Iran: The Impossible Revolution

In the Islamic world the summer of 1988 evoked memories of another summer, 21 years before. In the summer of 1967 the hero-leader of Pan-Arabism and nationalizer of the Suez Canal, Gamal Abdel Nasser, acknowledging the force of facts, told his faithful that their dream of power, autonomy and radical nationalism had ended in bitter disappointment and defeat. He had stirred a storm; now he had to call it off. He had promised a bright new world, but the Arab defeat in the Six Day War showed up the inadequacy of so much of his labor.

In the summer of 1988 it was the turn of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: the believers of the Iranian Revolution were told that the war against Iraq, which the "armed imam" had vowed to prosecute to victory, would have to be written off. He would drink the "poisoned chalice" of accepting the peace. He was "ashamed," he said, before his nation and its sacrifices.

During the preceding decade, in his years of triumph, Khomeini had been a stern and remote figure to his people; he had righteously called for their obedience and submission. With his revolution on the ropes, he spoke to his "revolutionary children" in a different voice. It was hard for them, he knew, to accept what had come to pass. "But then," he asked rhetorically, "is it not hard for your old father?"

Obituaries of revolutions are hazardous affairs. The risks were pointed out long ago by Victor Hugo; after such a whirlwind, the great novelist told us, a "nation asks for nothing but repose. . . . In other words, it longs for tranquility. We have had enough of great happenings, great risks, great adventures, and more than enough, God save us, of great men. Now we are exhausted and each man seeks his bed." But something else goes along with this fatigue: "Certain facts emerge and call for notice by hammering on the door, facts born of revolution and war, newfound facts which demand guarantees. . . . Guarantees are to facts what rest is to men."

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