This Week in History: Opening Pandora’s Box

The origin of man’s frailties and flaws are set forth in multiple cultures, through allegory, in the story of the first woman.  In the Bible’s book of Genesis, God’s creation of Man in the idyll of the Garden of Eden is thrown asunder by the temptation of Adam by God’s following creation, Eve, introducing Original Sin and the subsequent darker forces that would bedevil mankind.  In Greek mythology, the supreme god Zeus orders Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship, to create the first woman on earth, Pandora.  Hephaestus secures for Pandora sublime gifts of beauty and fertility, but additionally, curiosity, and with it the elements for the Greek version of fall from grace.  Zeus gifts Pandora a mysterious but non-descript box and forbids her to open it.  Her curiosity, however, overwhelms her dutiful allegiance to Zeus’s instructions,  and she opens the box. The box, containing all the evils of creation, rapidly empties, and Pandora is helpless to re-apply the lid and contain the damage.  The allegory of Pandora’s box, the connection of a seemingly innocuous events with profound later consequences, is appropriate for the event thirty four years ago occurring at the Tehran airport in the first week of February,1979.

On February 1st, 1979, an elderly man gingerly stepped down the exit ramp of an airplane onto the tarmac of the airport in Tehran, Iran, and with his foot contacting Iranian soil, Pandora’s box was opened.  77 year old Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shia ayatollah, 15 years in exile in Paris for opposition to the longstanding rule of Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was returning on the invitation of the Shah’s Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar.  The Shah, who had abdicated his monarchical position of omnipotent ruler of Iran at the end of 1978 in response to severe public unrest, sharing power with a parliamentary government led by Bakhtiar, had determined to leave Iran just two weeks earlier.  Bakhtiar, like many naive liberal revolutionaries before and after him, envisioned being able to control Khomeini by enveloping him in the arms of the revolution, as one of many voices that would formulate the new Iran.

The tumult of revolution we associate with the modern concept of ‘Arab Spring’ had convulsed its Persian forebears in 1978, resulting in the abdication of the Shah and dismantling of his vaunted security apparatus.  Khomeini was the spiritual leader of millions of Iran’s Shia followers but as with the Arab Spring only one of several arms of the revolution.  His revolutionary zeal, however, was never pointed toward the goals of liberal democratic consensus.  His was a hardened religious totalitarianism, linked to the fundamentalist dogma of sharia law and supreme societal rule by clerics.  Khomeini may have superficially agreed to form an “Islamic Vatican” in the city of Qom, the spiritual home of Shia religious thought in order to return from exile, but cooperating with a secular leader to progressively reform Iran was the farthest thing from his mind. Ruling Iran through cleric supremacy and formulating a larger Islamic fundamentalist revolution was at the core of his being.

Liberals tend to be attracted to the purity of totalitarian rhetoric and disdainful of the dirty compromises and character flaws of secular leaders who must deal with the reality of their circumstances.  The  message of societal efficiencies propagated by  the “democratically elected” Hitler and Mussolini, the pursuit of socialist perfection by the communists under Stalin, the purity of sacrifice of the individual to the great societal good of the pure communist state put forth by Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot, all with goal of elimination of the “elites” and leveling of the societal playing field, has proved attractive intellectually to liberals, who are thereby willing to sacrifice individual liberties for the greater purity of societal equality.

Khomeini was in the mold of these epic totalitarians, yet was lavished with praise by the intellectual liberal elites and press in Europe and the United States, for his life long opposition to what they saw as the greater evil, the Shah of Iran. To the elites, the Shah was evil incarnate for his secret police, prisons, and harsh rule over those who would seek to water down his omnipotent rule.  Khomeini, however, was no advocate of expanded freedom for Iranians. He was in exile in Paris since 1963 instead for his oppositional rage to the Shah’s initiation of the “White Revolution” – the Shah’s six point revolution to modernize Iran – land reform, nationalization of forests, the sale of state owned enterprises to private interests, the enfranchising of women and nonIslamic minorities  to educational equality and the right to vote and hold office,  a national literacy campaign, and initiation of profit sharing to industry.  To Khomeini and his religious followers, the Shah’s drive toward a Westernized more liberal Iran was the ultimate crime against the core tenet of fundamentalist Islam, that demanded complete submission to the message and laws of the Koran as interpreted by Khomeini and other fundamentalists.  Completing the Shah’s journey to ultimate sin against Islam was his willingness to have diplomatic relations with the state of Israel and his good graces with the Great Satan, the United States.

The elderly man who stepped off the tarmac in Tehran in February, 1979, may have been physically enfeebled by age, but carried the great energy and fire fed by hatred and zealotry.  Prime Minister Bakhtiar had unknowingly transmitted Pandora’s Box from Paris and opened it, releasing what has become the great storm of Islamic fundamentalist rage and retribution of the last 34 years and making the epicenter of the fury the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Khomeini quickly brushed aside Bakhtiar and his  liberalist tendencies and by the end of the year brought the totalitarian cleansing he had dreamed of in those years in exile in Paris.  Gone were the open role of women in education and society.  Gone were the concepts of minority rights and  freedoms.  The Shah’s prison abuses soon paled to the kangaroo courts and  brutal torture chambers Islamic fundamentalist justice with tens of thousands of free thinkers and religious minorities imprisoned and executed.  The concept of jihad proved an ominous Khomeini tool to control events beyond his immediate borders, intimidating liberal Islamic thinkers like Salman Rushdie through the declaration of fatwas, and revolutionizing the youth of Iran. much like Mao. into defense of the faith as Revolutionary Guards. He directed his followers to dismantle the concept of diplomatic immunity and national sovereignty by encouraging and orchestrating the hostage takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for the sheer joy of humiliating the Great Satan.   He soaked his country in the blood of totalitarian war, driving a half a million zealots to their death against the equally murderous totalitarian Saddam Hussein and Iraq.  He turned the democratic concept on its head, forming the concept of Supreme Leader, placing in the hands of a cleric levers of power that even the Shah could not approach.  His final goal was the bringing of jihad against the Great Satans, Israel and the United States, and his surrogates continue to aim for the destruction of each through strikes of terror and Iran’s singled minded drive to develop the atomic bomb.

Pandora was horrified of what she had done in giving in to her curiosity and releasing the contents of the Box.  Our Western apologists unfortunately make no bones of the great damage done to the concepts of individual freedom, separation of church and state, and extension of the concepts of liberty and entrepreneurialism emitted by opening the Box 34 years ago in Tehran.  To them, their cartoonishly negative view of flawed individuals like the Shah prevent them from ever assessing the balance of the good and bad these type of leaders occasion for their people. The Iran of today may be free of the Shah, but managed to trade him in for a darker more ominous totalitarian, and the world is definitely not a safe or freer place as a result.  One wonders how many more of Pandora’s boxes were opened by the encouraging of the process of the Arab Spring.  Unlike Zeus, we can not simply retreat to Olympus, but as human beings, will have to face and bear the untoward consequences.


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