The Legacy of Bani Sadr

Abolhassan Bani Sadr was born in 1933 in Baghcheh, a suburb of Hamedan in western Iran, to Ayatollah Seyed Nasrollah Bani Sadr and Ashrafi Fateh. He completed his early education in Hamedan and Tehran, and later studied Economics and Islamic Jurisprudence at the University of Tehran. After graduating, Bani Sadr worked at a research institute for four years and some of his early work from this period has been published and translated into French and English.

Bani Sadr’s political activism dates back to his secondary school education. During this period, the Tudeh (communist) Party was active in schools and universities across Iran, and it was during this time that Bani Sadr was introduced to the law of dialectics. While Bani Sadr was in secondary school, the movement to nationalise the Iranian oil industry under Mohammad Mosaddegh was starting to take hold. Through this movement and his family’s interest in it, he developed a curiosity about the concepts of independence and liberty, which remained with him and were his guiding principles right up until his death. He focussed much of his research career to fully understanding these principles, and devoted his life to ensuring their realisation.

In the years following the 1953 coup against the Mossadegh government, political groups in Iran had differing priorities. The liberals prioritised liberty, patriots prioritised independence from the Eastern and Western Blocs, Marxists focussed on a socialist revolution and seizing of power by the proletariats, supporters of religious authoritarianism gave precedence to Islam and the supporters of the Pahlavi monarchy concentrated on modernity. Bani Sadr argued that a fundamental effort was needed to rid Iran and other such societies of this destructive “war of priorities”, which he maintained, had steered Iran towards destruction for over half a century.

Based on the principle of negative equilibrium, Bani Sadr discovered proper and unequivocal definitions for independence, freedom, and growth, and realised that a religion that is alienated from itself in the expression of power finds seemingly different readings of religion. But this is essentially the same meaning in various forms: they are all one discourse, the discourse of power. Bani Sadr subsequently re-studied Islam through a lens of discourse of freedom. This effort led to his discovery of Islam as a means to freedom, independence, and growth. It was this kind of discourse of Islam that led to the revolution in Iran in which a nation was able to unseat a monarchy. After the revolution, he worked tirelessly to research and fully define the meaning of freedom of expression.

In the early 1960s political suppression was on the rise in Iran, and Bani Sadr was twice imprisoned for his involvement in the anti-Shah student movement before leaving for France to continue his research in the fields of economics, sociology, Islam, and philosophy. His work from this period has been published in numerous books and publications in a number of languages, including Persian, English, Italian and Arabic. In France, Bani Sadr met with Jean-Paul Sartre and asked him to join a committee to defend human rights. The committee later became known as the Sartre Committee and included prominent French intellectuals, among them Simone de-Beauvoir. The committee defended the rights of prisoners of conscience across the globe.

Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, Bani Sadr returned to Iran with Ayatollah Khomeini. Bani Sadr opposed those who used violence as a means to eliminate political opponents, and instead proposed free debate, presenting an alternative to the violence that had been used in the post-revolution power struggles between the various political factions. Khomeini agreed to this proposal and asked Bani Sadr to lead and participate in free debates. Bani Sadr called on supporters of the differing ideologies to participate in these debates, thereby establishing the tradition of political debate in Iran. As part of these efforts, Bani Sadr gave amnesty to Fedayin Khalgh, a militant Stalinist organisation who had undertaken attacks in Iran, inviting them to a live televised debate to explain their actions. Sadly, in this period those with political aspirations were focussed on power rather than freedom and did not seize the opportunity to learn or spread the culture of freedom.

