64. Paper Prepared in the Department of State1


The opposition of Ayatollah Maj Ruhollah Seyed Musavi Khomeini, the leading Iranian religious figure, is symptomatic of widespread popular opposition to Government policies. One aspect of these policies has been to destroy the power of the clergy. To attempt to weaken the religious structure of Iranian society, as the Shah appears to be doing, believing this necessary to carry on his campaign to modernize Iran, has proven to be a dangerous course of political action. Popular reactions to this policy are already apparent. As reactionary as the present clergy is, the very nature of religion in Iran is such that it is capable of change and adaptation. Khomeini’s opposition represents the reaction of traditional Iranian society. As spokesman for the religious community Khomeini’s opposition is, in one sense, political protest; more importantly, it indicates the troubled state of Iranian civilization.

During the past two years there has been a reawakened opposition among the religious community to the regime’s policies. This antipathy has been extended in recent months to open criticism of American policy in Iran. Speaking for the religious community, Khomeini has said that American policy is responsible for many of Iran’s ills and that it is supporting an unpopular regime for its own purposes to the detriment of the people as a whole as did the Russians and British before them. Given this alienation from the regime and this antipathy to the American role in Iran, and given the widespread support Khomeini’s views have among the traditional world of bazaar, village and small city, the reasons for Khomeini’s rise to political prominence herald resistance from quarters of the Iranian population that have not been in active opposition before.

Khomeini’s education, learning and widespread support within the clergy made him eligible to succeed Ayatollah Borujerdi as the leader of Iranian Islam, a position made vacant by Borujerdi’s death in 1961 before Khomeini became a political figure. Khomeini’s political abilities became evident in 1963 when he first spoke out against the anti-religious policies of the Government. Khomeini’s political stand is not an isolated one; it is a view shared by a significant mass of Iranians.

[Page 123]

The religious community and the values they hold play an important part in Iranian society. Because the ulema have expressed disapproval of some of the Shah’s goals and condemned almost all of the Shah’s methods, the Shah has decided to carry out his plans to change the Iranian social structure without their support or assistance. He has branded the clergy “black reactionaries” who are opposed to reform. He has gone so far as to exile their leader Khomeini for anti-regime speeches and for alleged anti-reform attitudes.

There is no question that Khomeini has opposed certain features of the Shah’s program. He has condemned completely the Shah’s autocratic methods. There is little question, too, that he is reactionary and provincial in outlook, no matter how learned. Paradoxically, there are few leaders in Iran who by training would be better able to formulate for the devout a religious justification for modernization. Khomeini is recognized as the leading philosophical exponent of ijtehad, the Shia doctrine whereby change can be adapted to an Islamic framework. But it is important to recognize that Khomeini does not speak only for himself. He represents the point of view of traditional Iranian society.

Part of the conflict between the regime on the one hand and the religiously-oriented masses on the other is over the pace and means of carrying out reforms. The clergy has under great pressure grudgingly recognized that reforms in Iranian society must be made. Khomeini says he is not opposed to land distribution and that land distribution is consistent with Islam if just compensation is made. He has opposed, for example, the emancipation of women under present circumstances stating that emancipation without education is meaningless. In almost every instance the principle of a particular reform has been accepted; the challenge has come over methodology. The clergy by its training and philosophical outlook is tradition-bound. The basic changes implicit in some of the Shah’s reforms, such as land distribution, require adaptations that will markedly alter the whole religious structure. “What will the position of the ulema be without the waqf?” is the kind of question that has deep philosophical and religious implications for the ulema and Iran as a whole. That there has been opposition on the part of the ulema is inevitable. But within the traditional structure, the power of the ulema might have been used to justify and institutionalize the changes taking place.

Had the Shah consulted with the leaders of the religious community, considered their ideas, and had he given the ulema a limited constructive role to play, opposition to his reforms from the religious would have been considerably lessened. This was former Prime Minister Ali Amini’s belief and still is his position. However, these are “might have been’s.” What is now clear is that Khomeini’s exile has aroused dormant nationalist feelings. The Shah and the United States have been branded as both anti-nationalist and anti-religious. This new attitude has tarnished our [Page 124] formerly favorable image, poses a threat to our interests in Iran, and will certainly make our task there far more difficult.

  1. Source: Department of State, NEA/IRN Files: Lot 69 D 489, Iran 1965, POL 13–6 Religious Groups. Confidential. Prepared by INR. Attached to a January 7 note that reads: “Rec’d from WGM. This is a copy of an internal paper prepared for Mr. Spain’s use.” WGM is William G. Miller of INR. The paper was sent to Bracken, Howison, Tiger, and Mulligan in NEA/GTI. Another attachment to the paper makes it clear that it was prepared in 1965.