Iran's Ayatullah Khomeini seized his nation and shook all Islam
The dour old man of 79 shuffles in his heelless slippers to the rooftop and waves apathetically to crowds that surround his modest home in the holy city of Qum. The hooded eyes that glare out so balefully from beneath his black turban are often turned upward, as if seeking inspiration from on high—which, as a religious mystic, he indeed is. To Iran's Shi'ite Muslim laity, he is the Imam, an ascetic spiritual leader whose teachings are unquestioned. To hundreds of millions of others, he is a fanatic whose judgments are harsh, reasoning bizarre and conclusions surreal. He is learned in the ways of Shari'a (Islamic law) and Platonic philosophy, yet astonishingly ignorant of and indifferent to non-Muslim culture. Rarely has so improbable a leader shaken the world.
Yet in 1979 the lean figure of the Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini towered malignly over the globe. As the leader of Iran's revolution he gave the 20th century world a frightening lesson in the shattering power of irrationality, of the ease with which terrorism can be adopted as government policy. As the new year neared, 50 of the American hostages seized on Nov. 4 by a mob of students were still inside the captured U.S. embassy in Tehran, facing the prospect of being tried as spies by Khomeini's revolutionary courts. The Ayatullah, who gave his blessing to the capture, has made impossible and even insulting demands for the hostages' release: that the U.S. return deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to Iran for trial and no doubt execution, even though the Shah is now in Panama; that America submit to a trial of its "crimes" against Iran before an international "grand jury" picked by Khomeini's aides. He claimed that Iran had every legal and moral right to try America's hostage diplomats, an action that would defy a decision of the World Court, a vote of the U.N. Security Council and one of the most basic rules of accommodation between civilized nations. The Ayatullah even insisted, in an extraordinary interview with TIME (see page 26), that if Americans wish to have good relations with Iran they must vote Jimmy Carter out of office and elect instead a President that Khomeini would find "suitable."
Unifying a nation behind such extremist positions is a remarkable achievement for an austere theologian who little more than a year ago was totally unknown in the West he now menaces. But Khomeini's carefully cultivated air of mystic detachment cloaks an iron will, an inflexible devotion to simple ideas that he has preached for decades, and a finely tuned instinct for articulating the passions and rages of his people. Khomeini is no politician in the Western sense, yet he possesses the most awesome—and ominous —of political gifts: the ability to rouse millions to both adulation and fury.
Khomeini's importance far transcends the nightmare of the embassy seizure, transcends indeed the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The revolution that he led to triumph threatens to upset the world balance of power more than any political event since Hitler's conquest of Europe. It was unique in several respects: a successful, mostly nonviolent revolt against a seemingly entrenched dictator, it owed nothing to outside help or even to any Western ideology. The danger exists that