IRAN: The Unknown Ayatullah Khomeini

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A portrait of the Islamic mystic at the center of the revolution

Once again, Iran last week appeared to be drifting toward anarchy. The Cabinet of Premier Mehdi Bazargan was on the verge of collapse. Appalled by the overcrowded condition of prisons in Tehran, Attorney General Abolfazl Shahshahani instructed the police not to "arrest or pursue criminals" until further notice—thereby giving the capital's organized criminals free rein. As if to prove the government's impotence, a group of disaffected young Iranians, seeking to leave the country on expired passports, seized 150 hostages at gunpoint and closed down Tehran's international airport for more than 20 hours.

Iran is by now accustomed to fever charts of brinkmanship, and the crisis suddenly dissolved. After being guaranteed safe passage to Syria, the airport skyjackers released their hostages unharmed. Attorney General Shahshahani then rescinded his no-arrest order. And the Bazargan Cabinet, following a conference in Qum with the country's real government, the secret Islamic Revolutionary Council appointed by the Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, carried on the affairs of state by announcing the nationalization of all major businesses and industries in Iran.

The Cabinet's pilgrimage was further proof, if any were needed, that the real seat of power in Iran is not in Tehran but at an Islamic academy called the Madresseh Faizieh in the holy city of Qum. There the berobed Ayatullah Khomeini, now 79, receives a steady stream of visitors, ranging from government officials to impoverished peasants seeking his blessing and aid. But Khomeini did not really create the Iranian revolution, the revolution created him. That is the conclusion of Senior Correspondent James Bell, who first reported on Iranian politics for TIME in 1951. Traveling widely in Europe and the Middle East, Bell spent nearly two months searching out the all-but-unknown background of the remote, aging mystic who seemingly appeared from nowhere last year to oust the Shah and transform his country into an Islamic republic. Bell's report:

When asked to define the essential character of the Ayatullah Khomeini, a family friend recalls the scene at the drowning of Khomeini's infant daughter in Qum some 35 years ago. Khomeini's wife was tearing her hair in despair. When the friend arrived, the bearded savant was praying quietly over the body of the youngest of his six children. "I looked into his face and could see no trace of disturbance," says the friend today. "I knew he loved this child very deeply. Yet he showed no emotion, no sorrow, no excitement." After a while Khomeini said quietly: "God gave me the child, and now he has taken her back." Then he resumed his prayers. Remembers the friend: "He experienced no grief or turmoil, for he believes God is ever beside him."

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