The Khomeini Era Begins

TIME, 1979.02.12, Pages 9-14

There is hope for peaceful change as the Ayatullah returns from exile

The chartered Air France 747 circled over the city and past the nearby Elburz Mountains three times before settling down gently on the tarmac of Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. As aides and reporters milled about, the frail old man, wearing a black turban and ankle-length robes, stepped out of the aircraft’s door into the chill February morning. His back hunched, he clutched the arm of an Air France purser as he walked down the portable ramp to touch Iranian soil. After 15 years in exile, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, 78, spiritual leader of a revolution that has been building to a frightening climax, had come home at last. The moment was, conceivably, the start of a new era for a country that has seemed dangerously out of control.

After all the demonstrations of anger and mourning that have punctuated the year-long crisis, Iran went wild with joy. From all across the country, millions of people thronged into the capital; they lined the 20-mile route out to Behesht-Zahra Cemetery, where many of the martyrs of the revolution are buried, to catch a glimpse of the Ayatullah. “The holy one has come!” they shouted triumphantly. “He is the light of our lives!” So heavy was the crush of people that Khomeini had to be lifted from his motorcade and flown the last mile to the cemetery by helicopter. There, in Lot 17 he prayed and delivered a 30-minute funeral oration for the dead. “Is it human rights,” he asked in a bitter if oblique reference to President Carter, “when we say we want to name a government and we get a cemetery full of people?” Then a boys’ chorus sang: “May every drop of their blood turn to tulips and grow forever. Arise! Arise! Arise!”

From his bungalow at Neauphle-le-Chateau outside Paris, the Ayatullah had been sending home a steady stream of Elamiehs, messages summoning the faithful to bring down the monarchy in favor of what he has somewhat vaguely termed an Islamic republic. Much of the population heeded Khomeini. It was popular uprisings in his name that forced the hated Shah to take a vacation that might well extend to exile, and left the government in the uncertain hands of Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar. Iron-willed, giving little hint of compromise, Khomeini has rejected the Bakhtiar government and damned it as illegal because it was appointed by the Shah.

But now on the scene, Khomeini faces far tougher tasks than rousing the people to fury against an unpopular autocrat. The Ayatullah has announced that he will set up a new revolutionary council for Iran. In so doing he risks a coup by an army whose generals, if not its soldiers, remain loyal to the Shah. He must pick up the numerous strands of opposition, united only in reverence for him and hatred of the monarch, and hold them together long enough to form a functioning government. It is a lot to expect from a spiritual leader wise in Koranic lore but woefully unskilled in Realpolitik. Perhaps aware of the huge risks involved, Khomeini after his return acted with uncharacteristic caution. Bakhtiar, for his part, kept the door open for negotiations with the Ayatullah, thereby raising hopes that a peaceful transition of power in Iran might still be possible.

The on-again, off-again preparations for Khomeini’s return began to take definitive shape early last week. Prime Minister Bakhtiar reopened Iran’s airports, which had been closed solely to prevent the Ayatullah from coming back. Khomeini’s representatives in Paris hurriedly chartered a jumbo jet from Air France, settled insurance terms and agreed that the plane would fly only half full. Thus if it were not allowed to land in Tehran, there would still be enough fuel aboard for a return flight to Paris. Because of fears of sabotage, no Iranian women or children were allowed on the flight (though several female journalists were along); Khomeini’s wife, daughter, daughter-in- law and grandchildren would fly to Iran later by commercial airliner.

During evening prayers on the day of the flight, Khomeini sought to comfort followers who were unable to accompany him because of the shortage of seats. “The important thing is not that you be at my side on the plane but that you continue the struggle with me,” he told them. Before departing, he thanked the French government for its hospitality and the French people “who have followed with interest the struggle for freedom of conscience and the way of democracy desired by all clear-minded Iranians.” Annoyed by the Ayatullah’s rejection of their pleas that he not use French soil to foment revolution in Iran, officials in Paris were quite happy to see him go. Would Khomeini be welcomed back if he had to go into exile again? Said one ranking diplomat dryly: “We certainly wouldn’t object if he were to distribute the benefit of his spiritual presence a bit more equitably.”

