Young Ruhollah Khomeini
Back in 1979, the major enemy of the United States was the Ayatollah Khomeini, religious leader and dictator of Iran, and everyone thought he was a big problem. Man, we had no idea…
Ruhollah Mousavi was born in 1901 or 1902, depending on who you ask, in the town of Khomeyn, from whence his popular name was derived. By any account, he was a joyless husk of a man. He once told Time Magazine, “There is no room for play in Islam. It is deadly serious about everything.”
With deadly serious fervor, he threw himself into the study of Islamic theology and attained the rank of Ayatollah, a religious title designating an advanced scholar but carrying no particular political significance.
In 1962, the monarch of Iran (known as the Shah) passed a bill that allowed municipal officials in the country to take their oaths of office on whatever Holy Scripture they preferred. While it might sound like a trivial issue, the move offended Khomeini and other Islamic fundamentalists, who considered the Koran to be the only appropriate swearing mechanism.
While the United States has a blasé attitude toward protests and boycotts, the monarchy in Iran was less flexible. The order was rescinded, and suddenly Khomeini was a force to be reckoned with. The fallout from the swearing issue led to widespread unrest, as the secular monarchy struggled to contain the strong fundamentalist population. The Ayatollah was sent into exile in 1964, moving first to Turkey then later to Iraq. From Iraq, he launched a series of vicious verbal attacks on the monarchy, first against the Shah who exiled him and later against his son, who succeeded to the throne.
Khomeini called for a clerical state to succeed the “corrupt” Shah throughout the 1960s and 1970s, building a power base within the country among his religious followers. In 1978, a series of student demonstrations rocked the Shah’s regime, leading to widespread defections from the country’s power base, mainly merchants and the middle class. The following year, the Shah fled into U.S. protection and Khomeini seized power.
In his final act before fleeing, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi appointed Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar as head of a regency council to run the country in his absence. Once installed as prime minister, Bakhtiar took several measures designed to appeal to elements in the opposition movement. He lifted restrictions on the press; the newspapers, on strike since November, resumed publication. He set free remaining political prisoners and promised the dissolution of SAVAK, the lifting of martial law, and free elections. He announced Iran’s withdrawal from CENTO, canceled US$7 billion worth of arms orders from the United States, and announced Iran would no longer sell oil to South Africa or Israel. Although Bakhtiar won the qualified support of moderate clerics like Shariatmadari, his measures did not win him the support of Khomeini and the main opposition elements, which were now committed to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a new political order. The National Front, with which Bakhtiar had been associated for nearly thirty years, expelled him from the movement. Khomeini declared Bakhtiar’s government illegal. Bazargan, in Khomeini’s name, persuaded the oil workers to pump enough oil to ease domestic hardship, however, and some normalcy returned to the bazaar in the wake of Bakhtiar’s appointment. But strikes in both the public and the private sector and large-scale demonstrations against the government continued. When, on January 29, 1979, Khomeini called for a street “referendum” on the monarchy and the Bakhtiar government, there was a massive turnout.
Bakhtiar sought unsuccessfully to persuade Khomeini to postpone his return to Iran until conditions in the country were normalized. Khomeini refused to receive a member of the regency council Bakhtiar sent as an emissary to Paris and after some hesitation rejected Bakhtiar’s offer to come to Paris personally for consultations. Bakhtiar’s attempt to prevent Khomeini’s imminent return by closing the Mehrabad Airport at Tehran on January 26, 1979, proved to be only a stopgap measure.
Khomeini arrived in Tehran from Paris on February 1, 1979, received a rapturous welcome from millions of Iranians, and announced he would “smash in the mouth of the Bakhtiar government.” He labeled the government illegal and called for the strikes and demonstrations to continue. A girls’ secondary school at which Khomeini established his headquarters in Tehran became the center of opposition activity. A multitude of decisions, and the coordination of the opposition movement, were handled here by what came to be known as the komiteh-ye Imam, or the Imam’s committee. On February 5, Khomeini named Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister of a provisional government. Although Bazargan did not immediately announce a cabinet, the move reinforced the conditions of dual authority that increasingly came to characterize the closing days of the Pahlavi Monarchy. In many large urban centers local Komitehs (Revolutionary Committees) had assumed responsibility for municipal functions, including neighborhood security and the distribution of such basic necessities as fuel oil. Government ministries and such services as the customs and the posts remained largely paralyzed. Bakhtiar’s cabinet ministers proved unable to assert their authority or, in many instances, even to enter their offices. The loyalty of the Armed Forces was being seriously eroded by months of confrontation with the people on the streets. There were instances of troops who refused to fire on the crowds, and desertions were rising. In late January, Air Force Technicians at the Khatami Air Base in Esfahan became involved in a confrontation with their officers. In his statements, Khomeini had attempted to win the army rank and file over to the side of the opposition.
Following Khomeini’s arrival in Tehran, clandestine contacts took place between Khomeini’s representatives and a number of military commanders. On February 8, uniformed airmen appeared at Khomeini’s home and publicly pledged their allegiance to him. On February 9, Air Force Technicians at the Doshan Tappeh Air Base outside Tehran mutinied. Units of the Imperial Guard failed to put down the insurrection. The next day, the arsenal was opened, and weapons were distributed to crowds outside the air base. The government announced a curfew beginning in the afternoon, but the curfew was universally ignored. Over the next twenty-four hours, revolutionaries seized police barracks, prisons, and buildings. On February 11, twenty-two senior military commanders met and announced that the Armed Forces would observe neutrality in the confrontation between the government and the people. The army’s withdrawal from the streets was tantamount to a withdrawal of support for the Bakhtiar government and acted as a trigger for a general uprising. By late afternoon on February 12, Bakhtiar was in hiding, and key points throughout the capital were in rebel hands. The Pahlavi monarchy had collapsed.
Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution, the world is still trying to understand just what it was — and is. Was it an anti-Western revolution against the rule of the U.S. backed Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi? Was it the first modern effort to establish a Muslim theocracy? Or was it a simple takeover of a state by a single party? Finding the answer would help explain why the Islamic Revolution remains resolutely anti-Western, entirely in the hands of its clerical leaders, and intolerant of dissent.
Khomeini spent more than 14 years in exile, mostly in the holy Shia city of Najaf, Iraq. Initially he was sent to Turkey on 4 November 1964 where he stayed in the city of Bursa for less than a year. He was hosted by a colonel in Turkish Military Intelligence named Ali Cetiner in his own residence, who couldn’t find another accommodation alternative for his stay at the time. Later in October 1965 he was allowed to move to Najaf, Iraq, where he stayed until being forced to leave in 1978, after then-Vice President Saddam Hussein forced him out (the two countries would fight a bitter eight year war 1980-1988 only a year after the two reached power in 1979) after which he went to Neauphle-le-Château in France on a tourist visa, apparently not seeking political asylum, where he stayed for four months. According to Alexandre de Marenches, chief of External Documentation and Counter-Espionage Service (now known as the DGSE), France would have suggested to the Shah to “organize a fatal accident for Khomeini”; the Shah declined the assassination offer, as that would have made Khomeini a martyr.
Stephen Kinzer, a former “New York Times” correspondent and the author of “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror,” says the seeds of the Islamic Revolution lay in another revolution — the Shah’s program to modernize Iran as a second Turkey. The shah’s heavy-handed “White Revolution,” Kinzer says, profoundly shocked his traditional society.
Opposition to the shah included figures all along the political spectrum. There were secular intellectuals steeped in Third World liberation theory who equated the Shah with Western exploitation. There were Marxists advocating class struggle. There were champions of Constitutional Monarchy. Less visibly but ultimately most importantly there was Iran’s Shi’ite clergy, which traditionally had stood outside of politics. Kinzer says the Shah was in little danger from his secular opponents, but that when the Mullah’s entered the arena, his fate was sealed. “While the Shah was in power, he systematically repressed all other forms of opposition. You could not have a real opposition political party or independent trade union or a student organization or professional group or chamber. You could not have independent newspapers,” Kinzer says. “The only place where you could hide if you wanted to be in the opposition was in the mosque,” he added. “That brought people who were very much against the Shah under religious influence and it guaranteed, as we can now see in retrospect, that when the Shah would finally fall, religious power would replace him.”
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, like all great revolutionaries, mobilized support by articulating a compelling concept. He argued that only Iran’s religious strength could save the country from foreign exploitation and that Islamic law — Shari’a — offered everything necessary for good government and a just society. Specifically, Khomeini argued that full implementation of Shari’a means Islamist jurists should rule the country. And that concept — long known but dormant in Shi’ite theology — became his call to arms.
(Iran’s Revolution: Islamic Republic Proves Durable, But Is It Successful? By Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL, March 2, 2009 at payvand.com)
In November 1979, a group of student radicals overran the U.S. Embassy and took everyone inside hostage, with Khomeini’s support, in retaliation for the U.S. agreeing to shelter the Shah. The crisis lasted for more than a year, paralyzing Jimmy Carter’s presidency and eventually contributing greatly to his loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. After the Shah died, the hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, the day of Reagan’s inauguration. Reagan wasn’t one to take aggression lightly; his brilliant response to the threat he perceived from Iran was to arm Saddam Hussein with conventional, chemical and biological weapons and unleash him on America’s enemy. That’ll teach him!
Saddam Hussein had seized power in neighboring Iraq at about the same time Khomeini made his grab in Iran. Naturally, the two despised each other. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. The war lasted nearly eight years, depleting the resources of both countries. The Soviets surreptitiously aided Iran even, as U.S. envoys like Donald Rumsfeld spread goodwill in Baghdad, because you just can’t have enough proxy wars to satisfy some people.
The U.N. brokered a peace agreement to end the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. By then, Khomeini had become a quaint sort of evil Hollywood-style icon, not dissimilar to Fidel Castro. While Saddam Hussein stepped up to the plate as the hot, young despot du jour, Khomeini began actively supporting international terrorism.
In a secret message, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher urged Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to release the 52 Americans as a “gesture of goodwill” to the men from elite force the SAS who had freed the Iranians. They had already been held hostage for five months by the time six gunmen burst into the Iranian Embassy in London in April, 1980, and took 26 hostages. American efforts to free their nationals had suffered a setback when a rescue attempt ended in failure with the crashing of a US helicopter and the death of eight US servicemen. In the successful storming of the Iranian Embassy in London, which saw five of the terrorists killed for the loss of only two Iranian hostages, British diplomats saw a chance to help their friends in Washington. In a carefully crafted message, Thatcher stressed she was not trying to draw a parallel between the situation in Tehran and London. “I do however ask that the Imam (Khomeini) … should order the release of the American hostages as a gesture of goodwill to the brave men who risked their lives to free the Iranian hostages and give thanks to God for their safety,” she said. Britain’s Ambassador John Green, who had been withdrawn from Tehran, flew back to the Iranian capital to deliver the message in person to the Iranian president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr. Green told the President it was intended to be “entirely private” and London had not discussed the approach with the US. Bani Sadr was said to have read the letter carefully and then put it aside. The approach did not have the desired effect, however. It was not until January, 1981, after 444 days in captivity, that the Americans were released. – AFP
At the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini faced a public that had been demoralized by massive casualties and a peace agreement which amounted to an outright defeat. To cheer up the masses, the normally humorless cleric decided to have a little fun and issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on Muslims everywhere to kill an obscure, semi-talented author named Salman Rushdie for writing a tepid book called The Satanic Verses:
“The author of the Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all Moslems to execute them wherever they find them.”
Rushdie wasn’t a Shi’ite, nor was he Iranian. The proclamation was ludicrously, outrageously inconsistent with any reasonable reading of Islamic and international law, but it was a great excuse to fight, so a lot of people got really upset about it (especially Rushdie, whose life was essentially ruined by the order). Khomeini’s status at home as lead hell raiser, was secured.
Khomeini was known for his aloofness and stern demeanor. He is said to have had “variously inspired admiration, awe, and fear from those around him.” His practice of moving “through the halls of the Madresehs never smiling at anybody or anything; his practice of ignoring his audience while he taught, contributed to his charisma.”
Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini died aged 86, after repeated heart failure, just before midnight on Saturday 3 June 1989, at a clinic near his house in the village of Jamaran, just north of Tehran. President Ali Khamenei and the speaker of parliament, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were at his bedside. They resolved to delay announcement of the death in order to allow time for the body to be prepared and for a state of emergency to be imposed. The borders were put on alert against Iraqi attack and plans were laid for an orderly succession.
Although Tehran radio would not announce Khomeini’s death until 7am on the Sunday morning, rumors immediately started to fly around the city and crowds began to make their way to Jamaran. People dressed in mourning black, the women wearing the all-over black georgette wrap called the “prayer chador”, poured into the streets and mosques. At 9am in the Parliament building, Khamenei, who was known for his beautiful Persian diction, read out Khomeini’s last will and testament to the Assembly of Experts, a body of leading clerics. In a fevered atmosphere, with all the members in tears, the reading of the will took three hours. The assembly then convened again in the afternoon to elect Khamenei as leader, even though he was only 50 years old and a relatively junior member of the hierarchy.
(Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral by James Buchan at newstatesman.com)
Young Ruhollah Khomeini