For Iranians, the spectacle of an unruly mob of Trump loyalists scaling the walls and breaking into the U.S. Capitol was not surreal. It was déjà vu. The insurrection of Jan. 6 plays like the sequel to the Iranian hostage crisis of Nov. 4, 1979. Only with former President Donald Trump, not Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leading the group.
If Donald Trump’s performance at the2021 Conservative Political Action Committee Conference in Orlando last week is any indication, the magnitude of the threat posed by the January insurgency has yet to sink in. To grasp what a successful insurgency would have meant, and still means, for American democracy, look no further than the Iranian hostage crisis — Khomeini’s experiment with fundamentalism.
At its inception, the Iranian hostage crisis was dismissed as an absurd outlier event, a disturbance on the margins of Iranian politics. The Fedayeen Khalq — an armed Marxist-Leninist organization led by radical students steeped in the revolutionary teachings of Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Che Guevara — took over the U.S. Embassy on Feb. 14, 1979, in what became known as the “Valentine’s Day attack.”
None recognized the Fedayeen’s right to violate Iran’s treaty obligations by holding American diplomats hostage. Iranian and Muslim statesmen did not endorse hostage-taking as a practice or precedent sanctioned by the Abrahamic prophets or the Shiite imams. The principle of sovereign immunity was not abrogated in favor of revolutionary impunity. Law, religion and language were not bent out of shape to create a loophole, let alone a halo, for hooligans, no matter what their beliefs. The Iranian government was not hijacked, the hostages were released.
The world did not go topsy-turvy. No one lost their sense of perspective and proportion.
That was not to be the case in November 1979. When an association of Islamist students took over the embassy to protest the shah’s admittance to the United States for medical treatment, Khomeini turned the spark into a wildfire.
As a sorcerer, Khomeini’s spell was every bit as powerful as Trump’s. Deploying his fiery rhetoric, he, too, whipped the crowds into a frenzy to stop a steal — a conspiracy hatched in the U.S. Embassy, which he denounced as a nest of spies, the abode of Satan. He, too, fused fundamentalism, nationalism and terror by framing the hostage crisis as “a war between Islam and blasphemy.”
He triggered a clash of civilizations by minimizing the risks. “The Great Satan,” he said, “was impotent to harm us.”
To his devout followers, storming the U.S. Embassy was not only a patriotic act, it was a consecration of their bond with the leader. They, too, were taking the country back — liberating Iran. Holding Americans hostages as trophies was a show of strength, not violence, proof of Allah’s supremacy, not Khomeini’s inhumanity.
Although millions of believers worshipped Khomeini as a divine savior, he was the thief with a demonic plot for a fundamentalist coup against Iran’s infant democracy.
On Dec. 2, with fear and fervor at a boil, Khomeini struck. The ratification of a new constitution converted the Iranian state into a cult of personality organized around a Führer principle. Article 5 of the constitution sanctified fiction as an article of faith, falsehood as the basis of governance and force as the arbiter of truth. It recognized Khomeini’s right to rule Iran in the sovereign name of the Mahdi, the Shiite messiah. Religious and political power were concentrated in the person and office of the supreme leader.
It was too late to impeach Khomeini or exit his fundamentalist fantasia.
Khomeini hailed the hostage crisis as “Iran’s second revolution,” more important than the fall of the monarchy a few months earlier. And for good reason. It was time to brand and burn friend and foe in the bonfire of his orthodoxy. Iran was about to be plunged in a reign of terror, a calamity that has left millions hostage to Khomeini’s ghost to this day.
Republicans cannot ignore the contagion: The fusion of Christian symbolism and the semiotics of terror that animated Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally. The mock gallows erected outside the U.S. Capitol, orange noose and all, “hang Pence” chants, the “Pelosi is Satan” signs, the Auschwitz T-shirts and Nazi paraphernalia can shape reality as surely as the “death to America” chants and Jimmy Carter effigies in Khomeini’s Iran.
There is no denying the bitter harvest of the war on terror. Trump’s America and Khomeini’s Iran are the two faces of the same fundamentalist coin.
Consider the paradox:
If Khomeini had labeled the U.S. government as illegitimate, and issued a fatwa calling on Iranian American or Muslim American insurgents to demonstrate their strength by attacking the seat of American democracy, Republican senators would not cite the Constitution to shield Khomeini, nor would they raise their fist in support of the insurgency.
Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Ben Sass, R-Neb., and others would not be assailed as heretics but honored as patriots for refusing to capitulate before Khomeini’s American Hezbollah, no matter how great the fear of his Allah.
Americans cannot afford to follow in the footsteps of Khomeini. Anointing any presidential candidate as a messiah, our very own faux Cyrus, to reconstitute America as a pure Christian nation is, at best, deceptive marketing, and at worst, a genocidal enterprise. Abandoning the promise of American democracy to erect a Persian model of a divine theocracy is to promise believers paradise, only to deliver perdition.
The peace, security and prosperity of American civilization, our identity as a world nation, rests on our respect for the sanctity of laws, process and procedures — not the force of arms or the clash of faiths, and certainly not the passions and prejudices of men.
Conservatives beware: To wrap the Republican party in the shroud of Trump’s lies is to shred the Constitution to sanctify impunity. It is not Christ’s way. It is Khomeinism by another name.
Amir Soltani is a human rights activist and the author of “Zahra’s Paradise.”