Among the 150 members of the international press aboard Khomeini’s flight was TIME Correspondent Bruce van Voorst. “Shortly after takeoff, the Ayatullah climbed the spiral staircase to the jumbo jet’s lounge section, removed his turban and sandals, curled up on several Air France blankets and slept for 2,1/2 hours,” reported van Voorst. “His personal security guard, suffering from a toothache and numb from aspirins, sat at the bottom of the steps. At sunrise, somewhere over Turkey, the Ayatullah said prayers, then was served an omelet for breakfast. When the captain announced that the plane had flown into Iranian airspace and would land in Tehran in half an hour, the Ayatullah craned his neck to look down on the magnificent spectacle of the snow-covered Zagros Mountains. ‘The Ayatullah,’ murmured one of his senior aides, ‘is back in his country.’ “

Inside the terminal, the Ayatullah was instantly surrounded by 1,000 or so members of a welcoming committee shouting, “Allahu akbar!” (God is great). Praising all those who had suffered for the revolution, from the clergy to bazaar merchants to workers and students, Khomeini lashed out immediately at the Shah and his supporters, who “destroyed our culture and turned it into a colonial culture.” Then came an ominous touch: “We are only victorious when we can cut the hands of the foreigners from our lands. The agents of the foreigners who are trying to cheat our interests must know that they are now part of history. All their struggles will be in vain. I pray to God for your glory and good health, and I pray to God to help us cut off the hands of the foreigners.” With that the crowded terminal rang with shouts: “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!”

In the days before and after the Ayatullah’s return, Prime Minister Bakhtiar was almost compulsively busy: delivering lengthy radio and television speeches, introducing sweeping reform measures in parliament. To some extent, that burst of activity was a charade; almost daily, members of the Majlis (lower house) resigned in deference to the Ayatullah’s commands. Said one European diplomat in Tehran: “Bakhtiar’s performance is a pure piece of acting, but there’s nothing behind it. I can’t think of anything he’s in charge of.”

Bakhtiar lost both face and prestige the weekend before, when he grandly announced that he would have a summit meeting with Khomeini in Paris, only to have the Ayatullah repudiate the conference. Said Khomeini: “I will not receive that illegal man.” Actually, the Prime Minister was privately trying to negotiate an arrangement whereby he might resign in favor of a Khomeini-sanctioned transitional government that would preside over elections, a constituent assembly and a referendum on a new constitution. Bakhtiar said he had been negotiating with Khomeini’s local representatives, but those plans may have already been jeopardized by the arrests of five leading journalists and the beginning of the army’s bloody crackdown.

Even more damaging to Bakhtiar’s credibility was his open support of the military, which has tried to intimidate Khomeini’s supporters by firing randomly at throngs of unarmed civilian demonstrators. On the “Bloody Sunday” of Jan. 28, the army fired directly into demonstrators gathered around 24 Esfand Square, near the university, and sniped at them from nearby rooftops for nearly four hours. By the end of the afternoon, there were 30 known dead and hundreds wounded; hospitals were jammed with the dying (see box). Bakhtiar defended the slaughter, which followed a similar assault two days earlier, as a retaliation by the army for an attack on police headquarters by civilians armed with machine guns. But in fact no eyewitness had seen the police building being assaulted.

Iran’s military was itself riddled with dissension. Some Shah loyalists among the top commanders undoubtedly favored a coup as the only way to keep Khomeini out of power. U.S. Air Force General Robert Huyser, the deputy commander of American forces in Europe, had been sent to Tehran a month ago to act as liaison officer with the Iranian military. He has forcefully argued that an army takeover would lead only to anarchy, but U.S. diplomats are uncertain as to whether the military is really listening. One deterrent to a coup is widespread evidence that many soldiers would not follow their officers in an uprising against the revolution. Low-paid conscripts, who make up about 40% of the 340,000-man Iranian military, have stopped reporting for duty in many areas.

The most frequent incidence of mutiny involves the air force, previously regarded as the favored elite service of the Shah. Military sources have denied rumors that 165 warrant officers were executed for taking part in anti-Shah demonstrations. They do admit that some soldiers have been arrested for treason and that a state of emergency has been declared for the armed services. During a show of force by the military the day before the Ayatullah’s arrival, several truckloads of troops, some carrying Khomeini posters, waved sympathetically at the crowd. They burst into tears when other troops opened fire on the crowd, yelling at bystanders to get down or “the soldiers in back will shoot you.” On Bloody Sunday, an ABC cameraman recorded an incident in which a soldier shot and wounded a colleague who was clubbing a youthful demonstrator with a rifle.

Many Iranians believed that the anti-Khomeini actions of the military were being directly inspired by the Shah, who last week remained in seclusion in Morocco with his family. There were rumors that he was planning a triumphant return to the throne, as he did after a CIA inspired coup against the government of Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Fears about the Shah’s return were fueled by a curious tape recording, allegedly made by a participant at a secret meeting of the Shah and his top generals before he left the country. The 20-minute cassette, popularly dubbed “the braying of the Shah,” was widely circulated in Iran, even though its authenticity was doubtful. Three independent American voice experts hired by CBS insisted that the voice on the recording was indeed the Shah’s. A spokesman for the monarch, however, dismissed the tape as “typical Communist agitprop,” and officials in Washington were convinced that the recording was a “cut and splice job.”

