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How did the Ayatullah capture a revolution that started out as a leaderless explosion of resentment and hate? Primarily by playing adroitly to, and in part embodying, some of the psychological elements that made the revolt possible. There was, for example, a widespread egalitarian yearning to end the extremes of wealth and poverty that existed under the Shah —and the rich could easily be tarred as clients of the "U.S. imperialists." Partly because of the long history of Soviet, British and then American meddling in their affairs, Iranians were and are basically xenophobic, and thus susceptible to the Ayatullah's charges that the U.S. (and, of course, the CIA) was responsible for the country's ills. Iranians could also easily accept that kind of falsehood since they had grown used to living off gossip and rumor mills during the reign of the Shah, when the heavily censored press played down even nonpolitical bad news about Iran. When Khomeini declared that the Americans and Israelis were responsible for the November attack by Muslim fanatics on Mecca's Sacred Mosque, this deliberate lie was given instant credence by multitudes of Iranians.
By far the most powerful influence that cemented Khomeini's hold on his country is the spirit of Shi'ism—the branch of Islam to which 93% of Iran's 35.2 million people belong. In contrast to the dominant Sunni wing of Islam, Shi'ism emphasizes martyrdom; thus many Iranians are receptive to Khomeini's speeches about what a "joy" and "honor" it would be to die in a war with the U.S. Beyond that, Shi'ism allows for the presence of an intermediary between God and man. Originally, the mediators were twelve imams, who Shi'ites believe were the rightful successors of the Prophet Muhammad; the twelfth disappeared in A.D. 940. He supposedly is in hiding, but will return some day to purify the religion and institute God's reign of justice on earth. This belief gives Shi'ism a strong messianic cast, to which Khomeini appeals when he promises to expel Western influence and to turn Iran into a pure Islamic society. The Ayatullah has never claimed the title of Imam for himself, but he has done nothing to discourage its use by his followers, a fact that annoys some of his peers among the Iranian clergy. Ayatullah Seyed Kazem Sharietmadari, Khomeini's most potent rival for popular reverence, has acidly observed that the Hidden Imam will indeed return, "but not in a Boeing 747"—a reference to the plane that carried Khomeini from France to Iran.
Iran and Iraq are the main Muslim states where the majority of the population is Shi'ite; but there are substantial Shi'ite minorities in the Gulf states, Lebanon, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Khomeini's followers have been sending these Shi'ites messages urging them to join in an uprising against Western influence. The power of Khomeini's appeal for a "struggle between Islam and the infidels" must not be underestimated. In these and many other Islamic countries, Western technology and education have strained