Ayatollah Khomeini became the supreme religious leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, following many years of resistance to Shah Pahlavi. Following his appointment as Ayatollah, Khomeini worked to remove the Shah from power for his associations with the West. Upon the success of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini was named religious and political leader of Iran for life.
As a young boy, Khomeini was lively, strong, and good at sports. He was even considered the leapfrog champion of his village and the surrounding area. Far from being dedicated only to games, though, Khomeini was also an intellectual. He was known for his great ability at memorizing both religious and classical poetry, and also excelled at his studies at the local maktab, a school dedicated to teaching the Qu’ran.
Because of his scholarly success, Khomeini’s older brother decided to send him to the city of Arak (or Sultanabad) in 1920. There, Khomeini studied with the renowned Islamic scholar Yazdi Ha’iri. Ha’iri left Arak for the city of Qom in 1923, and Khomeini followed. There, he committed all of his efforts to furthering his own religious studies while also becoming a teacher for younger students at Ha’iri’s school.
Political and Religious Leader
When Ha’iri died in the 1930s, the Ayatollah Boroujerdi succeeded him as the most important Islamic figure in Qom. As a result, Boroujerdi gained Khomeini as a follower. It is interesting to note that both Ha’iri and Boroujerdi believed that religion should not involve itself with government affairs. So, while the leader of Iran, Reza Shah, weakened the powers of religious leaders and promoted a more secularized country, the most powerful religious figures in Iran remained silent and encouraged their followers to do the same.
Moreover, the same deference was encouraged when Reza Shah’s son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, turned to the U.S. for help quelling protests for democratic reforms in Iran’s capital, Tehran, in the 1950s. One of those who were muted by the beliefs of the senior religious leaders was Khomeini.
Unable to speak out against what he saw as a country leaving its Islamic roots and values behind, Khomeini turned his efforts toward teaching. He began to cultivate a group of dedicated pupils who became his staunchest supporters during his days as an Islamic revolutionary. On March 31, 1961, Ayatollah Boroujerdi died and Khomeini was in a position to take up the mantle left by the late religious leader. After publishing his writings on Islamic science and doctrines, many Shi’ite Iranians began to see Khomeini as Marja-e Taqlid (a person to be imitated).
In 1962, Khomeini began protesting the intentions of the Shah in earnest. His first act of defiance was to organize the ulama (religious leaders) against a proposed law of the Shah’s that would effectively end the requirement for elected officials to be sworn in on the Qu’ran. This action was just the beginning in a long string of events that would change Iranian politics forever.
In June 1963, Khomeini made a speech suggesting that if the Shah did not change the political direction of Iran, the populace would be happy to see him leave the country. As a result, Khomeini was arrested and held in prison. During his incarceration, people took to the streets with cries for his release, and were met by the government with military force. Even so, it was nearly a week before the unrest was resolved. Khomeini was held in prison until April 1964, when he was allowed to return to Qom.
The Shah continued to cultivate close ties with the United States, and to be what Khomeini considered “soft” on Israel. This prompted Khomeini to pronounce his belief that Jews would take over Iran and that the U.S. considered all Iranians to be little more than slaves to America’s Western ideals. After delivering another inflammatory speech in the fall of 1964, Khomeini was arrested and deported to Turkey. Prevented by Turkish law from wearing the traditional clothes of a Shi’ite cleric and scholar, Khomeini took up residence in Najaf, Iraq in September 1965. He remained there for 13 years.
Years in Exile
During his years in exile, Khomeini developed a theory of what a state founded on Islamic principles and led by the clergy would look like, called Velayat-e faqeeh. He taught his theory at a local Islamic school, mostly to other Iranians. He also began making videotapes of his sermons, which were smuggled into and sold in Iranian bazaars. Through these methods, Khomeini became the accepted leader of the Iranian opposition to the government of the Shah. The opposition was, indeed, picking up steam.
In 1975, crowds gathered for three days at a religious school in Qom and could only be moved by military force. In response, Khomeini released a jubilant statement in support of the protestors. He declared that “freedom and liberation from the bonds of imperialism” was imminent.
More protests occurred in 1978 in Khomeini’s defense, and were again put down violently by Iranian government forces. In the wake of these protests, the Shah felt that Khomeini’s exile in Iraq was too nearby for comfort. Soon thereafter, Khomeini was confronted by Iraqi soldiers and given a choice: either stay in Iraq and abandon all political activity, or leave the country. He chose the latter. Khomeini moved to Paris, which was to be his last place of residence before his triumphant return to Iran.
During his stay there, he defended himself against critics who accused him of being power-hungry with statements such as, “It is the Iranian people who have to select their own capable and trustworthy individuals and give them the responsibilities. However, personally, I can’t accept any special role or responsibility.”
The Iranian Revolution
The year of his return was 1979, mere months after his move to Paris. Students, the middle-class, self-employed businessmen, and the military all took to the street in protest. The Shah turned to the U.S. for help, but ultimately had to leave the country himself in the face of the revolution at his doorstep. Despite statements such as the one he made in Paris, Khomeini was widely acknowledged as the new leader of Iran, and came to be known as the Supreme Leader. He returned home to cheering crowds, and began laying the groundwork for the Islamic state he had for so long been imagining.
During this period, he put other clerics to work on writing an Islamic constitution for Iran. He also began iterating more authoritarian sentiments than before: “Don’t listen to those who speak of democracy. They all are against Islam. They want to take the nation away from its mission. We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things.”
Iranian Hostage Crisis
Meanwhile, the Shah needed a place to serve out his exile. It became known that the Shah was ill with cancer. With this in mind, the U.S. reluctantly allowed the Shah to enter the country. In protest, a group of Iranians seized more than sixty American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. Khomeini saw this as a chance to demonstrate the new Iranian defiance of Western influence.
The new Iranian government and the Carter Administration of the U.S. entered a standoff in that wouldn’t end until after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in late January of 1981, under the pressure of sanctions and oil embargoes imposed by the U.S. on Iran. This is now known as the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
Once in power, the Ayatollah Khomeini was no more sympathetic to the cries of the secular left than the Shah had been to Khomeini’s cries for reform. Many who protested against his regime were killed, and Khomeini had his doctrines and beliefs taught in public schools. He also ensured that clerics sympathetic to his beliefs filled the government ranks, from the smallest town all the way to his own office.
Moreover, Khomeini believed that the ideas on which the new Iran had been built needed to be, in his words, “exported.” Iraq and Iran had long been in territorial dispute over border areas and claims on petroleum reserves. Sensing an opportunity, on September 22, 1980, Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein launched an attack by land and air against Iran. Hussein hoped to catch Iran, weakened by revolution. Though Iraq made some early gains, but June, 1982, the war wore down to a stalemate that lasted another six years. Finally, after hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars were lost, the UN brokered a cease-fire in August, 1988, which both sides accepted. Khomeini called this compromise “more deadly than taking poison.”
The Rushdie Fatwa and Final Years
Khomeini is also well known for releasing a fatwa (a legal document issued by a Muslim cleric) calling for the death of Indian-British author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses in 1989. The book is a work of fiction that can be interpreted as depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a false prophet, and casts considerable doubt on many Islamic beliefs.
Shortly after the Rushdie fatwa was declared, the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died, on June 3, 1989. Iran remains a religion-based society, and Khomeini’s life’s work and decade of rule will no doubt continue to influence the country far into the future.