Iran: Supreme leader’s legacy debated 30 years after his death

For young Iranians, economic strife and conservatism taint the legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his revolution.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's name and image still dominate public spaces in Iran [Raheb Homavandi/Reuters]

On the night of June 3, 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual and political leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, died after a long illness. 

In the next three days, the country came to a halt as millions of people took to the streets to mourn the death of an iconic figure who brought an end to the 2,500-year-old Persian Empire, and had symbolised an unyielding defiance of the West.

In the capital, Tehran, the atmosphere was described as delirious as a sea of people dressed in black beat their heads and chests in a display of collective grief. At one point during his funeral, Khomeini’s remains had to be evacuated by a helicopter, as security forces lost control of the crowd who started to pull apart the shroud covering his body.

Saeid Golkar, whose family supported the revolution, was a teenager when Khomeini died. He remembered walking more than 30km under searing heat, joining the parade of millions of mourners south of the Iranian capital to bid a final farewell to their leader.


In a previous interview with Al Jazeera, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a retired Iranian diplomat, compared the turnout at Khomeini’s 1989 funeral to an event 10 years earlier.

The top scholar was greeted by millions of supporters when he returned from 14 years in exile and led the country in toppling Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979. To this day, those two events remain as the biggest public gatherings in Iran’s history, he recalled.

For days, Khomeini’s death hogged international headlines competing for space with the news coverage of the deadly crackdown on the student protests in China‘s Tiananmen Square.

Broken promises

At the time of his death, Khomeini was believed to be 89, although other records showed him to be 86. He was buried alongside thousands of “martyrs” – soldiers who died fighting in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. The man, who grew up fatherless, had transformed himself into the revered father figure of his nation.

Thirty years after his death, and 40 years after he successfully led the revolution, Khomeini’s name and image still dominate public spaces in Iran, from the Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran to Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square, now renamed Imam Khomeini Square.

The concept of Velayat-e Faqih, a principle that Khomeini promoted, that entrusts the authority of the nation to Shia Islam’s top cleric, has also endured, permeating all of Iran’s governance.

But nostalgia about Khomeini and the Islamic Republic has long faded, said Golkar, the teenager who once idolised Khomeini and is now teaching Iranian studies at a university in the US state of Tennessee.

“We liked the revolution and supported it,” he told Al Jazeera. “But it didn’t succeed in implementing what it promised. People now feel like they have lost their social and political rights.” 

Khomieni funeral
Millions took to the streets to mourn Khomeini on June 4, 1989 [File: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters]

Golkar said even among conservatives and more ardent supporters of the Islamic Republic in his family, there is a sense that the country is in the same position as it was during the pre-revolutionary period, “only we are now ruled by clerics instead of a king”.

“If you talk to my family right now, everybody, they believe it [the revolution] was not the right choice,” he said.

Instead of reform and economic progress, Golkar said, the revolution only resulted in a protracted war between Iran and Iraq, which left hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers dead. It also brought more sanctions against the country and, as a consequence, more economic hardship, he said.


Golkar estimated today only between 10-15 percent of Iran’s more than 80 million people are staunchly loyal to the idea of the Islamic Republic.

A Tehran-based political analyst, who asked not to be identified, said among the younger generation “a significant percentage … have drifted away” from conservative tenets and “are not interested in the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini”.

He said the absence of checks and balances on the power of the supreme leader “has caused the country to be divided forever”, adding the body created to oversee the position has become “effectively useless”. 

The current system “has created a ‘dual governance’ in the country, where we are facing the deep state”, he said, referring to the separate but unequal powers of the president and the supreme leader.

Forty years after the overthrow of the US-backed shah, tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States remain sky-high.

The Trump administration pulled out of a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and world powers, reimposed punishing sanctions, and has recently deployed more military assets to the Gulf citing unspecified Iranian “threats”.

Seeking to cut off Iran’s oil exports entirely, the sanctions continue to severely impact the economy and its people.

Legacy of resilience

Beginning on Tuesday, thousands of devotees are expected to gather at Tehran’s Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery to commemorate Khomeini’s passing. Given the significance of this year’s anniversary and the rising tensions between Iran and the US and its Gulf allies, the crowd could be bigger than usual.

Attendees mostly come from other cities and many are organised as they have been in previous years. Many residents from southern Tehran, a conservative stronghold, are also expected to arrive in droves.


Mohammad Marandi, a professor of American studies at the University of Tehran, recalled the day of Khomeini’s death 30 years ago as a “day of mourning”.

He praised Khomeini’s legacy, saying despite what the country went through politically and economically over the last four decades, the late leader created “a strong sense of self-confidence and self-esteem among Iranians”.

“As a result, they no longer felt it to be acceptable to be subjugated by a foreign power, as he created a sense of awareness about their own worth” in organising a state and society, he said.

Iran revolution anniversary
Iran’s economy has been strangled by US sanctions for decades [File: Vahid Ahmadi/Tasnim News Agency via Reuters]

Marandi credited Khomeini with bolstering Iran’s ability to “persevere” under the “threats and antagonism” by Western powers.

“The fact that Iran has been able to survive this onslaught, I think, is largely due to his legacy and his idea of independence, sovereignty, dignity and social justice,” he said.


Marandi said the US should draw on those lessons and Khomeini’s 40-year legacy if it wanted to change the course of history in the Middle East, and pursue meaningful diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.

As in the time of Khomeini, Iran would “never raise a white flag” and “bow down” to the maximum pressure of the Trump administration, he said.

Marandi was responding to the latest statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said Washington was willing to talk to Iran “without preconditions”.

“Until the Americans return to the negotiating table and abide by the commitments of the nuclear deal, then I would not see any reason why Iran would agree to negotiate with the United States,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera