"Iran of the Khomeini Family": Politics of Naming and Generational Transfer in the Islamic Republic
IraniX no. 14
Written and Edited by Dr. Raz Zimmt
In late August of 2023, Ahmad Khomeini, the great-grandson of the Islamic Republic's first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, announced on social media the birth of his first daughter, revealing her name to be 'Iran.' Khomeini's decision to give his daughter a non-religious or Islamic name sparked public interest in the Islamic Republic. His decision was presented as an expression of a growing preference in Iran for giving newborns Persian names rather than Islamic ones. This tendency reflects deeper processes within Iranian society, including secularization, westernization, and an increased preference for the Persian identity over the Shi'ite Islamic identity within the Iranian national identity. Although the Khomeini family has been pushed out of influential roles in Iranian politics in recent decades, and some are even considered critics of the regime, they continue to arouse great interest. Therefore, the choice of a name for the newest member of the Khomeini family is perceived as another expression of the increasing alienation between 'Iran' and 'the Islamic Republic.'
In late August of 2023, Ahmad Khomeini, great-grandson of the Islamic Republic's first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, announced the birth of his first daughter on his popular Instagram account. Khomeini's announcement of her name: 'Iran,' was accompanying the photo of his new daughter. The decision made by Khomeini and his wife Fatemeh Daneshpajooh, whom he married in 2018, to give their daughter a non-Islamic name sparked widespread public debate in the Islamic Republic. Like Khomeini, Daneshpajooh is also a descendant of the revolutionary elite, being a great-granddaughter of Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Golpaygani, a senior post-revolutionary official who was, at a certain point, considered as a potential successor to Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader.
In his X (formerly Twitter) account, journalist Amir-Hussein Mosalla wrote that preferring the name Iran over a religious-Islamic name is symbolic and meaningful, expressing the change in the spirit of the times and even within the Khomeini family. In response, Roozbeh Alamdari, the editor of the news site Jamaran, reminded readers that Ayatollah Khomeini's wife was also called 'Quds Iran,' although she was more commonly known by her Muslim name, Khadijeh. The website Asr-e Iran, affiliated with the pragmatic conservatives, responded with a commentary emphasizing that the choice of the name reflects the new cultural flavor in Iran. In the past, clerics would choose religious-traditional names for their children. In 1972, Ayatollah Khomeini rejected his son Ahmad's proposal to name his firstborn 'Yasser' because it was not a religious name. Due to this opposition, Ahmad named his son 'Hassan.' Years later, the Supreme Leader withdrew his opposition to the name 'Yasser,' and Ahmad's second son was given this name. Asr-e Iran claimed that the choice of the name 'Iran' reflects a transition from a cultural-traditional ethos to a nationalist one. Ayatollah Khomeini rejected nationalism as a legitimate ideology, deeming it contradictory to Islam. Moreover, in the first decade after the revolution, no state institutions active in Iran, including the national airline and the national bank, bore the word 'Iran' in their names. At the same time, Khomeini preferred to use the term 'homeland' when addressing Iran. Therefore, Ahmad Khomeini's choice of name for his daughter holds significant importance. Asr-e Iran asserted that it would not be an exaggeration to state that Khomeini's Iran is the first Iran in the Khomeini family.'
In parents' choices when naming children, we can find additional testimony, even if only anecdotal, to deeper trends within Iranian society, including processes of Westernization and secularization. Additionally, the growing rift between the Islamic regime and the public has led many Iranians, especially the younger generations, to prefer focusing on the Persian component of their national identity rather than the Islamic-Shi'ite one. A study conducted by the sociologist and Reformist activist Abbas Abdi concluded that between 1996 and 2016, there was a significant decline in the number of newborns in Tehran who were given names originating in the Islamic tradition, such as Fatemeh and Hussein. Abdi claimed that naming children in Iran is influenced by three traditions: the religious-Islamic tradition that encourages names from the Quran or names of Shi'ite Imams; the National-Persian tradition that favors names from the book of Kings (Shahnameh) by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and the Western tradition. According to his study, starting from the second half of the 1960s and especially in light of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there was an increase in the naming of children with Islamic names, but this trend stopped in the mid-1980s.
Peyman Asadzade pointed out a similar trend among girls in Iran, manifested in a decline in the selection of Islamic names for newborns. Conversely, there has been an increase in Iranian parents' preference for giving their daughters Persian names. This is influenced, among other factors, by popular TV characters. For instance, the name 'Hasti' from the Iranian TV series 'Forbidden Fruit,' which aired on Iran's national TV in 2007, or 'Eva' after the singer Eva Bahram, one of the most prominent participants in the musical talent show broadcast on the Persian TV channel Manoto based in London.
In recent years, the younger descendants of the revolution leader Khomeini have become critics of the policies of the Islamic regime. Some are associated with the reformist movement in Iran and do not shy away from expressing their protests and criticisms towards the decision-makers in the current regime under the Islamic Republic. Twenty-six-year-old Ahmad Khomeini is the son of Hassan Khomeini and the grandson of Ahmad Khomeini (1946-1995), one of Ayatollah Khomeini's two sons who served as his father's right-hand man after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. For years, Hassan, in his role as the director of the institute for the preservation and distribution of the Supreme Leader's legacy, avoided any political involvement. However, since the early 2000s, he has increasingly voiced his opinions on sensitive political matters and has, on several occasions, criticized the regime's policies. In January 2016, the Guardian Council disqualified his candidacy for the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for supervising the activity of the Supreme Leader and nominating his successor. In July of 2022, only a few months before the outbreak of protests following the death of Mahsa Amini following her arrest by the Guidance Patrol, Hassan harshly criticized the violence exercised against women by the security forces, stating that this was neither rational nor Islamic. His son Ahmad's widespread activity on social media, particularly his Instagram account with over 900,000 followers, has helped expand their circle of support among the younger generation in Iran. However, it has also invoked criticism of Ahmad's luxurious lifestyle and preference for Western brands. In the photo he uploaded to announce the birth of his daughter, Ahmad was seen wearing a pricey Apple watch.
Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the Khomeini family has receded to the sidelines of Iranian politics. Any attempts by the family to enter politics have been thwarted by the regime, which remains steadfast in maintaining a conservative hegemony within the ruling political elite. Nonetheless, the family continues to pique great interest in the Islamic Republic. Therefore, the choice of a nationalist name over a religious one for the new daughter of the first Supreme Leader's descendants is perceived as another expression of the evolving societal changes in Iran in recent decades. Forty-four years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, not only has the power of Iranian cultural identity endured, but at times, it surpasses the religious-Islamic identity. In light of these developments, the descendants of the first revolutionary leader in their personal lives exemplify the growing rift between 'Iran' and the 'Islamic Republic.'