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Khomeini turbulent priest who shook world

By Paul Taylor

LONDON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - A frail, white-bearded man sat cross-legged on a Persian rug in a suburban bungalow near Paris and spoke in a faint monotone into a cassette-recorder. And the world trembled.

Twenty years ago next week, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an ascetic Shi'ite Moslem clergyman, returned to Iran to a tumultuous welcome to lead one of this century's great upheavals -- the first Islamic revolution.

Exploiting a national network of mosques, the Shi'ite cult of martyrdom and the strange indecisiveness of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Khomeini replaced one of the Middle East's richest U.S.-backed oil monarchies with an austere theocratic state.

``We will end foreign domination in Iran. America cannot do anything,'' the ayatollah vowed in an interview with Reuters shortly after he settled in the village of Neauphle-le-Chateau, near Versailles, in October 1978.

``Do not be afraid to give up your lives and your belongings in the service of God, Islam and the Moslem nation,'' he told his followers in one of the taped messages that sent millions of unarmed demonstrators into the streets to brave the Shah's army.


Unlike many revolutionary systems, the Islamic republic that Khomeini built has endured despite a 20-year confrontation with the United States, an eight-year war with Iraq and waves of bombings, assassinations, executions and power struggles.

Khomeini, who became supreme leader with sweeping powers under the constitution adopted in 1979, died in his bed a decade later, revered by most Iranians but reviled in the West.

His mausoleum in south Tehran is a shrine for pilgrims.

While the revolution devoured many of its children in spasms of violence, Moslem clerics still wield most power in Iran.

The complex institutional checks and balances developed by Khomeini to guard against a coup and prevent one faction from monopolising power provide the framework for a permanent power struggle among his heirs.

The contrast between the Shah, whose imperial family flaunted its fabulous petrodollar wealth in gaudy ceremonies, and the ayatollah, who lived frugally on a diet of bread, fruit, nuts and yoghurt, could hardly have been more stark.

Twice a day, the stern old man in dark robes and a black turban indicating descent from the Prophet Mohammed, crossed the Route de Chevreuse under French police guard to lead prayers and deliver sermons in a blue-and-white tent pitched in the garden of the two-storey house that served as his headquarters.

Students, businessmen, clergymen and politicians flocked to Paris from Iran and the diaspora in Europe and the United States to talk and pray with Khomeini after president Valery Giscard d'Estaing gave him temporary refuge.

The ayatollah listened to moderate advice but held firm to his course, dismissing calls for compromise to avert bloodshed.

``There will be no compromise with the Shah. Until the day an Islamic republic is established in Iran, the struggle of our people will continue,'' Khomeini said in the interview.

The turbulent cleric had been expelled from Iraq under pressure from the Shah, seeking to end a snowballing revolt against his rule spearheaded by Shi'ite religious leaders, demonstrating students and striking oil workers.

He had launched his battle to drive the Shah from his ``peacock throne'' in 1962-63, condemning the monarch's White Revolution land reforms as un-Islamic and denouncing the immunity privileges of U.S. advisers and oil companies in Iran. He was exiled first to Turkey, then to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq.


In Neauphle-le-Chateau, Khomeini was surrounded by a circle of Western-educated aides who went on to play key roles in the early revolutionary governments before being sidelined by Islamic hardliners.

A large sign in English and Persian outside Khomeini's headquarters proclaimed ``The ayatollah has no spokesman.'' But the men who assured journalists that Iran would be a liberal Islamic democracy would qualify nowadays as spin doctors.

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, an economist who lived in Paris, acted as his interpreter and secretary. He was elected the first president of the Islamic republic in 1980 before being hounded from office by hardline mobs a year later, fleeing for his life to the French capital.

Sadeq Qotbzadeh, a former anti-Shah student activist expelled from the United States in 1969 and who had a Syrian passport, became head of radio and television, then foreign minister. He resigned in 1980 and was executed in 1982 for allegedly plotting to overthrow Khomeini.

Ebrahim Yazdi, a cancer researcher who lived in Texas, was Khomeini's chief English-speaking aide. He sought to persuade the West that the Islamic movement was not manipulated by the Soviet Union or bent on anarchy.

He became foreign minister in the first revolutionary government but was forced out for trying to end the occupation of the U.S. embassy by militant students in November 1979 after Washington admitted the deposed Shah for medical treatment.

Yazdi today heads a small, semi-legal opposition party, the Iran Freedom Movement, but has little influence.

Khomeini's other confidant was his second son Ahmad, a mullah (clergyman) who was his closest aide during his decade at the helm of the Islamic republic and the key link with the students occupying the U.S. embassy. He died in 1995.

Khomeini's elder son, Morteza, had died during their exile in Iraq after being visited by two Iranians suspected of being agents of the Shah's hated SAVAK secret police.

The ayatollah's wife, Batul, accompanied him in France but played no public role.


Interviewing Khomeini was a strangely impersonal experience. Questions were submitted in writing and Bani-Sadr translated the written replies before the reporter was admitted for a brief meeting with the ayatollah.

There was no handshake. Khomeini stared at the carpet while speaking rather than seeking eye-contact with the interviewer.

Some of his delphic statements required interpretation. When he said: ``We will cut off the hands of the foreign agents,'' aides hastened to explain he meant rooting out foreign domination in Iran, not severing limbs.

As the revolution moved towards a climax, sending world oil prices soaring to record levels, the throngs of supporters and journalists swelled at Neauphle.

The French authorities who had initially treated Khomeini with caution, warning him three times to refrain from political statements, gave him VIP treatment.

Two weeks after the Shah left Iran on ``holiday'' on January 16, never to return, the ayatollah, his entourage and several dozen journalists boarded an Air France jumbo jet for Tehran, despite threats by the Iranian government to shoot it down.

The volunteer crew had take on twice the normal load of fuel in case they were forced to turn back. The plane had to circle for more than half an hour over Tehran while final negotiations for permission to land were conducted.

A crowd estimated at more than one million people was waiting to greet the revolution's spiritual leader as the Air France stewards helped him down the gangway at Mehrabad Airport.

Ten days later, the remnants of the Shah's last government under the hapless prime minister Shahpour Bakhtiar were swept away in street battles.

The Middle East was never the same again.


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form