Khomeini revered as Iran's revolution hits 30

Iran marks the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic revolution on Tuesday.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Sacred place: Iranian students visit the Jamaran prayer hall in Tehran, where former leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once preached fiery sermons laced with anti-American rhetoric.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images
'Great Satan': A soldier walked past a sign painted on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran last week. Iranians mark the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on Tuesday.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Family: Ayatollah Kohmeini's granddaughter, Zahra Eshraghi, says he was a caring man.

In dim light from high windows, the stream of schoolchildren never stops. Class after class of pupils, herded by their teachers, make their pilgrimage to the place where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, once preached.

A banner leaves no doubt about today's lesson: "This revolution is not known anywhere in the world without the name Khomeini."

As Iran marks the 30th anniversary of its revolution on Tuesday, the ayatollah's defiant spirit still towers above all. From Iran's opposition to America as the "Great Satan," to the spread of its ideology of resistance – as well as loving family moments – Khomeini's legacy lives on in fact and myth.

"The imam [Khomeini] would enter through this door," religion teacher Alireza Boroujerdi tells his group of 20 attentive boys sitting on the floor of the Jamaran prayer hall in North Tehran. "From this closed and small place, he would move the world. He would say something and the backs of world leaders would shake."

Khomeini lived simply, yet he inspired the "oppressed people" of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories to "stand up and resist" Israel, Mr. Boroujerdi tells the students. Every night he prayed, and cried so much that he needed a towel because "tissues were not enough to wipe his tears," Boroujerdi says.

Such faith leads inexorably to triumph for the Islamic Republic, lectures the brown-robed cleric.

The Omid (Hope) satellite launched by Iran last week has "orbited around the Earth 60 times already, all because of this leader," he says. "Our independence and reliance on God – all this is because of what happened here."

Forging a new society

Although the official history is taught to Iranian pupils, those who knew or met Khomeini describe an enigmatic man who not only toppled the pro-Western Shah Muhammad Reza Palavi, but reinterpreted Shiite doctrine to make way for the supreme religious rule of the Velayat-e Faqih.

But the fight to forge an Islamic republic was a ruthless one.

State-run TV channels are full of grainy footage of the bloody protests of 1979 and before, and of the mass rallies that marked his return to Iran after years in exile.

Iraq's invasion of Iran in 1980, after deep purges in the shah's military forces, was another challenge to the regime.

Tens of thousands of "martyrs" died at the front lines and in human wave attacks, cementing a Shiite ideology of martyrdom, sacrifice, and self-reliance that is revered by devotees to this day. In 1988, several thousand prisoners were taken from jail and executed.

But it was a different scene at home, remembers Khomeini's granddaughter, Zahra Eshraghi.

"On TV he was a tough, stern person. But at home he was very soft, very warm, and very calm. He would never get angry with us."

The ayatollah's softer side

"He would help me study. He insisted I go to university," says Mrs. Eshraghi, adding that he used to call her regularly to talk and to encourage more study before she took on a degree in Western philosophy. "He was much closer to us than a traditional grandfather."

He also liked to play with his great-grandchildren games such as "Maman-Bazi," the Persian equivalent of playing house.

Her grandfather would "certainly" be disappointed with the current social restrictions, says Eshraghi, who is a strong advocate for women's rights and married to a prominent reformist politician, the brother of former President Mohammad Khatami. "One of the main things in [Khomeini's] speeches was freedom."

That promise has not been kept, says Ibrahim Yazdi, a close companion of Khomeini during his exile in Paris, and then as foreign minister of the first non-clerical government.

As head of the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran, he has over the years been jailed and subject to numerous court charges.

"People are still loyal to the revolution [but] they object to the performance of the authorities," says Mr. Yazdi. Limits on free speech, the press, and protests are "unacceptable" violations of Iran's Constitution, which explicitly permits such action, he says.

"Definitely people supported Khomeini; they responded to his call for revolution," says Yazdi. "I still have great respect for him…. In his private life he was a pious man [so] I separate his personal private life – his character – with that of his political stands, particularly after the revolution."