The voice on the tape calls on the army commanders to foment civil war “so that we may hopefully begin again to recoup our power, being sure this time not to repeat our past mistakes.” The speaker gives the generals “complete freedom to fire on the people and kill them” if necessary, to create hatred and dissension between the army and the people. The voice goes on to blame the inefficiency of SAVAK, Iran’s feared secret police, for many of the current problems and vows that next time “we will set up a security apparatus more extensive than SAVAK.”

Meanwhile, other even more mysterious forces inside Iran were stirring up trouble. Several news agencies received warnings from a group calling itself the “Commando Organization of the Warriors of the Constitution.” They threatened “guerrilla warfare” and “unprecedented slaughter” if the 1906 royalist constitution were overturned. These self-styled warriors also threatened to assassinate anyone who joined the Ayatullah’s revolutionary council. Khomeini loyalists charged that provocateurs-suspected of being either agents of SAVAK or underground Communists, who have the most to gain from chaos-were inciting violence. Gangs of street toughs burned down a beer factory, a nightclub, and numerous slum dwellings in the city’s red-light district. The apparent motive was to make the revolutionary movement seem fanatical and violent.

Despite unconfirmed reports that Iran was being flooded with weapons, including some purportedly provided by the Palestine Liberation Organization, pro-Khomeini demonstrations have been remarkably peaceful and well disciplined. Only on occasion have crowds gotten out of control of the street marshals provided by Khomeini’s amoeba-like organization. In one particularly grim example last week, a mob at the University of Tehran grabbed General Tagi Latifi, a police officer, from his car, screaming, “Kill him!” He was beaten senseless before being rescued by a group of clergymen.

Such incidents have alarmed Iran’s minorities, especially its 80,000-member Jewish community-one of the oldest in the Middle East-and 250,000 Christian Armenians. Although there have been no overt signs of anti-Semitism, the Ayatullah’s known antipathy to Zionism and Israel raises fears among Jewish families that there could be a repetition of the purges that took place in Egypt and Iraq after 1948. Khomeini has repeatedly assured Iran’s minorities that their rights will be protected. Last month he sent a large floral wreath to the new “Hagh Horn,” the leader of the Jewish community, with a note of assurance: “We are brothers living next to each other. It is only the government which tries to confuse everything.” Nonetheless, an estimated 5,000 Jews have left the country, most for the U.S. and Europe.

They were not alone. Alarmed by what the State Department called the “uncertain security situation,” and fearing a tide of anti-American sentiment, Ambassador William Sullivan asked Americans whose presence was not essential to leave. Despite many Iranians’ personal reassurances to foreigners of their friendship, there were two ugly incidents: Major Larry Davis was hit by two bullets as he returned home, and was rushed to the U.S. Army hospital; U.S. Consul David McGaffey was punched and beaten by an irate group of Iranians when he tried to intervene in an incident between an American and a taxi driver. By week’s end, all but 5,000 of the 45,000 Americans who had lived in Iran up until September were gone. U.S. officials say that the American business community is cutting back to the bare minimum that can sustain their corporate operations.

Administration officials were also concerned about the protection of sophisticated weaponry. At the Isfahan airbase, some of the 78 advanced F-14 fighter planes equipped to fire Phoenix missiles are housed within concentric rings of security; last week Iranian forces guarding the base suddenly excluded a number of American advisers. U.S. military officials have contingency plans to destroy or spirit out of the country some of the most sensitive equipment if necessary. The most important items are the fighters and 500 Phoenix missiles stored in igloos near by. If there was a clear danger that these missiles might fall into Soviet hands, Pentagon sources suggest, loyal Iranian pilots would fly the planes to safety, possibly Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials fear that any such plans, if carried out without consulting the Iranian government, would be construed, however, as an unwarranted interference in Iran’s domestic affairs. Many Iranians were furious that the U.S. was sending emergency supplies of diesel oil to the country’s military. The loan suggested to them that Washington was implicitly supporting the army’s brutality against civilians.

Those who know the Ayatullah expect that eventually he will settle in the Shi’ite holy city of Qum and resume a life of teaching and prayer. It seems improbable that he would try to become a kind of Archbishop Makarios of Iran, directly holding the reins of power. Khomeini believes that Iran should become a parliamentary democracy, with several political parties. But he is unlikely to withdraw to shadows and silence until Iran adopts a new constitution and the threat of civil war is removed.

