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40 years ago, Iran’s exiled Khomeini returns a hero

Forty years ago Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shiite spiritual cleric who led Iran’s unfolding Islamic revolution, was welcomed back to Tehran by a jubilant throng after more than 14 years in exile.

world Updated: Jan 29, 2019 11:38 IST
Patrick Meney
Patrick Meney
Agence France-Presse, Tehran
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,14 years in exile,Islamic revolution
In this file photo taken on February 01, 1979 at Tehran airport shows revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (C) posing aboard the Air France Boeing 747 jumbo that flew him back from exile in France to Tehran. (AFP file photo)

Forty years ago Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shiite spiritual cleric who led Iran’s unfolding Islamic revolution, was welcomed back to Tehran by a jubilant throng after more than 14 years in exile.

This story by AFP journalist, originally in French, captures the mood of that remarkable day in February 1979 when the opposition leader returned to replace the monarchy with an Islamic republic.

A triumphant return to Iran

On February 1, 1979 , millions of Iranians with beaming faces massed along a 32-kilometre (20-mile) route Thursday to give a triumphant welcome to the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, whose car was engulfed for hours by an ecstatic human tide.

As soon as he left the Tehran airport (...), a visibly moved but calm Khomeini was swept up by millions of his supporters.

In black robes and a turban, the religious leader travelled in an American station wagon that was followed by a fleet of minibuses packed with journalists from around the world.

About 50,000 volunteers were on hand to control the crowd. Wearing green armbands, they were called the “Islamic police”. The government had given them full responsibility for the ayatollah’s security.

Engulfed in the crowd

But this religious security service was quickly overwhelmed.

In a matter of seconds, Khomeini’s car disappeared in the crowd, which blocked the way for dozens of ambulances filled with unconscious demonstrators who fainted in the swell of the black mass that stretched as far as the eye could see down Tehran’s long, straight avenues.

How many people were out on the street on this Thursday? Five million, perhaps... or six, it was impossible to say. In any case, it was unprecedented.

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At the gateway to the capital the imposing memorial to the shah, the symbol of modern Iran, had been renamed Khomeini Square.

Where is the ayatollah’s car now? We don’t know. It has disappeared somewhere in the noisy tide of people, a swarming wave, from which emerge hundreds of thousands of portraits of the leader of the “Islamic revolution”.

Veils and carnations

The women have all turned out in chadors -- black veils -- with a red carnation in their hands. Since sunrise they have been singing “Khomeini is our leader”. Banners read: “Khomeini, welcome to your country.” The men chant: “Allah is great.”

Clerics spray rose water on the demonstrators, who hold up their faces to the holy scent. In the sunny capital, overlooked by the nearby snow-covered mountains, a single roar resounds: “Khomeini, Khomeini.”

The military has totally deserted the capital.

At some points along the route, followers -- finally getting back their venerated “leader” after more than 14 years in exile -- pick up the ayatollah’s car and carry it for several metres (feet).

Islamic republic

“Your return signifies the proclamation of the Islamic republic,” the most enthusiastic among them shout.

One mullah, or Shiite cleric, sporting a white turban, exclaims: “Who would have thought just six months ago that Khomeini would return to Iran, he the pariah, today cheered by millions of Muslims?”

Everyone is aware of the significance of this return from exile, while the recent departure of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, also looks like someone who has gone into exile.

When the ayatollah’s Boeing 747 touched down in Tehran, there was silence.

It was also in silence that he descended the steps of the plane, rediscovering his country but not recognising the capital, now bristling with modern towers.

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Several minutes later the ayatollah made an appeal for unity, saying, “The fight is not over, the shah’s departure is only the first part of the road to be travelled.”

Old system to be ‘destroyed’

Then he vehemently lashed out at his adversary.

“The shah has destroyed everything, our culture, our university, the economy, agriculture. We will destroy the system he put in place.”

On Thursday all of Iran seemed to have turned out for Ayatollah Khomeini. From the airport to the Tehran cemetery, the centre of religious protest where a massive crowd awaited him, the Shiite leader could see that he was followed by a whole people to whom he intends to “show the way”.

With the monarchy still in place and the shoots emerging of civil -- or would it be holy -- war, everyone is wondering, what concretely will this Islamic way be?

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First Published: Jan 29, 2019 11:36 IST