by Potkin Azarmehr
As Iran marks the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomenei, Potkin Azarmehr looks at the push to ensure his tomb is the most opulent in the world— at a time when ordinary Iranians are being asked to show restraint and resilience in the face of economic hardship.
“Forward towards the monotheistic classless society.” That was one of several deceptive slogans of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that mesmerized so many young Iranian idealists at the time. I don't think anyone ever managed to explain to me what a “monotheistic classless society” was. Not wanting to get bogged down with the technical jargon of the Islamic Revolution, which wanted to mimic, but at the same time compete with, the Marxist revolutionary rhetoric, I nonetheless understood that the classless society was supposed to get rid of the rich and their privileges and empower the “dispossessed” — the Islamic Revolution's equivalent of the Marxist proletariat.
Just like many Marxist revolutions of the past, however, the Islamic Revolution didn't bring about a classless society. It created a new privileged class without empowering the dispossessed.
The old privileged class was simply replaced by a new privileged class, with some exceptions, who quickly changed colors and cleverly managed to remain privileged in both systems. As for the dispossessed, they just got more dispossessed than even before. As George Orwell aptly described in Animal Farm, some animals became “more equal” than others — and so Iran's ruling clerics became more equal than others.
One iconic archetypal manifestation of this “monotheistic classless society” malarkey is the mausoleum that was built for the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.
The mausoleum, and the latest plans for extra expenditure on it, coinciding with the anniversary of the death of the founder of the Islamic Republic on June 3, has become the latest topic of debate in Iran, and further cause for factional infighting. Even some of the establishment figures are now voicing their concerns at the increasing grandeur and splendor of the mausoleum by reminding people of the Ayatollah's spartan lifestyle when he was alive.
The mausoleum is in fact thought to be the most expensive mausoleum in the world. In 1993, the Iranian daily newspaper Ettel'eat reported that the tomb compound included 600,000 square meters of indoor area, one kilometer long and half a kilometer wide.
While Iran regularly suffers massive casualties from frequent earthquakes, Khomeini's mausoleum is built to withstand earthquake magnitudes of 10 on the Richter scale. The steel structure of the dome weighs 340 tons, with the weight of its gold veneer at between 40 to 50 tons; the entire dome weighs close to 400 tons. There are four more domes, which are covered with expensive tiles, as well as the main golden dome.
Four gold gilded finials surround the mausoleum, each 91 meters high. The walls and ceilings are covered with expensive marble, each calligraphed or engraved.
In 2003, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the mayor of Tehran, plans were underway for the City of Sun, a new complex to the mausoleum with an allocated budget of around $270m, due to take an estimated two years to build. The complex is still under construction and expenditure has gone well over budget.
The Opulence of Shia Mausoleums
The opulence of Shia mausoleums for revered saints is a major point of contention with Sunni Muslims. They follow the strict guidelines set out by the Prophet Mohammad regarding gravestones, which specifically dictate that they should not to be more than four fingers high, in order to prevent the gravestones from becoming places of “shirk” or polytheist worshipping. Sunni Wahabbi militants have even attacked holy Shia mausoleums on many occasions because they regard them as representations of polytheism.
But Ayatollah Khomeini's mausoleum and its compound is the grandest of them all, grander even than the mausoleums built for the most revered Shia saints. Iran's Organization of the Reconstruction of Holy Shia Sites spends massive amounts of money each year to refurbish and extend holy Shia sites, mostly in Iraq. But even so, Khomeini's mausoleum remains the most ostentatious of them all.
All this excess and grandeur is taking place at a time when the Iranian population have been actively encouraged to show resistance and resilience in the face of economic hardship.
In a recent sermon, Ayatollah Jannati, one of Tehran’s Friday prayer leaders, told the faithful: “ُWhats wrong if people eat only once a day?”, adding that eating meat is not such a good thing. When referring to the P5+1 countries’ demands over nuclear negotiations in return for the removal of sanctions on Iran, Jannati said defiantly: “We prefer to stay hungry than lose our dignity”.
I have yet to come across a ruling cleric in Iran who only eats one meal a day or suffers from hunger.
In 1971, the former Shah of Iran celebrated 2,500 years of the monarchy in Iran. Around 70 heads of state were invited to attend the grand ceremony held near the tomb of the founder of Iran, Cyrus the Great. The televised spectacle attracted millions of viewers. The pomp and ceremony introduced Iran's heritage and long history, its contemporary achievements, and its new-found self-confidence to the rest of the world.
The total cost of the celebrations, which included much spending on the infrastructure that became useful for other purposes, was a mere $22m, and yet that was enough to mobilize the Western lefties and liberals into harsh condemnation of the Shah. They claimed that the “reckless spending of the Shah took place while the Iranian poor suffered.” A typical Western newspaper headline at the time read something like: “Shah holds lavish celebrations at the expense of starving Iranian people.”
Yet the left and the liberal Western press never mention anything about the lavish spending of the ayatollahs. It seems they are immune to the left and liberal backlash, and can get away with their misplaced priorities and excesses while the Iranian people truly suffer from increasing poverty and hardship. The Iranian middle class is quickly shrinking. And the gap between the rich and poor is widening — but those same voices that criticized the celebrations of a nation for its proud history remain resolutely silent today.