The Ayatollah Khomeini: The Cleric, The Emperor, and The Great Satan

His image has become iconic: the thin, bearded, ascetic religious leader who had turned a once Western-friendly country into a theocratic regime and a rogue state. I am talking of course about Ayatollah Ruhollah Mostafavi Khomeini, the supreme leader of the Iranian revolution.


From Tehran he would incite Iranians and Muslims around the world to oppose the Great Satan, America. And America reciprocated the ‘favour’ by imposing draconian sanctions on Iran and by isolating his country.

Pop culture also played its part by elevating Khomeini and the Iranians to the status of top world bad guys, in second place only after the Soviets.

If, like me, you grew up in the 1980s, you are probably familiar with the faceless pilots taken down by Tom ‘Maverick’ Cruise in the movie Top Gun. They fly ‘Mig’ fighter jets but they are not the Soviets, so they must be Iranians.

Or you may have watched and re-watched the epic intro sequence to Naked Gun, where Leslie Nielsen beats the crap out of a group of anti-American leaders, including an Ayatollah sporting a mohawk under his turban.

Or, if you are a hopeless geek, you surely remember that Batman issue when Khomeini hired the Joker as Iranian ambassador to the UN, so he could kill the whole General Assembly with poison gas.

But reality is not directed by Tony Scott, may he RIP, nor scripted by DC Comics.

That is why today we will look at the complex experiences that shaped Ruhollah Khomeini into becoming a leading Cleric, who went to oppose the Emperor of Iran and become a revolutionary aged almost 80. We will also learn how his relationship with Satan – America – was more ambiguous than both parties wanted us to believe.   

Ruhollah Khomeini By Mohammad Sayyad taken May 6 1981

The Cleric

The man who would become known as the Ayatollah Khomeini was born Ruhollah Mostafavi Musavi, the youngest of six siblings. His date of birth is disputed, but we will settle on the 24th of September 1902, and his place of birth was Khomeyn, a town in what was then the Kingdom of Persia and later became Iran.

Like the majority of the population in Iran he was born into a family of the Shia Muslim faith, a family who claimed to be a descendant from the prophet Mohammed. Ruhollah’s father Seyed Mustafa al-Shahid al-Khomeini was a high-ranking cleric, bearing the title of Hojjat-al-Islam.

Quick stop here, for some clarifications:

First of all, who are the Shias and what is the difference between them and the majority Muslim sect, the Sunnis?

These two factions share many spiritual beliefs and religious practices, as their schism was political in nature. After the death of Mohammad in 632 his adviser Abu Bakr became the first Caliph, or ‘successor of the Prophet’, tasked with leading the Islamic nation. But his leadership was challenged by the followers of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. This latter faction originated the Shia sect, who believe that the leadership of the Islamic nation belongs to the direct descendants of the Prophet. On the other hand, Sunni Muslims believe that the leadership of the community is not a birthright: it can, and it must, be earned.

Then, let’s look at religious titles: a mullah indicates a religious leader or a teacher in a madrasa, or religious school. The honorific title of Hojjat-al-Islam or “Proof of Islam” is given only to high ranking scholars, who once progress to the next level are addressed as Ayatollahs.


And back to the story.

When Ruhollah was very small, his father died. According to some sources he was still an infant, according to CIA declassified documents, he was five years old.

We also know for sure that Ruhollah’s father was assassinated, but sources differ on the how: maybe the killer was a bandit, but the CIA source claims that he was killed by a local governor for taking part in the so called Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906.

Aged 16, Ruhollah had to experience another trauma when his mother died. The oldest of the siblings, his brother Mortaza, then took charge of him and made sure that Ruhollah continued the family tradition by studying in various Islamic schools.

At nineteen, Ruhollah travelled to Arak, where he studied religion under Ayatollah Abd al-Karim Ha’iri, a well-known Islamic scholar. In 1922 Ruhollah followed Ha’iri to the Fayzieh madrasa in Qom, Iran’s intellectual centre for Islamic studies. Here Ruhollah distinguished himself in a variety of studies which would shape his political career, including ethics, philosophy and law – all subjects he would go on to teach.

In 1932 Ruhollah married the daughter of a prominent cleric from the capital Tehran, a marriage which gave him seven children, two of which died in infancy.

