Banisadr: Iran's post-revolution president who fled to exile

Paris (AFP) –

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Abolhassan Banisadr was Iran's first president following the 1979 Islamic Revolution but fell out with its leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during a turbulent year or so in power and became a dissident in France.

A student activist and imprisoned under the shah, Banisadr was a Paris-based dissident as he continued his studies, before a tumultuous second exit from Iran saw him return to exile after his impeachment by the Islamic republic whose rulers he vehemently criticised.

Born on March 22, 1933 into a clerical family, he was from his teenage years a supporter of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who worked to end foreign interference and nationalise the oil industry, but was ousted in a Western-backed coup.

Banisadr became a staunch opponent of the shah, the country's new ruler, and in 1963 fled Iran and settled in Paris, becoming part of Khomeini's inner circle when the ayatollah moved to France.

He was on board the plane that brought Khomeini back to Iran on February 1, 1979 after the shah had fled.

Banisadr won a landslide victory in the January 1980 elections, to become the first president in the country's history, enjoying popular support and crucially that of Khomeini who as supreme leader was the final arbiter in all decision-making.

- At odds with hardliners -

An intellectual and not a cleric, Banisadr was seen as a relative moderate among Iran's first post-revolution leaders. But circumstances rapidly spun out of his control.

The seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by students in November 1979 sparked a 444-day hostage crisis, a rupture of relations with the United States and a growing radicalisation of the regime that sat uncomfortably with Banisadr's milder inclinations.

With his relations with Khomeini deteriorating, he found his political standing undermined by the approval by parliament in August 1980 of the popular hardliner Mohammad Ali Rajai as prime minister.

Rajai, who unlike Banisadr came from a humble background, was a populist and also one of the political heroes of the controversial 2005-2013 president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Meanwhile, the outbreak of war with Iraq in September 1980 plunged Banisadr, much more comfortable giving speeches mixing an idiosyncratic combination of philosophy, religion and socialism, into the role of commander-in-chief to which he was singularly ill-suited.

Already at odds with hardliners and failing to convince with his often long-winded speeches, a series of setbacks on the battlefield put him under further pressure, with his critics accusing him of mismanaging the war.

In June 1981, Khomeini dismissed Banisadr as commander in chief of the armed forces and parliament and then moved to impeach him.

Rajai was victorious in the ensuing presidential elections but was killed less than a month into his term in a bomb attack.

Risking arrest, Banisadr fled Iran for the second time in his life, alongside the leader of the People's Mujahideen (MEK) Massoud Rajavi whose organisation had backed the ousting of the shah but was now blamed for the string of attacks rocking Tehran.

They were secretly flown out of Iran on a plane piloted by Colonel Behzad Moezzi, a former elite officer in the shah's air force. Moezzi himself also remained in France, dying on January 11, 2021.

- 'October surprise' -

In France, Banisadr was granted political asylum and provided with police protection.

Living quietly outside Paris, he allied himself with the MEK and his daughter Firouzeh married Massoud Rajavi.

However they divorced and Banisadr himself fell out with the MEK becoming a more independent critic of the regime.

Still preoccupied with the US embassy hostage crisis, he argued in favour of the so-called "October surprise" conspiracy theory that claimed secret talks had ensured that the release of the staff had been deliberately stalled until after Ronald Reagan took office in exchange for arms.

When the authorities ruthlessly cracked down on 2009 protests against Ahmadinejad's contested re-election victory, Banisadr claimed that the regime had ordered electoral fraud and was on the brink of collapse.

"The regime is edging closer to the abyss and is holding on to power solely by means of violence and terror," he said.