Ayatollah Khomeini Returns to Iran After 15 Years of Exile

From the perspective of nearly 2 1/2 decades, the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran and its monumental impact across the Islamic world may appear to have been inevitable.

It seemed like anything but certain destiny, however, to those of us on board the Air France 747 taking Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini from Paris to Tehran that morning in 1979. The exiled Shah's Prime Minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, still controlled the country and commanded the armed forces, and our immediate concern was whether the air force might decide that the best way to solve the problem of what to do with the radical fundamentalist leader would be to blow us out of the sky. That threat didn't intimidate the Ayatullah, who calmly went to sleep on the cabin floor, resting up for his arrival in Tehran, where he would be greeted by more than 1 million cheering supporters.

It would take eight tumultuous days before Khomeini could wrest power from Bakhtiar, but already in his arrival speech he abandoned earlier hints of willingness to share power and demanded that the Prime Minister get out. Tipped off that the military was going to arrest him, Khomeini broadcast an appeal that brought tens of thousands of Iranians into the streets. Stores of weapons in the mosques were flowing into the hands of Khomeini loyalists, and a bloody civil war appeared almost certain.

Shortly before dawn on Feb. 9, amid some fighting in downtown Tehran, I was hunkered in a bank entrance. Virtually everyone carried a weapon, even children. Armed revolutionaries manned checkpoints at every corner. A boy of about 11 pointed an automatic rifle at my chest, safety off, and asked for identification, which he couldn't read. After considerable vacillation, the military leadership declared its neutrality. The Ayatullah went on radio to announce, "The dictatorship has abandoned its last trench."

That November, radical supporters seized the American embassy, provoking a 444-day confrontation with the "Great Satan" over 52 hostages. But Khomeini never was able to reconcile the widely divergent forces in his revolution. Top aides fled into exile or were executed, and thousands of other Iranians were imprisoned or killed. Iran became a deeply divided country and remains so today. Despite this, to Khomeini's neighbors in the Arab world—including extremist elements in Iraq—the Ayatullah's revolution serves as a historical beacon.

Van Voorst was the magazine's Middle East bureau chief in 1979-80

The Iranian Revolution (Also known as the Islamic Revolution, or 1979 Revolution , Persian: انقلاب اسلامی, Enghelābe Eslāmi or انقلاب بیست و دو بهمن) refers to events involving the overthrow of Iran's monarchy (Pahlavi dynasty) under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and its replacement with an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution. It has been called an event that "made Islamic fundamentalism a political force ... from Morocco to Malaysia."

The first major demonstrations against the Shah began in January 1978. Between August and December 1978 strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country. The Shah left Iran for exile in mid-January 1979, and two weeks later Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran to a greeting by several million Iranians. The royal regime collapsed shortly after on February 11 when guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting. Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic on April 1, 1979, and to approve a new theocratic constitution whereby Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country, in December 1979.

The revolution was unusual for the surprise it created throughout the world: it lacked many of the customary causes of revolution (defeat at war, a financial crisis, peasant rebellion, or disgruntled military); produced profound change at great speed; was massively popular; overthrew a regime heavily protected by a lavishly financed army and security services; and replaced a modernising monarchy with a theocracy based on Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists (or velayat-e faqih). Its outcome — an Islamic Republic "under the guidance of an 80-year-old exiled religious scholar from Qom" — was, as one scholar put it, "clearly an occurrence that had to be explained."

Not so unique but more intense is the dispute over the revolution's results. For some it was an era of heroism and sacrifice that brought forth nothing less than the nucleus of a world Islamic state — "a perfect model of splendid, humane, and divine life… for all the peoples of the world."On the other hand, some Iranians now believe that the revolution was a time when "for a few years we all lost our minds", and which "promised us heaven, but... created a hell on earth."