To avoid more bloodshed, the Ayatullah may have to make some concessions. Says Massoud Behnoud, a Tehran lawyer: “If Khomeini reaches some kind of compromise with the Bakhtiar government, he can bring the country peaceably to a referendum on a new constitution. He doesn’t even have to fear chaos too greatly. He already has 90% of the people with him. If he now begins to share his absolute power and allow other groups to speak out more, we will be on our way to liberty. Khomeini’s real power will be that of the religious leader of Iran.”

Khomeini’s success with the army depends largely on how he handles the sensitive issue of the constitution, which has become a rallying point for pro-monarchy commanders. Several of Khomeini’s associates, including Karim Sanjabi, leader of the National Front, the main political opposition, believe that the Ayatullah might agree to use the present constitution as a device for the transition of power. “The army will go along with any government that is representative,” says Sanjabi. “If Bakhtiar resigns, it is not difficult to find a solution based on a temporary government accepted by the people.” At week’s end, the Khomeini strategy seemed to be one of waiting for members of parliament and the regency council to resign. So far 72 out of 200 deputies in the legislature have resigned; if half do so, a Khomeini aide said, Bakhtiar’s government has no legal basis.

If a compromise is reached, the U.S. will have played a minimal role in it. The reason: anything that carries Washington’s approval is now anathema in Iran. Some Administration advisers admit that open endorsement of Bakhtiar was a serious mistake, and that U.S. policy toward Iran should have remained noncommittal once the Shah’s ruling days were clearly over. Particularly unfortunate was a statement by President Carter in January rebuking Khomeini and urging him to support the Bakhtiar government. State Department experts at that time were pretty well convinced that the Prime Minister had only the remotest chances of surviving.

Belatedly changing a long-held policy of the U.S. embassy in Iran, Ambassador Sullivan has encouraged his subordinates to open a dialogue with the Khomeini forces. U.S. diplomats have initiated contacts with a number of the Ayatullah’s key aides, both in France and Iran. By and large, they have been well received by Khomeini’s representatives, who have stressed that it was not too late to repair relations between the Shi’ite leader and the U.S. Mehdi Bazargan, a Khomeini adviser in Tehran with broad political experience who is often mentioned as a potential government leader, emphasized to U.S. officials recently that a beneficial working relationship is “most definitely possible” with Washington. The crucial factor, he insists, is that any future trade relationship be based on an equitable exchange of goods and not distorted by extravagant sales of sophisticated weapons. At the same time, Khomeini’s top economic adviser, Hassan Abdul Banisard, has implied that oil production will probably have to be cut in half to regulate the flow of capital into Iran.

Another valuable ally, in the U.S. view, would be Seyyed Mohammed Beheshti, a well-educated and widely traveled Ayatullah who has been Khomeini’s chief behind-the-scenes contact in Tehran. But observers say it may take a while to see who the key figures around Khomeini prove to be; the Paris advisers may well give way to those who have supported him in Tehran.

Washington’s greatest fear now is a military coup, which would inevitably spark a civil war and adversely affect any U.S: presence for many years to come. Says a State Department official recently returned from Tehran: “There is no question that a military takeover would be most dangerous for U.S. interests. It would blow away the moderates and invite the majority to unite behind a radical faction.”

Even if Iran gets a new government that has both popular support and Khomeini’s blessing, the troubles plaguing the country will not vanish overnight. As one U.S. specialist noted: “The Shah left, but he didn’t take the problems of the country with him.” The best estimates are that it will take two months to get the oil fields back to export production level even if work starts at once. Meanwhile, the country has a paralyzed economy and shattered loan credibility. Except for two to three dozen firms, all of the country’s 600 major industries have been shut down by strikes since early December. And, although they may not be missed, most of the once fabled Iranian rich have left the country. Significantly, this includes 120 of the country’s 200 leading business and industrial figures. Estimates of the drain of capital that has left the country range into the billions of dollars.

Yet, for all the problems ahead, there was a sense of controlled optimism in Iran last weekend. Now that the country’s cry for the Ayatullah’s return has been answered, Iranians will surely insist that the revolution live up to its democratic aims. “Democracy is a very difficult thing for a country that does not have a democratic tradition,” Daryush Shayegan, a noted Islamic philosopher in Tehran, told TIME Correspondent David Jackson last week. “But Iranians are ready to learn it. Khomeini is an Islamic Gandhi. He is at the axis of our movement, and his greatest achievement will have been to have overthrown the regime. But there must be a democratic republic. In the Iranian character, miracles always happen at the last moment. I hope one will happen again.”

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