Abolhassan Banisadr, who has died aged 88, was a thoughtful, French-educated, Islamic intellectual who accepted the presidency of Iran in 1980 despite his opposition to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s concept of the velayat-e faqih (“governorship of the Islamist jurist”) – effectively Islamic dictatorship.
Banisadr faced the myriad contradictions that emerged after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 from the debate over the role of Islamic clerics in the Iranian constitution in the wake of the overthrow of the shah. The contradictions started with the US embassy hostage crisis of that year but were accelerated by the conduct of the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
Khomeini had gone into exile in France in October 1978 and when he arrived there he was taken directly to the home of Banisadr, whom he regarded as a link to the opposition movement abroad, to Iran’s westernised intelligentsia and to western politicians.
Admirers and sycophants alike descended on Banisadr’s small flat in the Parisian suburb of Cachan until neighbours complained about the noise, and Khomeini was moved to the nearby village of Neauphle-le-Château. When, after the shah’s departure, Khomeini returned on the Air France jet in dramatic triumph to Tehran in February 1979, Banisadr was with him.
In France Khomeini had promised democracy and secular government. “Up until that point,” wrote Banisadr in My Turn to Speak: Iran, the Revolution and Secret Deals With the US (1991), Khomeini “had kept talking about liberation and freedom of speech, but from that moment, he was purely in pursuit of power.”
Khomeini pressed Iran’s first prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, to include Banisadr in his cabinet, but Bazargan refused. He told Khomeini that Banisadr regarded everyone else with contempt, refused to work as part of a team and had no previous experience, “not even running a Qur’an-grade school”. Nevertheless, Banisadr soon became a member of the revolutionary council, then deputy economy and finance minister, acting foreign minister briefly during 1979 and finance minister in 1979-80.
As foreign minister, Banisadr told Khomeini that the US hostage-taking undermined the credibility of the revolution. Khomeini counter-argued, convinced that the crisis supported his domestic policy by appeasing his leftist critics. “Taking hostages has increased our credibility … While the hostages are in our possession, they will not dare do anything”, he told a disgusted Banisadr.
Banisadr was elected to a four-year term as president on 25 January 1980, receiving 75% of the vote, indicating the strength of the secularists, splits within the Islamic Republic party and the support he received from Khomeini. Mistakenly, he saw it as a mandate to “redress” the revolution and to rescue it from “a fistful of fascist clerics”. He saw it as a rejection of the IRP, whereas in fact the party, reflecting hardline clerics eager for power, was about to soar in strength and destroy him.
From the start his presidency was challenged by members of the IRP, whose leader, Ayatollah Hosseini Beheshti, went as far as saying: “The president counts for nothing.” As Banisadr’s criticism of his clerical enemies and of Khomeini’s personality cult intensified, Khomeini’s support for him diminished.
By January 1981, Banisadr’s supporters were being arrested and his attempts to stem executions by Sadeq Khalkhali, the “hanging judge”, were rebuffed. He claimed that the clerics had prolonged the war with Iraq to solve internal problems. He believed that the army should fight the war while Khomeini favoured the Pasdaran (revolutionary guards). Banisadr spent much time at the front to be absent from conflict in Tehran but this strengthened his enemies there.
By June Banisadr was calling for resistance to dictatorship, a direct challenge to Khomeini tantamount to treason. On 21 June the Majlis (lower house) impeached Banisadr. He went into hiding, protected by the People’s Mujahedin of Iran or MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq) and the Kurdish Democratic party. At the end of July, an MEK member was executed, and the next day, Banisadr and the MEK leader, Massoud Rajavi, boarded a Boeing 707 piloted by a supporter who flew into Turkish airspace and eventually landed in Paris, where Banisadr and Rajavi were given political asylum.
Banisadr was born in Hamadan, in the foothills of the Alvand mountains in mid-west Iran, to a prosperous land-owning family. His father, Nasrollah, a cleric (and a schoolfriend of Khomeini), wanted him to train at the great Faiziyyeh seminary in Qom but Banisadr decided to study at Tehran University where he became a supporter of the secular National Front founded by Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh became prime minister in 1951 but was ousted in favour of the shah by the CIA in 1953.
After being briefly arrested over his activism Banisadr went to France and studied sociology at the Sorbonne, where he began a doctoral thesis on the destruction of Iranian society under the shah’s absolute monarchy and domination by the US.
Banisadr sought an Islamic government based on freedom, national independence, social justice and prosperity, concepts he developed in Paris where he went on to teach at the Sorbonne, writing on Shia Islam and on his hero Mossadegh. His political and economic solution was a return to a reformed Islamic ideology cultivated by the sociologist Ali Shariati, whom he met in Paris. He attacked the Shah’s suppression of freedoms and the western consumerism that he saw as eroding Islamic society. Ironically, later he would find most of these sins committed by Khomeini’s circle.
After leaving Iran in 1981,
Banisadr lived in Versailles for the rest of his life, under police guard after being targeted by suspected Iranian assassins. He had founded a newspaper, Engelab-e Eslami, in the 1970s and now he relaunched it in Paris; he wrote books and articles; and he gave occasional interviews.
In 2009, he denounced the Iranian government’s conduct after the disputed presidential elections which maintained Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. He said the government was “holding on to power solely by means of violence and terror” and accused its leaders of amassing wealth for themselves at the expense of ordinary Iranians.
He is survived by his wife, Azra Hosseini, whom he married in 1961, and three children, Firouzeh, Zahra and Ali.
• Abolhassan Banisadr, politician, born 22 March 1933; died 9 October 2021