Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

The Ayatullah's Return

Feb. 1. 1979

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