On Feb. 1, 1979, an Air France Boeing 707 left Paris for the Tehran Mehrabad airport. Control towers in the countries the plane passed over were on high alert and in constant communication with the pilot, Jean Mouy. The tension was palpable. It was not an ordinary trip. Among the passengers onboard the flight, one man stood out: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Seventy-seven years old and accompanied by 17 members of his staff and a slew of journalists, he was returning to his country after 15 years of exile.
After the flight landed in Iran, at 9:33 a.m., the white-bearded Khomeini slowly stepped out of the plane wearing a black turban, signifying that he was a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, and clutching the arm of one of the stewards. Millions of exuberant Iranians were waiting for him.
"We cannot just speak of a triumphant arrival for Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. It is too weak an expression,” a news presenter for the French TV channel TF1 said that day. "When there are several million people on a road to welcome a leader, there are no possible words, if not perhaps the expression of collective delirium, an unprecedented fact in all history.”
The crowd was euphoric. Some ran behind Khomeini's car, clung to it and even climbed on top of it. The spectacle played out all the way along the 25 kilometer drive from the airport to Behecht-e-Zahra, the martyrdom cemetery south of Tehran where Khomeini prepared to give his first speech.
The location itself was symbolic. The cemetery housed the tombs of people who fell victim to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s oppression over the course of his 35 year reign. In front of an immense crowd, Khomeini spoke with a calm voice. He criticized the constitutional monarchy and declared it illegal.
Khomeini had been waiting for this moment for a long time. When the Shah launched the White Revolution in 1964 to modernize the country he had forced Khomeini into exile. Khomeini was kidnapped by Iran’s secret police, the Savak, and sent to Turkey. He eventually found refuge in the holy Shiite city of Najaf in Iraq where he began preparing for his return to Iran.
From outside the country, Khomeini led an increasingly virulent campaign against the Shah by recording speeches on tapes and sending them to Iran to be broadcast across the country. But the long years of exile weakened his following inside Iran. At the same time, he found a new pool of supporters among young Iranians living in diaspora.
Ten days after his triumphant return to Tehran, a bloody insurrection overthrew the imperial council the was ruling the country. The council was put in place after the Shah went into exile on Jan. 16, 1979 following months of protests calling for his abdication. It wasn’t the first time that Pahlavi was forced into exile. In 1953, he had also left the country, but had returned some time later.
This time, the popular protests were gaining momentum despite the violent attempts by authorities to repress them. The Shah’s last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, a former liberal opponent, tried to rally support and ease the tensions, but with little success. The army, deeply divided between Bakhtiar and Khomeini’s supporters, fell apart, and fighting erupted between the soldiers.
After the overthrow of the imperial council, Khomeini became the leader of the Islamic Revolution. The Shah never officially abdicated the throne, but his reign was over. Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan to lead a new government, and the Islamic Republic was proclaimed on April 1, 1979.
"Rarely will such an unlikely leader have shaken the world so much,” the British newspaper The Times wrote in 1979, naming Khomeini Man of the Year.
Born Ruhollah Musavi on Sept. 24, 1902 in the city of Khomeyn, Khomeini grew up in a especially religious family. His brother, his father and his grandfather were all ayatollahs, or high ranking Shiite clerics. As a child and teenager, Khomeini studied theology and philosophy in Isfahan before becoming a teacher in the 1920s in the holy city of Qom, where the daughter of the seventh Shiite imam was buried. While there, Khomeini became close to Ayatollah Mirza Muhammad Ali Shahabadi, one of the only opponents of the Shah at the time, and was also named an ayatollah, meaning “sign of God”, as a recognition of his expertise in Islamic law and jurisprudence.
In 1929, Khomeini married a 15-year-old girl named Khadijeh Saqafi, but few details are known of his private life. The murkiness has fuelled rumors about his family and origins.
Khomeini did not get involved in politics early on. But in the 1940s he began to publish writings that criticized the Shah’s regime for taking steps to modernize and secularize Iran and admonished ayatollahs who supported the government. Khomeini argued that every Muslim country had to follow Sharia, and in 1961 was given the title of marja-e-taqlid (model of inspiration), the highest rank for an ayatollah.
Relying on his credentials, Khomeini quickly established himself as one of the main figures in the Iranian opposition, a status he maintained even after he was exiled. Charismatic and severe looking, he was the main symbol of the Iranian Revolution.
After returning to Tehran, Khomeini presented a very different vision for the country than the one he had previously called for. Once an advocate for freedom of expression, Islamic democracy, the improvement of the status of women and their freedom of dress, Khomeini abruptly changed his tune. "Do not listen to those who talk about democracy. They are against Islam and want to move the country away from its mission. We are going to break the poisonous feathers of those who talk about nationalism, democracy and that kind of thing,” he said on March 13, 1979 during a conference with teachers and students in Qom.
Anyone who opposed his regime would come to feel the wrath of the Ayatollah. "We must warn these intellectuals that they will be crushed if they do not stop their interference. We have so far treated you with clemency in the hope that you cease your malfeasance... These pro-Americans must know that we can exterminate them when we want in a very short time,” he warned in a statement to the Iranian people on Aug. 8, 1979.
A few months later, Khomeini’s authoritarian viewpoints were established in the constitution. The Ayatollah became the most important figure in the country controlling religious institutions, the military and the judicial system.
International media was fascinated by this man who had brought such an abrupt change to the state of affairs in Iran. CBS News reporter Mike Wallace arranged an interview with Khomeini. Every detail was carefully studied by the Imam’s team. There would be no room for spontaneity: questions had to be submitted in advance and the translator could choose what to translate and what he deemed inappropriate. Wallace decided to bypass the protocols and asked the imam if he knew that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had called him a lunatic.
The interpreter frowned slightly and glared at Wallace, but still translated the question. Hearing Sadat’s name, Khomeini, sitting cross-legged on the floor, smiled slightly. Calmly and in total controlling of his facial expressions, he criticized Sadat and predict that he would have a short career. Less than two years later Sadat was assassinated.
Shortly after the revolution, in the early 1980s, relations between Iran and Iraq were quickly deteriorating. Soon, a border conflict erupted between the two countries as Khomeini showed increasing interest in exporting the Iranian Revolution to the rest of the Middle East.
On Sept. 22, 1980, Iraq, disapproving of Khomeini’s power grab and discreetly supported by Western countries, tried to invade the Islamic Republic. A number of border incidents that had occurred between the two countries were the main pretext for the move, but Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, was actually trying to contain the expansion of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary ideology. To Baghdad’s surprise, the Iranians showed fierce resistance. The war ended up lasting eight long years and both armies suffered heavy losses. Iraq attempted to end the conflict, but Iran would not acquiesce. Eventually, Khomeini’s government accepted UN Resolution 598, which brought an end to the hostilities. The ceasefire began on Aug. 8, 1988.
"I had promised to fight until my last breath,” Khomeini said in a statement. "Making this decision was more deadly than drinking poison. I submitted to God and drank it for His satisfaction."
During the years that followed, Tehran turned to Lebanon and other Gulf countries to finance Shiite groups and spread its revolution.
The tragedy and horror of the Iran-Iraq war did not tarnish Khomeini’s image in the eyes of many Iranians who continued to worship the charismatic political and spiritual leader. Khomeini brought religion back to the center of Iranian life, undoing all of the reforms undertaken by the Shah that were considered too modern and too Western. Despite opposition from the People’s Mujahedin Organization (PMO), which sought to overthrow Khomeini, the Ayatollah was untouchable and enjoyed unfailing support from conservative clerics.
People who violated the principles of Islam, as defined by Khomeini’s regime, were executed in increasing numbers. When New York Times journalist Oriana Fallaci asked Khomeini about a 1979 report regarding the execution of homosexuals and adulterers, the Ayatollah answered: “If your finger is suffering from gangrene, what do you do? Do you let the gangrene reach the whole hand, then the body, or do you cut your finger?"
Women were directed to wear the chador, music was banned from radio and TV and any criticism of religion was severely repressed. Khomeini used the religious tools at his disposal to eradicate his opposition. In 1988, he issued a fatwa against the PMO, calling them “the enemies from within”. And in 1990, an Amnesty International report calculated that 33,000 political prisoners had been massacred in Iranian prisons over the course of a couple of years.
Khomeini also issued a famous fatwa on Feb. 14, 1989 against British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie for writing “The Satanic Verses”. The controversial book was considered blasphemous by Khomeini and many other Muslims. The Ayatollah went as far as to call on every so called good Muslim man in the world to kill the writer. Rushdie has been living under protection ever since, and the fatwa is still valid today after being reissued by Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in 2005.
After 10 years in power, Khomeini's health weakened. He died on June 3, 1989 in Tehran at the age of 86. It was unclear who would take his place. Millions of hysterical Iranians followed the funeral procession to the Behecht-e-Zahra cemetery, and Khomeini’s mausoleum has become a place of pilgrimage and a symbol of the Islamic revolution.
On the day he died, Radio Tehran broadcast a statement written by his son: "The superior spirit of the leader of Muslims and free men throughout the world, His Excellency Imam Khomeini, ascended to heaven, and his heart, bursting with love for God and oppressed humanity, stopped beating. But hearts full of love for him will always beat, and the sun of the leadership of the Imam will shine on the universe and men, brighter than ever... "
* This profile was originally published in French L'Orient-Le Jour on Sept. 8, 2017 as part of a summer series devoted to great figures who have shaped the recent history of the region.
Editor’s note: 40 years since the Iranian revolution under L’Orient-Le Jour’s magnifying glass
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. The country went from being an imperial state to a theocracy and then to an Islamic Republic. Given how transformative the revolution has been in Iran, the Middle East at large and Lebanon in particular, it is undoubtedly one of the most significant events that took place in the region during the 20th century. L’Orient Le Jour will cover this anniversary by publishing a series of stories.
The article of our serie, in French