In 1937, his old master, Ayatollah Ha’iri’s died. He continued to grow his reputation as a learned scholar by becoming the assistant to another leading Ayatollah, Husayn Borujerdi. It was around this period that he started to become known as Ruhollah Khomeini.

Khomeini’s residence in Qom was mostly dedicated to teaching and studying, but it may have been at this stage that he started to develop a political concern. The mid-1930s were in fact the years in which the Shah-an-sha, the King of Kings, Reza Pahlavi launched a series of reforms which could have undermined the authority of the Shia clergy, such as opening the first university or emancipating women, by demanding for their chadors, or veils, to be discarded.[TA6] 

In 1944 Khomeini co-authored a book condemning the Shah, who by then had abdicated in favour of his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. But beyond that, we don’t have any other anti-government activities on Khomeini’s record. The only thing we know for certain is that throughout the 1940s and 1950s Khomeini continued teaching in Qom, becoming a nationally renowned authority in Islamic jurisprudence.

It wasn’t until 1962 that Khomeini would raise his voice and become a scourge for the rule of the Shah.

The Emperor

The Shah-an-sha, or more simply the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi rose to power in 1941. His father Reza – just Reza, without the Mohammed – had abdicated following a pre-emptive occupation of Iran by the UK and the USSR, who wanted to prevent a German invasion. In the August of 1953 the Shah was forced to flee by the supporters of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. Minister Mosaddeq had successfully nationalised oil production, which until now had been controlled by British companies. This of course did not make Britain happy, who sought assistance from the US to remove Mosaddeq from power and reinstate the Shah.

From right Ruhollah Khomeini, Abdul-Karim Mousavi Ardebili, and Ali Khamenei – 1980s

Formally, Pahlavi maintained the nationalisation of oil production, but behind the scenes, he shared the profits with a US-led international consortium. This is when the Shah became the strongest ally of the US in the Middle East and central Asia. With the assistance of Washington the Shah launched the ‘White Revolution’, a reform programme aimed at developing the Country’s infrastructure. Most of all, this was a programme of modernisation and Westernisation, which continued some of the work already started by Reza Sr.

But nobody liked these reforms. Left-wing factions wanted more, they were wary of the Shah’s dependence from the US and were angered by the unequal distribution of oil revenues.

The religious, conservative side criticised the reforms for being too radical! You really cannot make everybody happy, can you?

But what brought everybody together in really hating the Shah were the corruption in his government, his reliance on autocratic rule and the power of the SAVAK – the feared secret police. As dissent escalated, so did the activities of this sinister organisation, originally established, trained and funded with CIA support as confirmed by a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report[TA8] .

At its peak the SAVAK had formally recruited 15,000 agents, many of whom also managed informal spy networks, therefore permeating all of society.

In the early 1960s both factions opposing the Shah – the secular left and conservative clerics –  who would have normally opposed each other, started to coalesce and found an inspiring leader in Khomeini, who had by now escalated ranks and had become an Ayatollah.

By now more than 60, instead of retiring like any of us would do, this respected religious scholar decided to risk everything to gain centre stage in a budding revolutionary movement.

Khomeini’s outspoken opposition to the Government escalated from 1962 to 1963, with a series of speeches and pamphlets which denounced the Shah’s latest proposed reforms, which included women’s suffrage and the opening of public offices to the non-Shia Bahai minority.

According to a de-classified CIA report these activities were a concerted effort of the Qom mullahs. Khomeini, well, he was a kind of a schmuck, a figurehead, who had been put in place because

“The clergy … believed they could control him and manipulate his operations”.

On the early hours of the 5th of June 1963, the SAVAK came knocking in Qom. Khomeini was arrested. It happened during the month of Moharram, a holy period dedicated to mourning according to Islam. The outrage was immediate, resulting in widespread riots with high casualties in the capital city Tehran and in the town of Shiraz.

Was this in the mullahs’ plans? They wanted to make a puppet out of Khomeini but they had created a martyr and a true revolutionary leader who would not let himself be controlled.