In the spring of 1979, Bani Sadr became a member of the new ‘Council of the Islamic Revolution’ but twice refused Khomeini’s request to join the cabinet of then-Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. He also later refused Khomeini’s request to form a new government as Prime Minister following Bazargan’s resignation (contrary to Bani Sadr’s advice) during the 1979-81 hostage crisis, stating that Khomeini had undemocratically interfered in government affairs and that he opposed centring domestic politics around Iran’s conflict with the US. He subsequently accepted an alternative role as ‘caretaker of the foreign office’, in an effort to free the hostages when the Shah left the US, arguing that far from holding the US hostage, rather the crisis had merely led to the US taking Iran hostage.  Bani Sadr resigned from this post after a mere twenty days when Khomeini opposed his attendance at a UN Security Council meeting.  Bani Sadr later served as the Minister of Finance, and was also voted into the ‘Assembly of Experts’. It was in this role that Bani Sadr prevented the Assembly from imposing the velayat-e-faqih doctrine and granting the position executive power. This doctrine was later imposed on the first draft of the democratic constitution.

Bani Sadr won a landslide victory in the February 1980 elections to become Iran’s first democratically elected president. Bani Sadr’s electoral campaign, which had no central funding, won over 76% of the popular vote. Khomeini opposed his nomination and sent a message to the Council of the Islamic Revolution, asking Bani Sadr to withdraw in favour of the Islamic Republican Party’s candidate, who had won a mere 5% of the vote. Bani Sadr refused, telling the council: ‘This election made one thing clear – that Iranians have understood the guiding principles of the revolution and the implementation of its goals, which are freedom, independence, development and the rediscovery of Islam as a discourse of freedom, independence and development, and that the Iranian people are not, as you (the clergy) argue, ignorantly following you with closed eyes and ears’.

From the time he was elected, Bani Sadr fought an uphill battle with the many political factions, including Khomeini and the judiciary, that began systematically organising to redirect the political system towards more dictatorial governance. In addition, Iraq waged war on Iran a few months after the election. As Commander-in-Chief, Bani Sadr played a significant role in sustaining morale in what was then a skeletal and demoralized Iranian army. He was often present on the front lines of battle to both motivate and democratise the armed forces. While he oversaw the recovery of over half the land which had been occupied by Iraq, Islamic Republican Party leaders prolonged the Iran-Iraq war by striking a clandestine deal with the US (now known as the ‘October Surprise’), in which representatives of Ronald Reagans’ presidential campaign had agreed to supply Iran with weapons in exchange for postponing the release of the US embassy hostages until after Reagan had been elected president.

Sensing the political direction, Bani Sadr called for a national referendum for the Iranian people to choose between democratic governance or Khomeini’s despotic path. Khomeini opposed it, saying, ‘if 35 million people say yes, I will still say no regardless’. During his presidency, Ayatollah Gilani, the head of Tehran’s revolutionary courts, issued seven fatwas for Bani Sadr’s execution. These were met with demonstrations of support for Bani Sadr, which were subsequently bloodily repressed. In June 1981, the Majles staged a coup against him. He fled from Iran to expose the details of the coup and other dictatorial transgressions within the political system. While in exile in Paris, he played a pivotal role in revealing details of the October Surprise and ‘Iran-Contra’ affair. He was also instrumental in the 1997 trial of the Mykonos restaurant assassinations in Germany, which indicted Iranian leaders for the killing of Iranian Kurdish opposition leaders. The trial led to the end of the Iranian regime’s systematic assassination of its opponents in Europe and around the world.

Bani Sadr lived in exile in Paris from 1981 until his death. He remained dedicated to his political and intellectual work, publishing an extensive body of research in more than seventy books, including Free Intellect, The Foundation of Democracy, Social Justice, and Totalitarianism. The apex of this work is his proposal for a new Iranian constitution organised around five foundational rights: human rights, citizen rights, national rights, the rights of society as a member of the global society, and the rights of nature.

Bani Sadr died at the age of 88 on 9 October 2021 after a long battle with illness. He leaves behind his wife, Ozra Hosseini, and three children: Firouze’, Zahra and Ali.

Mahmood Delkhasteh is a political sociologist, expert in Iranian revolution and a human rights activist.  He is currently working on a new book based on his doctoral dissertation, Islamic Discourses of Power and Freedom in the Iranian Revolution, 1979-81.