Iran's First Family of Islamic Revolution Sides With Protesters

One member of the Khomeini family was even arrested in this week's protests.

Feb. 12, 2010— -- The Iranian government's claim to the legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic, was further weakened during Thursday's protests when the regime's police arrested the ayatollah's granddaughter.

Khomeini's granddaugher, Zahra Eshraghi, was taken into custody along with her husband, reformist leader Mohamed Reza Khatami. She wasn't in police custody for very long, but it was long enough to highlight the Khomenei family's opposition to the increasingly authoritarian rule by the Ayatollah's successors.

Eshraghi is the latest Khomeini to signal her displeasure with the ruling regime, and the Khomeini name is a powerful force in Iran. It was Khomeini, from his exile in Paris, who rallied his country to force the Shah of Iran from the Peacock Throne and declare an Islamic Republic.

And it was under Khomeini that Iranian studens stormed the U.S. embassy and took everyone inside hostage, defying what Khomeini called the "Great Satan." The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, considers himself to be Khomeini's heir.

But over the years, Khomeini's descendants have subtly and sometimes publicly broken with the regime, to the delight of reformists who call themselves the Green Movement.

"Khomenei's family is on the green movement side, and the oldest male heir has come out in the past week, denouncing the way the state-controlled media has been abusing Khomenei's words and taking them out of context," Iran analyst Hadi Ghaemi told ABC News, referring to the Ayatollah's grandson, Hassan Khomeini.

Ahead of Thursday's protests marking the 20th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, Hassan Khomeini had criticized the regime for running clips of his grandfather that explicitly discourage public protests without government permission. The younger Khomeini wrote a highly-publicized letter accusing the state-backed television network of trying to "distort' the character of the Iman.

Hassan Khomeini, identified as the representative of his family and caretaker of the Ayatollah's shrine, caused a stir when reports surface in The Guardian newspaper that he had left Iran in the aftermath of the disputed June election. Khomenei, the newspaper reported, was avoiding pressure to endorse President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's electoral win. Khomeini later refused to attend Ahmadinejad's inauguration and swearing-in ceremonies, reported Payvand news.

"He has made it very, very clear where he stands," said analyst Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council. "He even negated the regime's accusations that protesters had slandered and burned his grandfather's image."

Eshraghi, Khomeini's granddaughter, has been an outspoken advocate of women's rights. Last year she told the Christian Science Monitor her grandfather would be "disappointed" with the current restrictions on the lives of Iranian women, who do not carry the same legal rights as men.

Ayatollah Khomenei Is Still a Powerful Name in Iran

The descendants of Khomeini are part of a larger trend that has seen the core of the 1979 revolution turn more moderate, sponsoring reform and facing jail or other punishment for criticizing the regime.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi was a prime minister in the early days of the Islamic Republic, and was held in high regard by Khomeini. One of Mousavi's advisors, Dr. Alireza Beheshti, is a relative of Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, one of Khomenei's closest confidantes. Last week Hassan Khomeini reportedly visited Beheshti's home, a clear and public sign of support.

Criticism of the regime cuts deepest when it comes from the family of their revered leader, and the regime does strike back. In September state-backed news outlets IRNA and Keyhan attacked Hassan Khomeini for appearing to support the opposition and cooperating with "behind-the-scenes elements," or critics of the regime.

"You truly have a situation where the revolution is eating itself up and eating its young if it is going after the descendents of someone who is seen as the heart of the revolution," said Parsi.

The role of Ayatollah in the Islamic Republic, he added, has meant that Khomeini the symbol is more important than the individual himself.

"It's important to be able to control the use of that symbol, and that's where the government has a problem, because the family members will have some say over the definition. And their definition is diverging."