He relates that he brought news to Khomeini in November 1979 that militant students had overrun the US Embassy. Khomeini's first reaction was to "go and kick them out," says Yazdi. But 48 hours later the ayatollah publicly supported the hostage-takers, who held 52 American diplomats for 444 days – and wrecked chances of US-Iran rapprochement for decades.

"He was very sensitive to the public opinion, to the masses," says Yazdi. "That is a problem that I had with him. It is not a proper consideration, whatever the masses want, then you follow."

Brutal methods justified

Yazdi says he also took up the issue of the extent of executions of former regime members and opponents. "Many people were objecting," he says. "In one of my private talks with Khomeini I brought up the issue, and he argued with me that 'No, for the revolution to succeed and remain, sometimes it is needed … to kill someone. The opponent[s]: Don't give them a chance. If you give them a chance, they will destroy us.' Well, in some point, maybe he's right."

Indeed, Iran's revolution put that into practice, reaching far afield to track down enemies.

Dozens of opponents were assassinated in Europe and the Middle East through the mid-1990s.

Dawud Salahuddin, a black American convert to Islam who was born David Belfield and worked security at Iran's Embassy in Washington, was asked to kill a shah-era diplomat and dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabaie.

In July 1980, disguised as a postman in Bethesda, Md., he did so.

By the spring of 1981, Mr. Salahuddin was in Tehran – where he has lived ever since – and met with Khomeini for 20 to 25 minutes. He also saw him preach at the Jamaran prayer hall several times and was impressed.

"With Khomeini, you could swallow things and it would go down," says Salahuddin in an interview, though he adds: "I never called myself one of Imam Khomeini's followers."

During their meeting, "he made reference to the gentleman in Bethesda [but] he wanted to talk of other things like my welfare. He asked: 'Anything I can do for you?' "

What struck him most was Khomeini's evident spirituality.

"He was not interested in this world – he had no worldly ambition," says Salahuddin, who wears a beard without a mustache. "For me, talk that he was a powermonger – it's nonsense. He lived in another dimension [and] when you deal with a person like that, normal criticism does not matter."

Still, preserving the Islamic system was the top priority. "I don't think 'ruthless' is the wrong word," says Salahuddin. "During the American Revolution, guess what the British must have called George Washington?"

Admirers claim to follow 'true path'

Such notoriety has only helped solidify Khomeini's legacy, 20 years after his death.

His words and ideas are still drawn upon daily by politicians of all stripes, who fight to prove they follow Khomeini's "true path."

When former President Khatami declared his candidacy Sunday night for June presidential elections, for example, he said he had to take part because his "heart is with the revolution, with Imam, with Iran...."

Such devotion is common at Jamaran, where an assistant of eight years – who used to see Khomeini two to three times a day – reminisces. "It was because of his simplicity that he could tell what he did to the world," says Sayed Rahim Miriam.

"He would do nothing but for the happiness of God. He would not wait for results, but do things out of duty," says Mr. Miriam, wearing white sandals, his rough hands familiar with work. "He was always kind and happy with his friends and revolutionaries. The only time you saw him serious was when he was talking to world powers."

The man rubs his hands and smiles, remembering how Khomeini told him to "pray when he was young, because when you are old you want to pray, but you can't."

The prayers the servant shared with Khomeini, he says, helped "save him" during clashes that year at Mecca.

Back at the Jamaran prayer hall

Inside this modest prayer hall, no one would doubt that. And so another class. Another teacher. Another set of questions.

"People would come from all over the world for the honor of seeing the imam for a few minutes," says teacher Amir-Hossein Khosarmadar, who tells his group of 70 small boys how many hours he waited to catch a first glimpse of Khomeini.

"He was not afraid of any power but the power of God," says Mr. Khosarmadar. "The imam was once your age, and not an imam from the beginning…. I ask you to pay close attention, to all the things you see, and hear, so [like him] we can all become the soldiers of Islam...."

A boy raises his hand and asks, "Is that the real chair of the imam?"

No, the teacher explains. "When people first heard the imam had passed away, the first group to arrive took pieces of it as sacred objects to remember him. So this is not the original chair."

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