This Week in History: Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran

Although revolution in Iran was likely to happen with or without Khomeini, his return ensured it became an Islamic Revolution.

On February 1, 1979, just shy of two weeks after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini flew from Paris to Teheran, ending 15 years of exile. Long a symbol and leader of Islamic opposition to the shah’s secular and Western-aligned rule, his return was one of the final pegs in a series of events that led to the founding of the Islamic Republic that rules Iran to this day.
Beginning in late 1978 and continuing through to the first weeks of 1979, popular protests grew and spread throughout Iran. Anger over economic conditions, corruption exemplified by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s family’s massive oil wealth, and the close relationships between the shah and the West drove the unrest, although several other grievances also played important roles. Hoping to quiet the anger against him and his regime, the shah implemented a number of desperate and half-hearted reforms in response to the peoples’ demands.
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By January 1979, the shah realized that his days ruling Iran were numbered. He made several last minute attempts to negotiate a deal whereby he would be allowed to remain in Iran, but was consistently rebuffed. Faced with the reality that he and his family would not be safe if they remained in the country, the shah fled Iran on January 16, 1979.
The story of Khomeini’s exile began with his arrest in 1963, following harsh public condemnations of the shah’s policies, reforms, corruption and his very legitimacy. Following his imprisonment, Khomeini was exiled in 1965. Most of Khomeini’s fifteen years in exile were spent in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf in southern Iraq, during which, the Ayatollah took a leading role in the religious opposition to the shah's rule – the last in a long line of Iranian monarchs. Khomeini continuously wrote and lectured about the role of Islamic government and developed the system of rule that has dominated Iran for decades since.
Subscribing to the belief that only god can demand the allegiance of man, Khomeini developed a system of governance wherein only those intimately familiar with the laws of god, Sharia, are capable of creating and ruling over a religiously acceptable and just society. Thus, the Ayatollahs of Iran were the only people permissible to rule the country and some say, the earthly world. Particularly in the years leading up to the 1978-1979 revolution, more and more religious Shi’ites in Iran began subscribing to Khomeini’s version of political Islam.
Upon his return, Khomeini immediately rejected the remaining elements of the Shah’s regime, particularly the prime minister at the time. Two months later, at the end of March 1979, a referendum that endorsed replacing the system of monarchy with an “Islamic Republic” overwhelmingly passed. Two successive constitutions were passed that ultimately gave absolute authority to Shi’ite clerics with the position of guardian jurist or supreme leader designed for Ayatollah Khomeini. As he assumed power, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born and the revolution completed.
Several major events soon followed the Iranian Islamic revolution that would realign the country vis-à-vis the world. Following the deposed shah’s entry into the United States (called “The Great Satan” by Khomeini) for medical treatment, a large group of students overran the US Embassy in Teheran, leading to a 444-day-long hostage crisis. The US and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since. Ties with Israel (which Khomeini called “The Little Satan”) were also cut following the establishment of the Islamic Republic.
In the years of the shah’s rule, Israel and Iran enjoyed close ties economically and militarily. A great deal of Israel’s oil came from Iran and the shah’s military cooperated closely with the Jewish state. The new Islamic Republic quickly ended this cooperation. In fact, it was Ayatollah Khomeini who first said that “Israel should be wiped off the map,” a quote which became famous after Ahmadenijad repeated it in 2005. There has, however, been controversy over the translation of Khomeini’s statement, raising questions of whether it was actually a military threat against the state and people of Israel or a political threat against the “Zionist regime.”
Since the Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran and the subsequent completion of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the country continued to distance itself from the West. Internally, it has become more religiously conservative and radical in its positions (domestically and internationally). Additionally, from tactics employed in the near-decade-long war with Iraq, Khomeini is often credited with legitimizing suicide bombing as an honorable form of martyrdom.
Although revolution in Iran was likely to happen with or without Khomeini, his return to Teheran in 1979 ensured that it became an Islamic Revolution and guaranteed the role of Shi’ite Muslim clerics in the newly-established Islamic Republic. It was Khomeini who designed the modern incarnation of the system of clerical rule known as Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists and his strong and popular support led to its implementation. Still the dominant symbol of Islamic Revolution political Islam in Iran and the Shi’ite world, the end of Khomeini’s exile 32 years ago this week marked the beginning of a new era in the Muslim world and beyond, one which continues to influence international affairs to this day.