Abolhassan Banisadr, Iran’s first president after the country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, who fled Tehran after being indicted for defying the growing power of clerics as the nation became a theocracy, died on Saturday.
He was 88 years old.
Among a sea of black-clad Shiite clerics, Banisadr stood out for his Western-style costumes and such a French origin that it was philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who entrusted him with his belief that he would be the first president of Iran some 15 years earlier. . it happened.
Those differences only isolated him when the nationalist sought to implement a socialist-style economy in Iran backed by a deep Shiite faith instilled in him by his cleric father.
Banisadr would never consolidate his control over the government he supposedly led, as events beyond his control, including the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy and the invasion of Iran by Iraq, only added to the tumult that followed the revolution. .
True power remained firmly wielded by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with whom Banisadr worked in exile in France and continued back to Tehran amid the revolution. But Khomeini would sideline Banisadr after just 16 months in office, sending him fleeing back to Paris, where he would remain for decades.
“It was like a child watching my father slowly turn into an alcoholic,” Banisadr later said of Khomeini. “The drug this time was power.”
Banisadr’s family said in an online statement Saturday that he died in a Paris hospital after a long illness. Iranian state television followed up with its own bulletin about his death. Neither of them gave more details about the illness that Banisadr faced.
Formerly exiled to Iraq by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Khomeini ended up having to leave for France in 1978 under renewed pressure from the Iranian monarch. Arriving in Paris and not speaking French, it was Banisadr who initially gave the clergyman a place to live after moving his own family out of their apartment to accommodate him.
Khomeini would end in Neauphle-Le-Chateau, a town on the outskirts of the French capital. There, as Banisadr once told The Associated Press, he and a group of friends designed or examined the messages Khomeini sent, based on what they were told the Iranians wanted to hear.
Tape recordings of Khomeini’s remarks were sold in Europe and shipped to Iran. Other messages went out by phone, read to supporters in various Iranian cities. Those messages laid the groundwork for Khomeini’s return after the seriously ill shah fled Iran in early 1979, although the cleric was not sure he would have the support, Banisadr once said.
“For me, it was absolutely safe, but not for Khomeini and not for many others within Iran,” Banisadr told the AP in 2019.
That return saw Khomeini and his Islamic Revolution ravage the country. Banisadr became a member of the Clergyman’s Revolutionary Council and became the head of the country’s Foreign Ministry just days after the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 by hardline students.
In an echo of what was to come, Banisadr served just 18 days in that post after seeking a negotiated end to the hostage crisis, which Khomeini sidelined by a hardliner.
The kidnappers were “dictators who have created a government within a government,” Banisadr would later complain.
But he remained on Khomeini’s council and would push for the nationalization of the shah’s main industries and former private companies. And in the early 1980s, after Khomeini earlier decreed that a cleric should not hold the newly created presidency of Iran, it was Banisadr who won three-quarters of the votes and took office.
“Our revolutionary will not win if it is not exported,” he said in his inaugural address. “We are going to create a new order in which disadvantaged people will not always be disadvantaged.”
Amid purges of Iran’s armed forces, Iraq would invade the country, initiating what would be a bloody eight-year conflict between the two nations. Banisadr served as the country’s commander-in-chief under a decree from Khomeini. But the failures on the battlefield and the complaints of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard became a political responsibility for the president, who would survive two helicopter crashes near the front.
A hardline clergy-controlled parliament under Khomeini’s rule indicted Banisadr in June 1981 for his opposition to having clerics in the country’s political system, part of a long-standing dispute between them. A month later, Banisadr boarded an Iranian Air Force Boeing 707 and escaped to France with Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the left-wing militant group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.
He came off the flight with his trademark shaved mustache. Iranian media alleged that he escaped dressed as a woman.
Khomeini “has a great responsibility for the terrible disaster that has befallen the country,” Banisadr said after his escape. “To a large extent, it has set this course on our people.”
Born on March 22, 1933 in Hamadan, Iran, Banisadr grew up in a religious family. His father, Nasrollah Banisadr, was an ayatollah, a high-ranking Shiite cleric who opposed the policies of the shah’s father, Reza Shah.
“Even in utero, I was a revolutionary,” Banisadr once boasted.
When he was young, he protested against the shah and was imprisoned twice. He supported Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who nationalized Iran’s oil industry and was later overthrown during a CIA-backed coup in 1953. During the 1963 riots, Banisadr was injured and fled to France.
Banisadr studied economics and finance at the Sorbonne University in Paris and later taught there. He was the author of books and treatises on socialism and Islam, ideas that would guide him later after entering Khomeini’s inner circle.
After leaving Iran, Banisadr and Rajavi formed the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Banisadr would retire from the council in 1984 after Mujahedeen-e-Khalq teamed up with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as he continued his war against Iran.
He would remain outside of Paris for the rest of his life, under police surveillance after being targeted by suspected Iranian assassins.
Banisadr gained notoriety again after alleging, without proof in a book, that Ronald Reagan’s campaign colluded with Iranian leaders to delay the release of hostages, thus thwarting the reelection of then-President Jimmy Carter. That gave rise to the idea of the “October surprise” in American politics, a deliberately timed event powerful enough to affect an election.
Investigators from the United States Senate would later say in 1992 that “the great weight of the evidence is that there was no such agreement.” However, after Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, American weapons began to flow into Iran through Israel in what would become known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
“The clergy used you as a tool to get rid of democratic forces,” Banisadr told a former hostage in 1991 while touring the United States. “The night they took you hostage, I went to Khomeini and told him that he had acted against Islam, against democracy.”