40 years on: Khomeini’s return from exile and the Iran revolution

Return 40 years ago a key moment in revolution’s success, paving way for Iran to recast its regional role and alliances.

Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979 after 14 years in exile in Turkey, Iraq and France [Gabriel Duval/AFP]

On a foggy Thursday morning on February 1, 1979, a chartered Air France flight from Paris touched down at Mehrabad International Airport near central Tehran, carrying Iran’s most revered spiritual figure.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an outspoken critic of Iran’s ruler Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was coming home after 14 years in exile in Turkey, Iraq and France.

Before landing, the plane circled low overhead, reportedly to make sure that no tanks were blocking the runway.

Khomeini’s return 40 years ago was essential to the success of the Iranian revolution. It eventually led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the cleric’s ascent to supreme leader. It would also pave the way for Iran to recast its role in the Middle East and rejig its ties to the West – a geopolitical convulsion that continues to reverberate around the world to this day.

Wearing his trademark black robe and turban, the 78-year-old cleric slowly emerged from the aircraft holding onto the pilot with his right hand. His son, Ahmad, followed closely behind.

Video clips of the event showed supporters and the media in a frenzy as they waited to greet him on the tarmac. Security personnel quickly ushered him to a parked Mercedes Benz car, as they struggled to control the commotion.

Amid the euphoria and shouts of “God is great!”, Khomeini was unruffled, his face unmoved. He would occasionally stroke his silvery beard and raise his hand in greeting. Asked later by a US journalist how he felt about his return, he replied: “Hichi (Nothing)”.

With the streets clogged with well-wishers, Khomeini later took a helicopter ride to a nearby cemetery to pay homage to the revolution’s slain demonstrators and address the public.

Reports say between five to 10 million people showed up for his arrival, coming just days after the shah abandoned his throne. He fled his then-tumultuous country, leaving the Iran-US alliance in tatters. The revolution would end the 2,500-year-old Persian empire. 

“It was a turning point in modern Iranian history,” said Mohamad Marandi, a specialist in Iran-US relations at Tehran University, about Khomeini’s homecoming.

When asked how he felt about coming home, Khomeini reportedly said: 'Nothing' [Gabriel Duval/AFP]
When asked how he felt about coming home, Khomeini reportedly said: ‘Nothing’ [Gabriel Duval/AFP]

Marandi said the rise of Khomeini and the Islamic Republic shook conventional political wisdom. The thinking then was that only capitalism or communism could thrive and that decisions were only made in the capitals of the United States, Russia or Britain, the three world powers at the time.

“For the first time, Iran became independent from foreign powers and regained its sovereignty after well over a century,” he told Al Jazeera.

Washington’s reaction

The US’s reaction to the shifting political ground in Iran led to the final rupture between the once-closest allies in the Middle East, according to Marandi.

Instead of engaging Khomeini, he said, Washington began working to undermine him by “attempting” to launch a counterrevolution, supporting the Iraqi invasion and strengthening an alliance with Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia.

“Without a doubt, if the United States [had] responded differently, we would have relations with the US today,” Marandi said.

“The problem with the US is that it failed to, and is unwilling to accept countries and people to assert their sovereignty.”

Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Shia theological scholar, however, pointed out that the Khomeini-led clergy had already resisted engaging with the US in the early, crucial stages of the revolution.

“Anti-Americanism became a revolutionary need,” Khalaji said, explaining that there had been a power struggle between the clergy and the Marxist factions within the movement at that time.

“The clergy was not inherently anti-Western. What made them anti-Western was their competition with the Marxist revolutionaries. In order to take over the power and prevent the Marxists from establishing the government, they needed to become anti-Western,” explained Khalaji, an Islamic scholar from his hometown of Qom, an important centre for religious studies in Iran.

But he also blamed the “very poor” US intelligence for failing to anticipate and effectively respond to events in Iran, and its “ignorance” about the capacity of the clergy to mobilise the society against the shah.

“It was a blind spot for US intelligence.”

Reports say between five to 10 million people greeted Khomeini upon his return from exile [Gabriel Duval/AFP]
Reports say between five to 10 million people greeted Khomeini upon his return from exile [Gabriel Duval/AFP]

Khalaji, who was a child during the revolution, told Al Jazeera he still remembered the day Khomeini returned from exile, recalling the massive number of people that packed Tehran’s streets.

“It was exceptional. I don’t think it will be repeated.”

One month later, Khomeini went to Qom to meet Khalaji’s father, a close friend who was also a “revolutionary”.

“Because I was a child, he was extremely kind. He made me sit next to him as we ate lunch. When he was with children, he was totally a different person. You wouldn’t see that determined, serious face on him,” Khalaji recalled.

President Hassan Rouhani (C) pays tribute to Khomeini after his death [Presidential office/AFP]
President Hassan Rouhani (C) pays tribute to Khomeini after his death [Presidential office/AFP]

Future of Iran-US ties

Four decades on since Khomeini’s return and the revolution took place, Khalaji said he was “not very optimistic” about the future of the US-Iran relationship amid the ongoing standoff.

Sharmine Narwani, a political commentator on Iran agreed, saying that for Iran’s younger generation Khomeini’s legacy had faded somewhat but: “They are very aware of Iran’s resistance to US hegemony” and the “extremely aggressive US sanctions”.

Following US President Donald Trump’s decision to reimpose economic measures against Iran last year, his administration has stepped up efforts to confront what it calls Tehran’s “malevolent influence” in the Middle East.

In response, Khomeini’s successor Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has vowed to resist the US, rejecting any attempts to negotiate. The Iranian military has also warned: “the enemy … to better think twice before attacking Iran”.

But at some point, the US should “seek diplomatic avenues to exit from an unwinnable confrontation with Iran”, said Narwani.

“I don’t believe the US is in any position to launch a war against Iran.”

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a retired Iranian diplomat and now a Middle East specialist at Princeton University, said that instead of intensifying its efforts to undermine Iran, Trump should learn from the “failed” US policy of the past 40 years.

“It would fail again,” he predicted, saying that only diplomacy would work based on the principles of “mutual respect, non-interference and mutual interests”.

Mousavian said he did not believe that Trump was personally seeking an armed confrontation with Iran, but his top policy advisers, as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia, “are trying to drag him to such a trap”.

In late 1978, Mousavian was one semester away from becoming an engineer at Sacramento State University in California, when he returned to Iran for a break. Just weeks later, Khomeini also came home.

“Nobody could imagine that he [Khomeini] would be able to bring regime change, with the support of the people, so fast and so successfully within days of his arrival,” he said.

Mousavian stayed home and finished his studies, becoming a diplomat in the years that would follow, before being sent to jail on espionage charges during the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became president in 2005.

He was later cleared in court, after which Mousavian decided to retire and then return to the US in 2009,  “30 years after one semestral break.”

Khomeini passed away in 1989 in Tehran, 10 years after his return home and the birth of the Islamic Republic.

Source: Al Jazeera