KHOMEINI'S FOLLOWERS THWART IRAN'S PROGRESS

KHOMEINI'S FOLLOWERS THWART IRAN'S PROGRESS

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader of Iran who established the Islamic Republic. A decade after his death, what is his legacy?

Ayatollah Khomeini is one of the icons of the 20th century. This is ironic for a man who railed against images and icons. His image is immediately recognizable: his stature, charisma, long-flowing black robes and great bearded and turbaned head. He is a figure who inspired fear, revulsion and awe, depending on your point of view.Yet he was one of the truly great independent thinkers of this century and perhaps millennium. There are many Muslims and non-Muslims who strongly opposed his teachings and his central doctrine of a theocratic state, which continue to underpin the Iranian polity.

It was, though, an original concept that he expounded in great detail in his writings and speeches. Moreover, he was able to put it into practice.

Although politics and religion have always been closely intertwined in Islam, the usual practice was for temporal rulers to claim religious authority rather than the other way round.

The Islamic Republic of Iran built on this doctrine is Khomeini's lasting legacy. He laid the foundations for an assertive, self-confident state that has been able to resist serious military, political and economic challenges.

It is a country that is proud of its heritage but is also forward-looking and innovative.

The government is finding new ways to attract foreign investment without compromising its Khomeini- based principles, reflected in the constitutional ban on foreign ownership of its oil reserves. Iran has become a leading dissident voice against the U.S.-backed international hegemony.

The country's geographical position between the Middle East and Central Asia and its possession of extensive natural resources means that it is a regional power whose views have to be taken into account.

The Islamic Republic is also a cohesive state. Despite its size, large population and ethnic diversity, it has not fallen victim to ethnic divisions or feuds and there are few signs of any underlying tensions.

Political factions are forming on ideological grounds but are expressing themselves peacefully in the main and doing battle through the ballot box. Violent opposition to the government is also rare.

There is, though, also a darker side to the Khomeini legacy. Groups inspired by Khomeini have perpetrated terrible acts of violence and inflicted incredible cruelty on others in his name.

Bombings, hostage-taking and assassinations have occurred both in Iran and outside - particularly in Lebanon - ostensibly to further Khomeini's cause.

To many in Western Europe and elsewhere, one of the lasting and most pernicious of Khomeini's legacies was the impact of his pronouncement against the British author Salman Rushdie's book ''The Satanic Verses.''

It has taken the last decade to all but eliminate the threat posed to Rushdie from Khomeini's followers. Even now, a private Iranian foundation committed to perpetuating Khomeini's legacy continues to offer a bounty for Rushdie.

Although Khomeini enunciated a clear political vision, he relied on existing economic models, namely widespread public ownership and a highly centralized and planned economy. These models have since been discredited.

Iran's rising population has severely increased the burden on the Iranian state. It is a challenge that Iran has been unable to overcome. It has managed to avoid economic collapse and serious deprivation but it has so far failed to build a modern and dynamic economy.

Khomeini's desire to protect Iran against foreign exploitation and economic interference has obstructed Iran's ability to engage with the modern business world and take full advantage of its natural and human resources.

Iran needs investment in technology and infrastructure so it can meet the expectations of its people.

In turn, the outside world needs Iranian oil, gas and other resources as well as access to Central Asia. The relationship need not be one of exploitation but one where Iran engages with the rest of the world on equal and uncompromised terms.

This is closer to Khomeini's vision of Iran's role in the world than the isolationist and intolerant attitude espoused by some of his so-called supporters.