On February 1, 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran in triumph after 15 years of exile. The shah and his family had fled the country two weeks before, and jubilant Iranian revolutionaries were eager to establish a fundamentalist Islamic government under Khomeini’s leadership.
Born around the turn of the century, Ruhollah Khomeini was the son of an Islamic religious scholar and in his youth memorized the Qur’an. He was a Shiite—the branch of Islam practiced by a majority of Iranians—and soon devoted himself to the formal study of Shia Islam in the city of Qom. A devout cleric, he rose steadily in the Shiite hierarchy and attracted many disciples.
In 1941, British and Soviet troops occupied Iran and installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the second modern shah of Iran. The new shah had close ties with the West, and in 1953 British and U.S. intelligence agents helped him overthrow a popular political rival. Mohammad Reza embraced many Western ideas and in 1963 launched his “White Revolution,” a broad government program that called for the reduction of religious estates in the name of land redistribution, equal rights for women, and other modern reforms.
Khomeini, now known by the high Shiite title “ayatollah,” was the first religious leader to openly condemn the shah’s program of westernization. In fiery dispatches from his Faziye Seminary in Qom, Khomeini called for the overthrow of the shah and the establishment of an Islamic state. In 1963, Mohammad Reza imprisoned him, which led to riots, and on November 4, 1964, expelled him from Iran.
Khomeini settled in An Najaf, a Shiite holy city across the border in Iraq, and sent home recordings of his sermons that continued to incite his student followers. Breaking precedence with the Shiite tradition that discouraged clerical participation in government, he called for Shiite leaders to govern Iran.
In the 1970s, Mohammad Reza further enraged Islamic fundamentalists in Iran by holding an extravagant celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the pre-Islamic Persian monarchy and replaced the Islamic calendar with a Persian calendar. As discontent grew, the shah became more repressive, and support for Khomeini grew. In 1978, massive anti-shah demonstrations broke out in Iran’s major cities. Dissatisfied members of the lower and middle classes joined the radical students, and Khomeini called for the shah’s immediate overthrow. In December, the army mutinied, and on January 16, 1979, the shah fled.
Khomeini arrived in Tehran in triumph on February 1, 1979, and was acclaimed as the leader of the Iranian Revolution. With religious fervor running high, he consolidated his authority and set out to transform Iran into a religious state. On November 4, 1979, the 15th anniversary of his exile, students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage. With Khomeini’s approval, the radicals demanded the return of the shah to Iran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The shah died in Egypt of cancer in July 1980.
In December 1979, a new Iranian constitution was approved, naming Khomeini as Iran’s political and religious leader for life. Under his rule, Iranian women were denied equal rights and required to wear a veil, Western culture was banned, and traditional Islamic law and its often-brutal punishments were reinstated. In suppressing opposition, Khomeini proved as ruthless as the shah, and thousands of political dissidents were executed during his decade of rule.
In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran’s oil-producing province of Khuzestan. After initial advances, the Iraqi offense was repulsed. In 1982, Iraq voluntarily withdrew and sought a peace agreement, but Khomeini renewed fighting. Stalemates and the deaths of thousands of young Iranian conscripts in Iraq followed. In 1988, Khomeini finally agreed to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.
After the Ayatollah Khomeini died on June 3, 1989, more than two million anguished mourners attended his funeral. Ali Khamenei became Supreme Leader. Gradual democratization began in Iran in early the 1990s, culminating in a free election in 1997 in which the moderate reformist Mohammed Khatami was elected president.