The Bani Sadr Presidency

The Bani Sadr Presidency

Bani Sadr's program as president was to reestablish central authority, gradually to phase out the Pasdaran and the revolutionary courts and committees and to absorb them into other government organizations, to reduce the influence of the clerical hierarchy, and to launch a program for economic reform and development. Against the wishes of the IRP, Khomeini allowed Bani Sadr to be sworn in as president in January 1980, before the convening of the Majlis. Khomeini further bolstered Bani Sadr's position by appointing him chairman of the Revolutionary Council and delegating to the president his own powers as commander in chief of the armed forces. On the eve of the Iranian New Year, on March 20, Khomeini issued a message to the nation designating the coming year as "the year of order and security" and outlining a program reflecting Bani Sadr's own priorities.

Nevertheless, the problem of multiple centers of power and of revolutionary organizations not subject to central control persisted to plague Bani Sadr. Like Bazargan, Bani Sadr found he was competing for primacy with the clerics and activists of the IRP. The struggle between the president and the IRP dominated the political life of the country during Bani Sadr's presidency. Bani Sadr failed to secure the dissolution of the Pasdaran and the revolutionary courts and committees. He also failed to establish control over the judiciary or the radio and television networks. Khomeini himself appointed IRP members Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti as chief justice and member Ayatollah Abdol-Karim Musavi-Ardabili as prosecutor general (also seen as attorney general). Bani Sadr's appointees to head the state broadcasting services and the Pasdaran were forced to resign within weeks of their appointments.

Parliamentary elections were held in two stages in March and May 1980, amid charges of fraud. The official results gave the IRP and its supporters 130 of 241 seats decided (elections were not completed in all 270 constituencies). Candidates associated with Bani Sadr and with Bazargan's IFM each won a handful of seats; other left-of-center secular parties fared no better. Candidates of the radical left-wing parties, including the Mojahedin, the Fadayan, and the Tudeh, won no seats at all. IRP dominance of the Majlis was reinforced when the credentials of a number of deputies representing the National Front and the Kurdish-speaking areas, or standing as independents, were rejected. The consequences of this distribution of voting power soon became evident. The Majlis began its deliberations in June 1980. Hojjatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a cleric and founding member of the IRP, was elected Majlis speaker. After a two-month deadlock between the president and the Majlis over the selection of the prime minister, Bani Sadr was forced to accept the IRP candidate, Mohammad Ali Rajai. Rajai, a former street peddler and schoolteacher, was a Beheshti protégé. The designation of cabinet ministers was delayed because Bani Sadr refused to confirm cabinet lists submitted by Rajai. In September 1980, Bani Sadr finally confirmed fourteen of a list of twenty-one ministers proposed by the prime minister. Some key cabinet posts, including the ministries of foreign affairs, labor, commerce, and finance, were filled only gradually over the next six months. The differences between president and prime minister over cabinet appointments remained unresolved until May 1981, when the Majlis passed a law allowing the prime minister to appoint caretakers to ministries still lacking a minister.

The president's inability to control the revolutionary courts and the persistence of revolutionary temper were demonstrated in May 1980, when executions, which had become rare in the previous few months, began again on a large scale. Some 900 executions were carried out, most of them between May and September 1980, before Bani Sadr left office in June 1981. In September the chief justice finally restricted the authority of the courts to impose death sentences. Meanwhile a remark by Khomeini in June 1980 that "royalists" were still to be found in government offices led to a resumption of widespread purges. Within days of Khomeini's remarks some 130 unofficial purge committees were operating in government offices. Before the wave of purges could be stopped, some 4,000 civil servants and between 2,000 and 4,000 military officers lost their jobs. Around 8,000 military officers had been dismissed or retired in previous purges.

The Kurdish problem also proved intractable. The rebellion continued, and the Kurdish leadership refused to compromise on its demands for local autonomy. Fighting broke out again in April 1980, followed by another cease-fire on April 29. Kurdish leaders and the government negotiated both in Mahabad and in Tehran, but, although Bani Sadr announced he was prepared to accept the Kurdish demands with "modifications," the discussions broke down and fighting resumed. The United States hostage crisis was another problem that weighed heavily on Bani Sadr. The "students of the Imam's line" and their IRP supporters holding the hostages were using the hostage issue and documents found in the embassy to radicalize the public temper, to challenge the authority of the president, and to undermine the reputations of moderate politicians and public figures. The crisis was exacerbating relations with the United States and West European countries. President Carter had ordered several billion dollars of Iranian assets held by American banks in the United States and abroad to be frozen. Bani Sadr's various attempts to resolve the crisis proved abortive. He arranged for the UN secretary general to appoint a commission to investigate Iranian grievances against the United States, with the understanding that the hostages would be turned over to the Revolutionary Council as a preliminary step to their final release. The plan broke down when, on February 23, 1980, the eve of the commission's arrival in Tehran, Khomeini declared that only the Majlis, whose election was still several months away, could decide the fate of the hostages.