In November 1963, while still under house arrest, Khomeini did something unexpected, and certainly not in character with the commonly accepted view of him being a rabidly anti-American leader.[TA10] 

He sent a message to the US Government, using as a conduit Professor Kamarei from the theology department at Tehran university. I am going to quote again from the same CIA report:

“Khomeini explained that he was not opposed to American interests in Iran. On the contrary, he thought the American presence was necessary [TA11] as a counterbalance to Soviet and possibly British influence. Khomeini also explained his belief in cooperation between Islam and other world religions, especially Christendom”

What was Washington’s response? I’d like to tell you, but the next paragraph … it has been redacted

Would the US Government have been opened to cooperating with the Ayatollah? Another CIA memorandum issued in November 1978 (sorry to jump ahead here) is doubtful of Khomeini’s leadership skills, suggesting that he may not be capable of controlling the revolution he himself had sparked, with the risk of either a leftist faction or a military dictatorship taking power over the Shah.

Combined with the other comment about him being a puppet of the Qom mullahs … it sounds like the CIA and the Government in general were seriously underestimating this guy.

Whatever opinion the US Government had of him, the Ayatollah continued his rise as leader of the opposition. After being released in April 1964 he resumed his incendiary sermons against the Shah.

By now Pahlavi had had enough and in November he expelled the Ayatollah. The exile had begun.

A Leader in Exile

Initially Khomeini settled in Turkey, from where he continued his vocal attacks on Pahlavi, calling him a pawn of the US and of Israel. By 1965 the Turkish, they also had had enough and begged the Shah to take him back, but Khomeini preferred to settle in the city of Najaf, a centre of Shia scholarship in Iraq.

It was here that Khomeini formulated his doctrine known as velayat-e faqih, or ‘guardianhsip of the jurist’. This concept marks a departure from Shia founding principles: according to this doctrine, when the divinely inspired descendant of the Prophet is absent, religious and political leadership of the community can be assumed by the faqih, the jurist, the expert in Islamic law. Which is exactly what Khomeini was … so basically he was saying, ‘it’s OK if I become the leader of Iran’.

His absence from the country did not prevent him from stoking dissent. The Ayatollah took to recording his sermons on audio cassettes, which were then smuggled into Iran.

By the way, if you are 20 or younger, an audio cassette was a plastic recording support about the size of a Blackberry phone, that could store up to 2 hours of music or speech on a magnetic tape.

By the way, if you are 20 or younger, a Blackberry phone was what your parents used to take calls from the office before they came to their senses. 

And if you are 20 or younger and watching a 22-minute video about the Ayatollah Khomeini … well done you!

Where was I?

The tapes. These tapes found fertile ground, especially amongst the lower classes in the expanding urban centres and amongst university students, regardless if left-leaning or aligned to the religious right.

You may ask: what was his agenda, exactly?

Point a: The Ayatollah opposed the Shah’s efforts to give equal rights to women;

B: he opposed his land reforms, deemed ineffective in feeding the population;

C: he wanted to free Iran from foreign influence, especially that of the US and USSR;

D: he protested the inclusion of religious minorities in positions of power, especially the Bahai;

E: Finally, Khomeini was a vocal critic of the state of Israel, whom he accused of manipulating the Shah.

Over the 1970s dissent against Pahlavi grew in its intensity. Khomeini kept attacking him from Najaf and the Shah may have taken his revenge … in 1977 in fact Khomeini’s first born son, Mostafa, died in mysterious circumstances. The death was due to a heart attack, but Khomeini claimed that Mostafa had been killed by the Government.

Return of the Cleric

In the late 1970’s Khomeini enjoyed a high standing amongst both conservative Muslims and sympathisers of the Tudeh, the local communist party. When, on the 7th of January 1978 a state-controlled newspaper questioned the Ayatollah’s patriotism and even his sexuality, protesters marched in the streets  of Tehran. The police fired on them and violence escalated. This marked the official beginning of the Iranian Revolution.

For the following 13 months the police, the armed forces and the SAVAK, faced protesters across the Country, killing them in the dozens or hundreds. As customary in Shia Islam, each massacre was celebrated by a mourning period of 40 days, followed by demonstrations. Violence would erupt again and so on, in 40 days cycles, Iran spiralled into chaos.

The Shah, who by now was suffering of late stage cancer, had little resolve to address the situation.

Meanwhile in Iraq, Khomeini continued to rally the opposition – that is until Saddam Hussein finally expelled him from Najaf. The Ayatollah moved to the outskirts of Paris, and from there, he planned his return as triumphant leader of the revolutionary struggle.

Saddam Hussein speaking at his trial.

