On a foggy Thursday morning on February 1, 1979, a chartered Air France flight from Paris roared through Mehrabad 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 touchdown, the plane circled low, reportedly to make sure there were no tanks blocking the runway.
Khomeini’s return marked a crucial episode in the success of the Iranian revolution 40 years ago, the establishment of the Islamic Republic and his ascent as supreme leader. It would also pave the way for Iran to recast its role in the Middle East and alter its ties with 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 on to the pilot with his right hand. His son, Ahmad, was closely behind.
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Video clips of the event showed the frenzy as supporters and the media greeted him at the tarmac. Security personnel quickly ushered him to a waiting Mercedes Benz, 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 facial hair and raise his hand in greetings. Asked later by a US journalist how he felt about 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 slain revolution 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, fled the country in turmoil and left the Iran-US alliance in tatters – just as the revolution ended the 2,500-year Persian empire.
“It was a turning point in modern Iranian history,” Mohamad Marandi, a specialist on Iran-US relations at Tehran University, said of Khomeini’s homecoming.
|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 the conventional political wisdom that only capitalism or communism can 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.
How the US reacted to the shifting political ground in Iran only 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 counter-revolution, supporting the Iraqi invasion and strengthening an alliance with Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
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“Without a doubt, if the United States 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 Khalji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and scholar in Shia theology, however, pointed out that the Khomeini-led clergy had already resisted engagement with the US in the early and crucial stages of the revolution.
“Anti-Americanism became a revolutionary need,” Khalaji said, noting the power struggle between the clergy and the Marxist factions within the movement.
“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 in his hometown of Qom, an important centre of religious studies in Iran.
But he also blamed the “very poor” US intelligence for failing to anticipate and effectively respond to what was happening in Iran, and for 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]|
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 on Wednesday [Presidential office/AFP]|
Future of Iran-US ties
Four decades since Khomeini’s return and the revolution, Khalaji said he is “not very optimistic” about the future relationship between the US and Iran amid the ongoing standoff.
Sharmine Narwani, an Iran political commentator and Oxford University scholar, agreed, saying that while Iran’s younger generation thinks less about Khomeini’s legacy, “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 its effort to confront what it calls Tehran’s “malevolent influence” in the Middle East.
In response, Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has vowed to resist the US and rejected any attempts at negotiations. The Iranian military has also raised its rhetoric, warning “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, the Iran expert.
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“I don’t believe the US is in any position to launch a war against Iran.”
Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, a retired Iranian diplomat and now a Middle East specialist at Princeton University, said that instead of intensifying its anti-Iran efforts, 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 does not believe that Trump is personally seeking an armed confrontation with Iran, but his top advisers, as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia, “are tying to drag him to such a trap”.
In late 1978, Mousavian was one semester away from becoming an engineer at Sacramento State 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 administation 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.”
Khomeinei passed away in 1989 in Tehran, 10 years after his return home and the birth of the Islamic Republic.
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