The shah had meantime made his home in Panama. Bani Sadr and Foreign Minister Qotbzadeh attempted to arrange for the shah to be arrested by the Panamanian authorities and extradited to Iran. But the shah abruptly left Panama for Egypt on March 23, 1980, before any summons could be served.

In April the United States attempted to rescue the hostages by secretly landing aircraft and troops near Tabas, along the Dasht-e Kavir desert in eastern Iran. Two helicopters on the mission failed, however, and when the mission commander decided to abort the mission, a helicopter and a C-130 transport aircraft collided, killing eight United States servicemen.

The failed rescue attempt had negative consequences for the Iranian military. Radical factions in the IRP and left-wing groups charged that Iranian officers opposed to the Revolution had secretly assisted the United States aircraft to escape radar detection. They renewed their demand for a purge of the military command. Bani Sadr was able to prevent such a purge, but he was forced to reshuffle the top military command. In June 1980, the chief judge of the Army Military Revolutionary Tribunal announced the discovery of an antigovernment plot centered on the military base in Piranshahr in Kordestan. Twenty-seven junior and warrant officers were arrested. In July the authorities announced they had uncovered a plot centered on the Shahrokhi Air Base in Hamadan. Six hundred officers and men were implicated. Ten of the alleged plotters were killed when members of the Pasdaran broke into their headquarters. Approximately 300 officers, including two generals, were arrested, and warrants were issued for 300 others. The government charged the accused with plotting to overthrow the state and seize power in the name of exiled leader Bakhtiar. Khomeini ignored Bani Sadr's plea for clemency and said those involved must be executed. As many as 140 officers were shot on orders of the military tribunal; wider purges of the armed forces followed.

In September 1980, perhaps believing the hostage crisis could serve no further diplomatic or political end, the Rajai government indicated to Washington through a diplomat of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) that it was ready to negotiate in earnest for the release of the hostages. Talks opened on September 14 in West Germany and continued for the next four months, with the Algerians acting as intermediaries. The hostages were released on January 20, 1981, concurrently with President Ronald Reagan's taking the oath of office. The United States in return released US$11 to US$12 billion in Iranian funds that had been frozen by presidential order. Iran, however, agreed to repay US$5.1 billion in syndicated and nonsyndicated loans owed to United States and foreign banks and to place another US$1 billion in an escrow account, pending the settlement of claims filed against Iran by United States firms and citizens. These claims, and Iranian claims against United States firms, were adjudicated by a special tribunal of the International Court of Justice at The Hague, established under the terms of the Algiers Agreement. As of 1987, the court was still reviewing outstanding cases, of which there were several thousand.

The hostage settlement served as a further bone of contention between the Rajai government, which negotiated the terms, and Bani Sadr. The president and the governor of the Central Bank (Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran--established originally in 1960 as Bank Markazi Iran), a presidential appointee, charged the Iranian negotiators with accepting terms highly disadvantageous to Iran.

One incentive to the settling of the hostage crisis had been that in September 1980 Iran became engaged in full-scale hostilities with Iraq. The conflict stemmed from Iraqi anxieties over possible spillover effects of the Iranian Revolution. Iranian propagandists were spreading the message of the Islamic Revolution throughout the Gulf, and the Iraqis feared this propaganda would infect the Shia Muslims who constituted a majority of Iraq's population.

The friction between Iran and Iraq led to border incidents, beginning in April 1980. The Iraqi government feared the disturbed situation in Iran would undo the 1975 Algiers Agreement concluded with the shah (not to be confused with the 1980 United States-Iran negotiations). There is also evidence the Iraqis hoped to bring about the overthrow of the Khomeini regime and to establish a more moderate government in Iran. On September 17, President Saddam Husayn of Iraq abrogated the Algiers Agreement. Five days later Iraqi troops and aircraft began a massive invasion of Iran.

The war did nothing to moderate the friction between Bani Sadr and the Rajai government with its clerical and IRP backers. Bani Sadr championed the cause of the army; his IRP rivals championed the cause of the Pasdaran, for which they demanded heavy equipment and favorable treatment. Bani Sadr accused the Rajai government of hampering the war effort; the prime minister and his backers accused the president of planning to use the army to seize power. The prime minister also fought the president over the control of foreign and domestic economic policy. In late October 1980, in a private letter to Khomeini, Bani Sadr asked Khomeini to dismiss the Rajai government and to give him, as president, wide powers to run the country during the war emergency. He subsequently also urged Khomeini to dissolve the Majlis, the Supreme Judicial Council, and the Council of Guardians so that a new beginning could be made in structuring the government. In November Bani Sadr charged that torture was taking place in Iranian prisons and that individuals were executed "as easily as one takes a drink of water." A commission Khomeini appointed to investigate the torture charges, however, claimed it found no evidence of mistreatment of prisoners.

There were others critical of the activities of the IRP, the revolutionary courts and committees, and the club-wielding hezbollahis who broke up meetings of opposition groups. In November and December, a series of rallies critical of the government was organized by Bani Sadr supporters in Mashhad, Esfahan, Tehran, and Gilan. In December, merchants of the Tehran bazaar who were associated with the National Front called for the resignation of the Rajai government. In February 1981, Bazargan denounced the government at a mass rally. A group of 133 writers, journalists, and academics issued a letter protesting the suppression of basic freedoms. Senior clerics questioned the legitimacy of the revolutionary courts, widespread property confiscations, and the power exercised by Khomeini as faqih. Even Khomeini's son, Ahmad Khomeini, initially spoke on the president's behalf. The IRP retaliated by using its hezbollahi gangs to break up Bani Sadr rallies in various cities and to harass opposition organizations. In November it arrested Qotbzadeh, the former foreign minister, for an attack on the IRP. Two weeks later, the offices of Bazargan's paper, Mizan, were smashed.

Khomeini initially sought to mediate the differences between Bani Sadr and the IRP to prevent action that would irreparably weaken the president, the army, or the other institutions of the state. He ordered the cancellation of a demonstration called for December 19, 1980, to demand the dismissal of Bani Sadr as commander in chief. In January 1981, he urged nonexperts to leave the conduct of the war to the military. The next month he warned clerics in the revolutionary organizations not to interfere in areas outside their competence. On March 16, after meeting with and failing to persuade Bani Sadr, Rajai, and clerical leaders to resolve their differences, he issued a ten-point declaration confirming the president in his post as commander in chief and banning further speeches, newspaper articles, and remarks contributing to factionalism. He established a three-man committee to resolve differences between Bani Sadr and his critics and to ensure that both parties adhered to Khomeini's guidelines. This arrangement soon broke down. Bani Sadr, lacking other means, once again took his case to the public in speeches and newspaper articles. The adherents of the IRP used the revolutionary organizations, the courts, and the hezbollahi gangs to undermine the president.

The three-man committee appointed by Khomeini returned a finding against the president. In May, the Majlis passed measures to permit the prime minister to appoint caretakers to ministries still lacking a minister, to deprive the president of his veto power, and to allow the prime minister rather than the president to appoint the governor of the Central Bank. Within days the Central Bank governor was replaced by a Rajai appointee.

By the end of May, Bani Sadr appeared also to be losing Khomeini's support. On May 27, Khomeini denounced Bani Sadr, without mentioning him by name, for placing himself above the law and ignoring the dictates of the Majlis. On June 7, Mizan and Bani Sadr's newspaper, Enqelab-e Eslami, were banned. Three days later, Khomeini removed Bani Sadr from his post as the acting commander in chief of the military. Meanwhile, gangs roamed the streets calling for Bani Sadr's ouster and death and clashed with Bani Sadr supporters. On June 10, participants in a Mojahedin rally at Revolution Square in Tehran clashed with hezbollahis. On June 12, a motion for the impeachment of the president was presented by 120 deputies. On June 13 or 14, Bani Sadr, fearing for his life, went into hiding. The speaker of the Majlis, after initially blocking the motion, allowed it to go forward on June 17. The next day, the Mojahedin issued a call for "revolutionary resistance in all its forms." The government treated this as a call for rebellion and moved to confront the opposition on the streets. Twenty-three protesters were executed on June 20 and 21, as the Majlis debated the motion for impeachment. In the debate, several speakers denounced Bani Sadr; only five spoke in his favor. On June 21, with 30 deputies absenting themselves from the house or abstaining, the Majlis decided for impeachment on a vote of 177 to 1. The revolutionary movement had brought together a coalition of clerics, middle-class liberals, and secular radicals against the shah. The impeachment of Bani Sadr represented the triumph of the clerical party over the other members of this coalition.

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