And apparently, it was from France that he made his second attempt to seek an alliance or at least an understanding with the US.

The aim of his messages was to reassure the US that a change of leadership in Iran would not compromise their access to crude oil. In exchange, the Ayatollah asked the US government to use their influence to hold back the Army from launching a coup.

Did President Jimmy Carter comply? This is not clear. It is true that the military eventually did not oppose the revolution, but this may have been due to simple opportunism.

In January 1979, the Shah and his family left Iran, officially to take a vacation, but in reality … this was a voluntary exile. On the 1st of February Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Tehran, welcomed as a victorious leader by the crowd. Following a referendum, on the 1st of April 1979 Iran became officially an Islamic Republic and Khomeini became the Supreme Leader of this Theocratic state. It was the end of more than 2000 years of monarchy in Persia and Iran.

The Guardianship of the Jurist   

Before I continue with the momentous events of the 1980s, let me make an example of how Khomeini now in power applied his doctrine of velayet-e faqih, the Guardianship of the Jurist.

So, the new constitution declared Shia Islam to be the official religion of Iran, being the faith of 90 percent of the population. It also acknowledges minority groups as official religions, such as Sunni Muslims, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and even Judaism – surprising, I know, considering Khomeini’s anti-Zionist stance.

However, the constitution excluded the Bahai faith, making it effectively illegitimate. And this is not surprising, seeing how the Shah’s pro-Bahai policy was one of the many reforms that triggered Khomeini into joining the opposition.

The Bahai religion formed as an offshoot of Shia Islam in the mid-19th century, and it was viewed as heretical by senior mullahs.

After the rise of Khomeini as supreme leader, up to 20,000 Bahai worshipers fled the Country to avoid persecution, imprisonment or even execution. By May 1983 at least 150 Bahai men and women had been hanged or shot by the revolutionary government.

 The persecution of the Bahai is just an example of the repressive nature of the Revolutionary regime.

First, his regime ousted from positions of power the former secular allies. Then, it took political vengeance, with hundreds of people who had worked for the shah’s regime reportedly executed. The remaining domestic opposition was then suppressed, its members being systematically imprisoned or killed. Iranian women were required to wear the veil, Western music and alcohol were banned, and the punishments prescribed by the Sharia, the Islamic law, were reinstated.

A new armed force, the Pasdaran, would make sure that all aspects of the Sharia would be strictly enforced. Their power has grown over time, becoming a sort of parallel police, army and air force, with a strict focus on enforcing Sharia law and defending the values of the Islamic revolution. Had anything really changed since the times of the SAVAK?

The Great Satan

The first years of a revolutionary government are the most delicate ones, but the Islamic Republic survived two major trials, the US Embassy hostage crisis and the war with Iraq.

On the 22nd of October the former Shah was allowed entrance into the US to be treated for cancer. On the 4th of November, a mob of some 3000 protesters, mainly university students, stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took hostage about 63 staff members.

What was Khomeini’s involvement in this crisis? Very little actually: the storming was a result of a spontaneous demonstration, so he had no idea it would take place and he could have probably done without it … but once it started, well he sort of got along with it and offered support to the protesters.

It was in fact during the November of 1979 that he first started using in his speeches his now infamous phrase to describe the US:

“Americans are the Great Satan, the wounded snake”

But his government still had to negotiate with Satan. Talks with the Carter administration  dragged on for months, with Iran demanding that the Shah’s financial assets in the US be returned to the Country, in exchange for the hostages. The US, in reply, froze ALL of Iranian assets and filed a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice.

In April 1980 Carter’s administration authorised a military rescue operation – which became a failure before it had even started. Eight Special Forces helicopters had stealthily entered Iran, but when three of them malfunctioned the mission was aborted. Sadly, on the way back, one of the choppers crashed, causing the death of eight servicemen. The Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned. As per Carter, his Presidency was doomed.

In May, the US and allies had imposed an embargo on Iran, but the Government of Tehran still played hardball in negotiations. What tipped the scales was the 2nd calamity that befell the young Republic: the start of the war with Iraq, 22nd of September 1980.

Realising that Iran could not fight Saddam in the chokehold of a trade embargo, Khomeini agreed to release the hostages on the 20th of January 1981. The new US President, Ronald Reagan had been inaugurated just 20 minutes earlier.

