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Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini was the pivotal figure in the demise of the Iranian government in 1979. Yet much of the story of Khomeini, like that of Iran in general, is shrouded in a fine mixture of myth, truth, and legend.
In the course of my research into the history of Iran, I had the pleasure of combing through thousands of pages of formerly classified US, British, and Soviet intelligence files. One thing that is clear: No one truly understood Khomeini. Until the ascent of Khomeini, the KGB was fully convinced that he was a stooge of the US and British intelligence agencies, created to take over Iran and save it from communists. How else to explain the way American and European journalists openly fawned over Khomeini, despite their governments’ public support for the Shah? They noted that quite a number of the Iranian dissidents who camped out at Khomeini’s residence in France were people with US and British accents.
Khomeini was fortunate enough to begin his career during a time of fundamental transformation in Western journalism. University students in the 1960s, having been spoon-fed a steady diet of cultural Marxism, viewed journalism as a tool of social change. No longer could journalists be content to report upon the world; they had the power to change it. By the 1970s, former student activists were firmly seated at the table of the media giants they once vilified. Though they were riven by disagreements, professional and political, the one thing they knew was that Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi was a loathsome dictator who tormented his people at the behest of the United States government. So when this outspoken Iranian cleric appeared on the scene, he naturally became their mascot for the changes they knew the people of Iran sorrowfully needed and wanted.
When Khomeini was first exiled to Turkey in November 1964, he was virtually unknown in the West. His stay in Turkey was a major setback in his quest to oust the secular government of Iran. Turkish law forbade him from political activity. Moreover, he could not lawfully don his signature cloak and turban, the very symbols of his identity and faith. In October 1965, Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein agreed to allow Khomeini to take up residence in Iraq’s largely Shiite city of Najaf. He was, of course, still subject to restrictions on his political activities, but he could resume his position as a cleric. His reach was severely limited, given the nature of the Iraqi state and its strict controls on the media and communication. Nevertheless, over the next decade, Khomeini’s recorded protests caught the eyes and ears of the Shah’s enemies in the West. But if Khomeini was going to bring his polemic to fruition, he needed residency in a location more accommodating to Western journalists.
Khomeini benefited from the way his message filtered into Arab and Iranian radical youth circles in the mid-1970s. The Iranian government began to see him as a potential threat to their security. Leftist and Islamic radicals in Iran were becoming a bit much for the government to handle. By the end of Ramadan on September 4, 1978, Khomeini’s religious zealots in Iran had succeeded in wresting control of the anti-Shah revolutionary movement from the leftists. The Iraqi government saw Khomeini’s rhetoric as a threat, for he indiscriminately reached out to Arabs and Iranians alike. It did not take much for the Iranians to persuade Vice President Hussein to invite Khomeini to leave his country. With no nation in the region willing to play host to the now infamous cleric, his only alternatives were Iran’s friends abroad. Both Khomeini and Middle Eastern leaders erroneously saw this as a major impediment, believing exile in Western Europe or America would hinder his ability to reach his intended audience.
In October 1978, French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a personal friend of Shah Mohammed Reza, granted Khomeini a temporary residency visa. Agents of the Quai d’Orsay made it clear to Khomeini that while there were no restrictions against religious activity in France, he was forbidden to agitate against the French government and her allies, including Iran.
It did not take long for European and American journalists to beat a path to his door. Khomeini became their darling, ever-eager to disseminate his message to a much wider audience. Although this clearly violated the terms of his visa, French authorities did little to put an end to Khomeini’s antics. Within a few months, journalists had succeeded in elevating him to mythical status.
Native Iranian religious leaders, though also opposed to the government, expressed serious concerns about the media’s promotion of Khomeini. Khomeini was, after all, unaware of the ways Iran had changed during his fifteen-year exile. The White Revolution had transformed Iran into a major regional economic and military power, and Iranians were enjoying the benefits of the social, political and economic changes it engendered. These changes severely derogated the power and influence of the Iranian Mujtahid. They were, therefore, willing to allow Khomeini to join their crusade against the government, so to speak, but they were not interested in becoming mere bishops in his papacy. But thanks to the efforts of Western journalists, Khomeini had been placed on a pedestal so high that any substantive change in Iran would have to be on his terms and under his direction.
In January 1979, three months after he landed in France, Khomeini’s revolutionary mobs forced the Shah to depart Iran, never to return. Western journalists, who had successfully brought down the President of the United States (see, Richard M. Nixon), scored their second major victory: Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi.