Conversing with Khomeini.

A wartime lexicon.
Oct. 6 2003 2:03 PM

Conversation With Khomeini

The ayatollah's grandson calls for a U.S. invasion of Iran.

I have no respect for the hereditary principle and neither does Shiite Islam, which considers earthly kingship to be profane. But no one can be completely uninterested in heredity per se,and my first thought, on meeting Hossein Khomeini, was that he has his grandfather's eyebrows. Still, our conversation quickly banished the notion that this 45-year-old cleric is the least bit interested in running for his grandpa's job.

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He is a relatively junior cleric—a sayeed—but he wears the turban and robe with some aplomb and was until recently a resident of Qum, the holy city of the Iranian Shiites and once the Vatican, so to speak, of the Khomeini theocracy. As soon as it became feasible, however, he moved to Baghdad (where he would have been executed on sight until a few months ago) and is now hoping to establish himself in Karbala, one of the two holy Shiite cities in southern Iraq. He refers as a matter of course to the work of the coalition forces in Iraq as a "liberation." He would prefer, he says, to live in Tehran, but he cannot consider doing so until there has been "liberation" in Iran also.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

He speaks perfect Arabic, acquired during the years when the ayatollah and his family were exiled by the shah to live in Karbala, and he knows Iraq reasonably well already. He is of course a figure of fascination to the Iraqi Shiite population, but he doesn't seek any explicit role in their affairs. Nonetheless, his view of developments among them is worth hearing. "Talk of an Islamic state in Iraq is not very serious or very deeply rooted among the people. It is necessary for religion and politics to be separated." When I asked him about Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite anti-American extremist in Iraq who is the son of the late Ayatollah Sadr, murdered by Saddam Hussein, he was dismissive. "He is not considered an interpreter of our religion but only an imitator known only because of his father." Again, there is implicit disapproval of those who trade on the family name.

Even so, I could not resist asking his opinion of the famous fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I cannot say that I understood all of his reply, which was very long and detailed and contained some Quranic references and citations that were (to me at any rate) rather abstruse. But the meaning was very plain. A sentence of death for apostasy cannot really be pronounced, or acted upon, unless there is "an infallible imam," and there is no such thing. The Shiite faithful believe in a "hidden imam" who may one day be restored to them, but they have learned to be wary of impostors or false prophets. In any event, added Khomeini, there was an important distinction between what the Quran said and what an ayatollah as head of state might say. "We cannot nowadays have executions in this form." Indeed, he added, it was the policy of executions that had turned the Islamic revolution in Iran sour in the first place. "Now we have had 25 years of a failed Islamic revolution in Iran, and the people do not want an Islamic regime anymore."

It's not strictly necessary to speak to Hossein Khomeini to appreciate the latter point: Every visitor to Iran confirms it, and a large majority of the Iranians themselves have voted for anti-theocratic candidates. The entrenched and reactionary regime can negate these results up to a certain point; the only question is how long can they do so? Young Khomeini is convinced that the coming upheaval will depend principally on those who once supported his grandfather and have now become disillusioned. I asked him what he would like to see happen, and his reply this time was very terse and did not require any Quranic scriptural authority or explication. The best outcome, he thought, would be a very swift and immediate American invasion of Iran.

It hurt me somewhat to have to tell him that there was scant chance of deliverance coming by this means. He took the news pretty stoically (and I hardly think I was telling him anything he did not know). But I was thinking, wow, this is what happens if you live long enough. You'll hear the ayatollah's grandson saying, not even "Send in the Marines" but "Bring in the 82nd Airborne." I think it was the matter-of-factness of the reply that impressed me the most: He spoke as if talking of the obvious and the uncontroversial.

That reminded me to ask him what he thought of the mullahs' nuclear program. He calmly said that there was no physical force that was stronger than his faith, and thus there was no need for any country to arm itself in this way. No serious or principled Shiite had any fear of his belief being destroyed by any kind of violence. It was not a matter for the state, and the state and religion (he reiterated) ought to be separated—for both their sakes.

Hossein Khomeini operates within an entirely Quranic frame of reference, but what he has to say is obviously of great interest to those who take the secular "regime change" position. The arguments about genocide, terrorism, and WMD—in all of which I believe the Bush administration had (and has) considerable right on its side—are all essentially secondary to the overarching question: Does there exist in the Middle East a real constituency for pluralism and against theocracy and dictatorship. And can the exercise of outside force hope to release and encourage these elements? This is a historic question in the strict sense, because we will not know the true answer for some considerable time. But that does not deprive us of some responsibility to make judgments in the meanwhile, and we have good reason to know that the region can't be left to fester as it is. On my own recent visit to Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf, as well as to Basra and then Kurdistan, I would say that I saw persuasive evidence of the unleashing of real politics in Iraq and of the highly positive effect of same. Conversation with Khomeini suggests to me that in at least one other highly important neighboring country, the United States has also managed to get on the right side of history, as we used to say.