The dates June 5 and 6, 1963, were significant in the history of the Iranian revolution. Masses of angry demonstrators from around the country took to the streets to protest against the arrest of a popular Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an outspoken critic of the then king of Iran known as the Shah.

Although the protests were brought under control quickly, the Shah was left with no doubt as to the threat of the Shia opposition to his rule. The Shah also knew about the history of resistance among Shia clerics in Iran. A Shia-led tobacco revolt of 1891, against a tobacco concession granted by Nasir al-Din Shah to Great Britain, proved the effectiveness of the clerics in safeguarding public interests and curbing the excesses of the ruling monarchy.

As protests and strikes against the Shah continued in Tehran and elsewhere after 1963, hardliners within the regime advised the Shah to order the execution of Ayatollah Khomeini in order to bring the unrest to an end. Others argued that such a move would only exacerbate the anger of the devout Shia Muslims and would turn Khomeini into a martyr.

It was a senior diplomat, Hassan Pakravan, who eventually convinced the Shah to spare Khomeini's life. Pakravan, who met regularly with the Ayatollah when the Ayatollah was under house arrest, understood that the killing of an important Shia cleric would be regarded as an attack on Islam itself and, as such, would render the Shah ungodly and the enemy of the common people.


So, Khomeini escaped execution and having spent more than 15 years in exile, returned to Iran as a triumphant leader of the Iranian revolution on February 1, 1979, the same year Time magazine named him "man of the year".

After coming to power, Khomeini ordered the execution of Pakravan, the very man who had saved his life. The Ayatollah then went on to systematically and murderously eliminate nearly all the other political factions that had contributed to the success of the revolution under his leadership. The rest, as they say, is history. The secular dreams and aspirations of the people of Iran were turned to a theocratic nightmare that continues to this day.

Many Iranians and other international observers have long pondered whether the killing of Khomeini would have stopped the path of revolution and spared Iran from falling into the trap of an oppressive Islamic republic. Many believe the decision to execute Khomeini would have only hastened the arrival of the revolution which, given the level of political oppression and corruption in Iran under the Shah, seemed inevitable.

Could the same be said about the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia? Could the execution of a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, be the beginning of the end for the crumbling House of Saud?

One thing that has changed dramatically since the early years of Ayatollah Khomeini's political activism is the damage Isis (Islamic State) and the Islamic Republic of Iran have done to the credibility of Muslim clerics. It is now possible to regard ayatollahs and those claiming to be Muslim leaders as evil in a way that was unimaginable before the Iranian revolution.

Following the execution of the Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted "awakening is not suppressible" - a clear reference to the vulnerability of the Saudi regime despite their attempt to suppress dissent through mass executions.

Reading Khamenei's tweet, I cannot help but wonder if the Ayatollah is being disingenuous in his claim. After all, Iran repeatedly suppresses the awakening of its own people through summary executions, mass arrests, intimidation and torture. But, for once, I hope the supreme leader of Iran is right.

I just wish that democratic governments, including our own, would stop pretending that grovelling to countries like Saudi Arabia would help improve their human rights.

With 158 beheadings in the past 12 months, it is hard to tell whether it is Saudi Arabia that has gone mad, or the United Nations who elected Saudi Arabia to chair its Human Rights Council panel.

Donna Miles-Mojab is a British-born Iranian New Zealander.