Part II: The Return - this is the second in a series of articles that looks at how the Iranian Revolution came to be in 1979, and where it has led Iran over the course of four decades.

Celebrations were underway in Iran forty years ago today [February 1, 1979] for the arrival of a man who arguably changed the lives of Iranians and changed international politics - a man who led the Iranian revolution of 1979 from a small residence in Nauphele le Chateau in Paris.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran after 15 years in exile in a chartered Air France jet which also carried his supporters and some journalists from Paris.

In his first speech, Khomeini repeated his attack on the Shah’s rule as “illegitimate” and “illegal” and said he would choose a new government and send all those in charge as “criminals” to justice.

“Our final victory will come when all foreigners are out of the country,” he said.

The days and months that followed proved him to be ruthless in destroying not just Shah’s supporters but also all other groups that had helped bring him to power. He also fulfilled his wish to oust foreign powers but did that with grave cruelty especially to Americans.

On his arrival the majority of Iranians were devoted to Khomeini, some even worshipped him. He had managed to unite a nation and remove from the throne the powerful Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; something that would’ve been inconceivable a year earlier.

History tells us that the clergy and monarchy have often been at odds in Iran. Each demand absolute loyalty and both have nurtured authoritarian tendencies. The Shahs and the Grand Ayatollahs consider themselves as “the image of God” and “the representative of God,” respectively.

We had seen a clash during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 when the clerics together with the modernising classes revolted to place the monarch within the controlled parameters of a constitution.

Two decades later, in 1926, the monarchy hit back when Reza Shah Pahlavi, with the help of the British, created a new dynasty. 

His modernisation programmes were extensive and culturally anti-religion. He outlawed the black Islamic chador for women and the turban for men demanding men wear the French style chapeau instead.

The British had to force Reza Shah to abdicate in September 1941 for his suspected sympathies for the Nazi German ruler, Adolph Hitler. Instead, they placed his young Swiss-educated son, Mohamad Reza Pahlavi on the throne.

The liberalising classes together with the clergy fought back from 1943-53 to reduce the power of the young king and push back his sponsors, the British, who was by then in full control of Iran’s primary national resource, the oil industry. 

The UK-US coup of 1953 placed the monarchy back on the throne.

The history of the struggle against foreign interference and the  monarchy is what shaped Khomeini’s mindset. His arrival in Tehran in February 1979 signaled the first major victory of religion over monarchy.

Ironically Khomeini was hitherto a distant name especially in comparison to national heroes such as Mohammad Mossadeq, who led the nationalisation of Iranian oil, or the cleric Ayatollah Abolghasem Kashani who had opposed the British.

Khomeini only gained political prominence in 1962-63 when he spoke out against the Shah’s land-reform program, and the emancipation of women. His subsequent imprisonment caused riots across major cities leaving thousands dead.

Eventually exiled in 1964, and Khomeini later settled in the Shia holy city of Najaf in Iraq and then in Paris where he became the leading voice against the Shah in late 1977.

He referred to the two Pahlavi Shahs as “the usurpers of power”.

In Paris, Khomeini received the liberal and leftist leaders who had supported him. His humble lifestyle contrasted with the wealth and extravagance of the Shah and his fearless attacks on the Pahlavi dynasty and corruption had impressed many. 

They believed the 78-year old ayatollah when he said to Le Monde newspaper that he had no wish to rule.

“Personally, no [I would not wish to rule]. My age, my condition, and disposition are not conducive to this. If the opportunity arises, we will choose a person … who has the aptitude for such an undertaking.”

In the same interview and his writings since early ‘70s Khomeini had made it clear that he advocated an Islamic Government with the idea of Velayat Faghih or Islamic jurisprudence, which views the Islamic leader as the absolute judge.

The liberalising classes who supported him failed to take that seriously or indeed his strong opposition in the 60s to the women’s right to vote.

Khomeini conceived Islam as a total social, political, religious and economic system into which whatever is good and right can be subsumed. All else is evil, and there should be no compromises.

The day Khomeini arrived in Tehran changed the lives of all Iranians. Liberal notions of modernity had to be shelved and with it the ideals of “freedom” and “justice”.

The dictatorial monarchy has been destroyed, but religious absolutism was coming to life, and forty years on, Khomeini’s vision still rules in Iran.

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