THE SPIRIT OF ALLAH; Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. By Amir Taheri. Adler & Adler. 349 pp. $18.95.
THE NAME and face of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini are probably as recognizable as those of any political figure in the world. His piercing black eyes have gazed out from countless magazines, newspapers and television broadcasts. During his four-month sojourn at Neauphle-le-Chateau outside Paris, he gave hundreds of personal interviews to those who flocked to his door, curious to meet this medieval prophet turned revolutionary. Since his triumphant return to Iran seven years ago, Khomeini's activities, the state of his health and his frequent pronouncements have been the subject of minute examination by scholars, journalists and political analysts. Of all the extremist figures in contemporary nternational politics, including Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and Israel's Meir Kahane, none inspires more adoration among his followers or more intense distaste among his opponents than the dour ayatollah.
But despite the massive publicity that has made Khomeini's name a household word in every corner of the globe, he remains a mysterious and elusive personality. Khomeini's adult career has intertwined with some of the major political events of modern Iran. He was a leader of the demonstrations against the shah's regime in 1963-64, which were a rehearsal for the revolution of 1978-79. Khomeini's outspoken criticism of the monarch and his policies in the 1960s won him recognition as the principal spokesman of the clerical opposition to the shah. It also resulted in his banishment to Turkey in 1964 and then to the Shi'i holy city of Najaf in Iraq, where he spent 13 years in exile teaching, preaching and eventually masterminding a network of rebellion, organized through the mosques, that succeeded in overthrowing the world's longest reigning monarch.
Those are the bare bones of the story, but they provide little more than tantalizing hints about a man who mobilized, commanded and thoroughly dominated one of the major revolutions of modern times. Is he a saint, as Andrew Young once suggested? Or is he an evil genius who diverted the revolution from its reformist path and twisted it to his own obscurantist purposes, as claimed by the many modernizing elements who fought against the shah only to find themselves again persecuted and outcast by the religious tyranny that followed? The answers to these questions are more than academic, for they may shed some light on the future course of a country that we dare not ignore.
That is the task that Amir Taheri set himself in writing a book about the Iranian revolution with "the focus on Khomeini himself." Taheri is an Iranian journalist who observed the revolution first from Tehran and later fom London, where he now resides. It was his intent to strike a balance between those who attempt to minimize Khomeini's role and those who are engaged in weaving a new revolutionary mythology around the ayatollah and his exploits. Relying on a close reading of available texts and extensive interviews with participants, he hoped to capture the man whole.
THE NEED for such a book is indisputable, but, regrettably, it is still to be written. The Spirit of Allah falls far short of its ambitious objectives, and in the end it muddies the waters it set out to clarify.
Although filled with a wealth of fact and detail, The Spirit of Allah is unreliable as a reference work. Startling new revelations are offered without documentation. For example, Taheri asserts on page 116 that Khomeini's political ambitions in the early 1960s led him to court the shah's approval by muting his criticism and composing "a series of lengthy and often flattering letters" delivered to the shah through emissaries. This story, which flies in the face of everything we know about Khomeini's personality and politics, is offered without source or explanation.
Taheri has collected and incorporated an extensive array of scurrilous or unflattering rumors about the clergy in general and Khomeini in particular. Taheri claims without evidence on p. 112 that in the early 1950s Khomeini decided to "demolish Borujerdi" (the most senior ayatollah in Iran and Khomeini's former patron) and "may" have been the author of satirical poems ridiculing the Grand Ayatollah. Three pages later he claims that Khomeini developed "something of an affection" for General Teymour Bakhtiar, the head of SAVAK. He reports that Khomeini associated himself with plans to assassinate intellectuals and politicians in the 1940s, that he "secretly admired the British" and "may" have met with a British political agent. These old chestnuts have long been current in the cosmopitan salons of northern Tehran, but their repetition without evidence does not inspire confidence in the author's objectivity.
Other fascinating tidbits are provided with footnote references that, on inspection, turn out to be unreleated or peripheral. Thus, on p. 296 Taheri states that the Islamic authorities in Tehran held a trial run of their contingency plan in the event of the ayatollah's death, including closure of the airport and positioning of the "Zulfiqar Brigade" on all land approaches to Tehran. The accompanying footnote limits itself to a parenthetical comment about the asserted functions of the "brigade," and the reader is left to accept the contingency plan story on faith. This pattern is repeated throughout the book, making it impossible to judge the validity of many new or controversial items of information.
Finally, it is unclear who the audience for this book is intended to be. The absence of documentation is likely toimit its appeal to the specialist. However, the dense prose and rapid summary of nearly a century of Iranian history assumes a level of background information and interest beyond that of the general reader.