Khomeini was greeted by millions who rejected the Shah's secularist policies [GALLO/GETTY]

Millions of jubilant revolutionaries greeted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the senior Shia cleric, when he ended 14 years in exile and returned to Iran on a direct Air France flight from Paris on February 1, 1979.

Upon arrival in Mehrabad international airport, Khomeini asked to be driven to the largest cemetery in Tehran, Beheshte Zahra.

Why he chose this venue is a mystery, but it was also ominous. Beheshte Zahra was set to become one of the world's largest cemeteries by the time Khomeini was laid to rest there in 1989, seen off by an even larger crowd than that which greeted him a decade earlier.

An outspoken opponent of the Shah's rule, Khomeini cultivated a national grassroots movement which rejected secularism and western-imposed modernity and would eventually anoint him the "supreme leader" of the Iranian revolution.

Message of change

In depth
A look at the revolution and its aftermath
On his first day back, Khomeini delivered a message of hope and change to Iranians.

He praised inter-faith unity for securing Iran's revolution, dismissed the remnants of the Shah's regime as illegal, stated that he would appoint his own government, called on all military personnel to remain neutral, promised material and moral prosperity, and assured everyone that water, electricity and transportation would be provided free of charge.

All media and political parties would be free, and the "criminal supporters" of the Shah would be put on trial, he said.

Within 10 days, Khomeini's supporters ousted Shapour Bakhtiar, the caretaker prime minister and the Shah's final political appointee.

Despite being a longstanding and respected member of the political opposition to the Shah, Bakhtiar was labelled a traitor by the new revolutionaries. He fled to Paris where he was assassinated in 1991.

Bakhtiar was replaced by Khomeini's appointee, Mehdi Bazargan, who despite his own impeccable revolutionary credentials in the end proved to be little more than one of the supreme leader's many useful and dispensable pawns.

State-building

Khomeini established a revolutionary council which drafted a new constitution
Many political commentators of the time humoured the ageing Ayatollah, seeing him as clueless about political affairs.

They went along with his leadership as a symbolic necessity that would serve the revolution and the country.

But Khomeini proved masterful in the art of establishing a Shia Islamic theocracy.

With a methodology that could have been adopted from Lenin's or Mao's handbooks, he established a revolutionary council that, among other things, drafted a new constitution.

He founded a fierce political party (Hezbollah, and later, the Islamic Republican party), a parallel military force (Revolutionary Guards) and a quasi-police force (Komitehs) concurrently - all this in addition to the thousands of mosques that were at his disposal around the country.

Thanks to the Shah's final drive to set up a one-party state (his ill-conceived Rastakhiz party) and decimate all other political organisations, the mosques had long become the only nodes of social and political organisation in Iran.

Islamic republic declared

On April 1, 1979, Khomeini declared an Islamic republic and seven months later passed a new constitution through a plebiscite that legitimised the new regime.

Iranians were soon to find out that revolutions are like tsunamis. Once the wave builds momentum, the damage to anything in its way is inescapable.

No one knows the exact numbers, but tens or even hundreds of makeshift 'revolutionary courts' set up all over the country made swift work of retribution in the first few months of the revolution under the leadership of the chief executioner, Khalkhali.

The 'Ancien Régime' of the Shah was literally wiped out.

Khomeini's not so 'hidden' agenda to establish an Islamic state in Iran was largely overlooked by the progressive elements in Iran.

This was partly caused by the stated republican aims of the Islamic project. But it was also mainly due to the romantic nationalism among the youth movements and socialist revolutionaries who trusted Khomeini.

Some of them even called themselves Islamic Marxists in order to remain close to Iranian ideals, and many of their comrades had given their lives for the revolution in its earlier days.

It was the left that had seized the national radio and television networks and organised nation-wide strikes, including, rather significantly, a general strike among the oil workers.

And it was they who had confronted the Shah's security apparatus in the revolution's early days.

Iran's 'Pearl Harbour'

The war with Iraq rallied support for the clergy in Iran [AFP]

The leftists became the theocracy's main target over the next few years. All that was needed was a 'Pearl Harbour' type event to facilitate their removal.

The first such event was provided by Saddam Hussein, the then Iraqi president, who launched a full-scale attack on Iran in September 1980.

This made opposition to the growing power of the fundamentalist camp among the revolutionaries and the clergy virtually impossible.

The opposition became distracted by the threat of the invader and mooted by accusations of treason.

The second event for the zealots came in June 1981 when the People's Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMK) launched a terror campaign that virtually wiped out the top leadership of the Islamic Republican party in Tehran.

Mistaking Saddam as a potential ally against what it saw as the counter-revolution by the clergy in the midst of the war, the PMK ironically managed to undermine the legitimacy of secular forces united against the fledgling regime.

Five-year purge

Russia's support to the beleaguered pro-Soviet government of Afghanistan starting from April 1979 set alarm bells ringing in Iran and also set the stage for a fundamentalist backlash against the left and a five-year long purge of the voices of moderation and secularism.

This led to a massive exodus of the disenchanted from Iran to Europe, the US and Canada.

It was during these years that most of the executions took place, and the hijab was finally forced on Iranian women in all public spheres, running contrary to the very ideals of the revolution.

What the left and other more secular nationalists in Iran – including the Shah - consistently failed to realise was that Iran of the 1970s remained a predominantly traditional society whose heart was much more closely allied to the clergy than it was to the urban intelligentsia.

This also applied to the urban population who adhered to a deeply traditional culture in a country that had experienced one of the highest rates of rural-urban migration for some decades before the revolution.

Islamic republican

Historians debate when Iran began to slip from Western influence and veer toward Islamist and revolutionary ideals.

Ironically, the answers may lie in Iran's own short experiment with secular democracy and the election of Mohammed Mossadegh, a prime minister who removed the Shah in August 1953.

However, this democratic interlude was brought to a shocking end very quickly at the deliberate instigation of British and US intelligence agencies threatened by Mossadegh's oil nationalisation policies.

The Shah, who had been chased out of the country by Mossadegh's supporters just days earlier, was quickly returned to power.

This Anglo-American interference set the stage for a clash which would manifest itself decades later in the anti-Western vitriol of sociologists like Ali Shariati, who would later be regarded as the ideologue of the Iranian revolution.

Khomeini and Iran truly delivered in a way that no other faith-based nationalist movement in the modern era had; they actually propelled the theocracy to the throne through a democratically-ratified Islamic constitution.

And their Cold War era slogan was very catchy: 'neither Eastern nor Western, Islamic Republican'.

Massoud Parsi is an analyst and freelance writer on Iran's economic and political affairs.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera