liberals and the leftists, and ushered the hard line religious conservatives into power.

In November 1979, a month before Reagan formally declared his candidacy for president, a group of fanatical university students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took hostage the 52 staff remaining in the compound. Khomeini could have easily ordered the students to leave the embassy but, sensing a change in the political wind, he didn’t. The subsequent hostage crisis proved to be a critical factor in the US election, even more so after the spectacular failure of Carter’s rescue mission in April 1980. It also weakened the liberal establishment in Tehran that seemed increasingly out of touch with the popular mood. As fate would have it, election day in America, November 4, 1980, was the one year anniversary of the embassy takeover. Reagan won by a landslide, and, in a final insult to Carter, the hostages were only released a few hours after Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States.

In the early 1980s, both leaders had to deal with immediate territorial threats. For Khomeini, it was the military invasion of Iran by Iraq. For Reagan, it was the communist presence in America’s backyard, the Caribbean. These conflicts seemed unrelated but, with the help of a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel named Oliver North, they were conjoined in one the most bizarre episodes in the history of American foreign policy – the Iran Contra Affair.

The reasons why the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran and why Iran accepted them are not actually that complicated. The US had burnt all its diplomatic bridges after the Shah was driven out and it needed some way to rekindle relations. All of Iran’s military hardware had been bought by the Shah from America, and it needed American spare parts to keep it operating in the war against Iraq. The US had been funding Saddam Hussein in the war but did not necessarily want him to win. It was deemed by the hawks in the administration better for the US if the two sides just kept fighting. Meanwhile, the administration could not directly fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua without congressional approval, so the windfall from the secret arms sales to Iran proved to be a useful bonus. Or so they thought.

If it had not all ended in fiasco and highly public recriminations, it is possible that the arms sale could have opened the door to a diplomatic rapprochement, and even a summit meeting. After all, Reagan was willing to talk face to face with Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the Evil Empire, so why not Ayatollah Khomeini?

If they had met, what would have been on the agenda? To begin with, there a long list of Iranian grievances dating back to 1953 when a CIA-led coup (organized by Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit) deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and reinstalled the Shah as outright ruler. The US too had grievances, Iran holding its diplomatic staff hostage for more than a year being the most obvious example.

But there was some common ground, and areas of cooperation to explore. It was in America’s interest, after all, to have a stable, anti-communist bulwark on the southern border of the Soviet Union. It was in America’s interest to rein in the Shia militia in Lebanon that was threatening Israel, and it was in America’s economic interests to have access to the vast oil reserves Iran possessed. For Iran, access to American markets would be beneficial but it was more a case of making sure the US did not use its global influence to isolate and punish Iran through international sanctions, as would in fact be the case in the decades to come.

Ayatollah Khomeini is often portrayed as a ruthless ideologue who was willing to execute thousands of political prisoners and send tens of thousands of young men to their deaths in a bloody and pointless war against Iraq. This is all true, but he was also a practical man. He generally kept out of day-to-day politics, preferring to let his chosen ministers get on with the business of government but he would intervene between different factions when necessary – not unlike Ronald Reagan. He was also perceived to be infallible, so if he did decide it was in Iran’s best interests to sit down and talk to the Great Satan in person, the people of Iran may have been confused but they would probably go along with it.

Both Reagan and Khomeini had a Utopian vision – clouded in vagaries and generalities – for their country and the world as a whole. Khomeini’s vison was the liberation of “the poor and downtrodden of the earth,” and the creation of an Islamic state ruled over by a benign Guardian Jurist who would restore justice and morality, and protect the people from the enemies of Islam. For Reagan, it was the creation of a “Shining City upon a Hill” that would act as a beacon of hope and liberty for rest of the world.

It was in his farewell speech from the Oval Office in January 1989, that Reagan most memorably articulated his vision for the Shining City:

“It was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

Like Khomeini, Reagan knew that his cherished city needed walls to defend it from its enemies. The primary enemy for Reagan was communism, as manifested by the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent, Cuba. His chosen method to combat it was a massive arms build-up and a science fantasy project called the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). For many at the time, myself included, Reagan’s approach was a reckless gamble that threatened the safety of the entire world. But there was method to his madness. Reagan believed in negotiating from a position of strength, and if that meant scaring the shit out of everybody else in the process, so be it.

But SDI was not just about burying the Soviet Union, although it was very successful in doing just that. It was driven primarily by Reagan’s abhorrence of nuclear weapons, and his desire to completely eradicate them from the face of the earth. And during his negotiations with Gorbachev, he at least managed to start the process of arms reduction, although we are still far from his ultimate goad.

The Ayatollah Khomeini, some may be surprised to know, shared Reagan’s views on nuclear weapons. In fact, he was opposed to all weapons of mass destruction, saying they were the “work of the Devil.” Islamic scriptures forbid the indiscriminate killing of non-combatants during war time, and the Ayatollah was adamant that Iran should not respond in kind to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the early 1980s or develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

If there was one thing these two men could agree on, and perhaps build upon, it was that nuclear weapons were evil. And, looking back over the three decades since their departure from the political scene – the epic and ridiculous battle between the hawks on both sides over Iran’s nuclear program – it is perhaps unfortunate that they did not get the chance to meet and work something out beforehand.

For further reading, I recommend the excellent “America and Iran” by John Ghazvinian, which is the source of the first quote from Ayatollah Khomeini.

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