The crisis had been resolved, but it had lasted too long not sour the already frosty relationship between Iran and the US. Their interactions would remain hostile up to this day.

A Deal with the Devil

For most of the 1980s, the Islamic Republic had to contend with a bloody war against Saddam’s regime. The Iran-Iraq war, the longest of the XXth century dragged on until July 1988, and it combined horrors from both World Wars because of its use of trench warfare, poison gas and bombings on civilian targets. The Iraqi’s war aim was to gain control over the Shatt-el-Arab, the confluence of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, the only access to the sea. They also had in mind to stop the spread of the Shia Islamic revolution into their Sunni, secular state.

Khomeini’s regime could not field an army as modern and mechanized as Saddam’s, who could enjoy from the support of the US and most Sunni Arab countries. What they could offer was numbers and fanaticism: thousands of boy soldiers were indoctrinated by mullahs into launching suicidal human wave attacks armed only with a plastic key[TA24]  – the key that would open the gates of paradise after their death as martyrs of the Revolution.

But it turns out that human wave attacks do not make strategic progresses. Tehran was in dire need of more complex tactics and weapons systems, namely: long range missiles. Khomeini’s regime would procure them in 1985, in a way which shows how ambiguous and confusing the US-Iran relationship were: the resulting mess became known as the Iran-Contra affair[TA25] .

Iran made the first step, with a secret request to Washington to buy up to 1500 long range missiles. President Reagan and his National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane saw a chance to kill two birds with one stone: first, grasp the occasion to negotiate with Iran the release of seven Americans taken hostage by the Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia fighters loyal to Khomeini; second, make some cash through the arms sales to fund the Contras anti-communist insurgents in Nicaragua.

Along the way, Reagan and McFarlane killed another bird, called “American rule of law” – their actions violated the trade embargo on Iran, violated the Presidential promise not to negotiate with terrorists and violated the recently passed Boland amendment which forbade the government from intervening in Nicaragua.

The Last Two Years

But let’s get back to the war. Even with their new missiles the Iranians were not able to break the frontline.

The war ended in July 1988. Its result? A costly stalemate. Between half a million and a million dead, half a million of invalid soldiers, 400 billion dollars of damaged infrastructures … for almost no gain. Saddam in the end got his outlet to the sea, only to return it to Iran in 1991 in exchange for their neutrality during the 1st Gulf War.

The Gulf War: Author: Don Brunett: License: Free Art License

But actually, Khomeini and his regime had gained something from the conflict, albeit immaterial. The total war against an ethnically Arab, Sunni, Secular enemy had consolidated the resolve and institutions of the young Revolutionary government in a country that was non-Arab, Shia and theocratic.

Only a few months after the end of the war, in February 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini made headlines again when he issued a fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie, accusing him of tainting the name of the Prophet Mohammad in his novel the Satanic Verses. A fatwa is a legal document issued by a mullah, which in this case carried a death sentence against the writer – and a monetary reward. Salman Rushdie was forced to live in hiding and to seek police protection.

Khomeini’s condemnation of the Satanic Verses, though, was short-lived. Four months later, on the 4th of June 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died, regarded as a hero or condemned as the ultimate villain, both outside and within his country.

Ruhollah Khomeini’s seminary: Credit: Reza.tarin: License: Creative Commons

His reputation as a ruthless leader, who would not refrain from harming, exiling or killing opponents to achieve his goals is certainly well-deserved. But isn’t that true of so many leaders around the Globe? And wasn’t that true for the Shah Pahlavi himself, or Saddam, or the rulers of Saudi Arabia – and yet they did and still have the support of America and the West.

Khomeini did open to America in at least two occasions- and he may have been ignored or underestimated. On the other hand the Iran-Contra affair could have been the occasion to thaw the frost. But it seems like Khomeini’s ill-advised decision to back the protesters during the hostage crisis had made the relationship with America impossible to mend.

Now, Professor Mahmood Sariolghalam of Theran University espouses a geopolitical theory according to which America and Iran should not antagonize each other, as Tehran is THE natural ally for the US in the region – a foothold in this country would provide access to central Asia, the Gulf and its resources. It was the case in the past and who knows, it may happen again in the future. But at least for the past 40 years, US and Iranian foreign policy seem to have missed a trick.




Leave A Reply

14 + nineteen =