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On This Day: Ayatollah Khomeini Returns From Exile

Last updated: February 12, 2023

On Feb. 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Iran to a welcoming crowd, ending 15 years in exile.

Khomeini Comes Back to Iran

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was forced out of Iran in 1964 after repeatedly lambasting the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, for his Westernization measures and ties to the United States and Israel. While in exile in France, the Ayatollah fomented opposition against the Shah, calling for general strikes, and turning public opinion in his favor.

As a result, the Shah fled Iran on Jan. 16, 1979, amid an increasingly restive Iranian population. He appointed Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar to take control of the provisional government.

Khomeini returned to Tehran by plane on Feb. 1. “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,” wrote Time. “The moment was, conceivably, the start of a new era for a country that has seemed dangerously out of control.”

Khomeini then traveled from the airport to a nearby cemetery where many martyrs of the revolution were buried. Millions of his supporters lined to route to cheer his name, and hundreds of thousands gathered at the cemetery to hear him speak.

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“I must tell you that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that evil traitor, has gone. … We are saying this man, his government, his Majlis are all illegal. If they were to continue to stay in power, we would treat them as criminals and would try them as criminals,” Khomeini declared. “I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government in the mouth. I shall determine the government with the backing of this nation, because this nation accepts me.”

Over the next 10 days, Khomeini and Bakhtiar vied for control of the government. Khomeini appointed his own prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, and public revolts spread throughout the country. Weakened by the uprisings, Bakhtiar’s government was dealt its final blow on Feb. 11 when the military declared itself neutral, allowing the revolutionaries to take control.

Iran Under the Ayatollah

Sources in this Story

  • The BBC: Ayatollah Khomeini (1900-1989)
  • Washington State University: World Civilizations: The Iranian Revolution
  • Time: The Khomeini Era Begins
  • Macrohistory and World Report: Political Divisions, Cleric Power and Totalitarianism
  • Ketabeqom (PBS): The Islamic Revolution
  • Iran Chamber Society: Ayatollah Khomeini
  • Council on Foreign Relations: U.S.-Iran Contacts

The government published the new Iranian constitution on Nov. 15, 1979, concentrating power in the hands of the unelected Supreme Religious Leader. Khomeini’s power grab drew much protest, which the Ayatollah answered by subduing his opposition. “By early summer 1980 all political groups opposing the government had to go underground,” according to Persian cultural scholar Mohammad Mehdi Korrami.

However, Khomeini’s political suppression was soon overshadowed by two events. First, in November 1979, Iranians took 52 Americans hostage in retaliation for the Shah taking medical refuge in the United States. The following year saw skirmishes between Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq escalate into the Iran-Iraq war. The war lasted eight years and resulted in massive Iranian casualties and financial burdens.

U.S.-Iranian relations since the Islamic Revolution have “been sporadic and marred by mutual distrust and debacles,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The hostage crisis of 1979-80, in which the Iranians held 52 Americans, was one of the first events to indicate that the U.S. relationship with the new Khomeini regime would be an unpleasant one.

Biography: Ayatollah Khomeini

Ayatollah Khomeini was raised with the teachings of Islamic religious tradition, and went on to become the “Supreme Leader” of Iran. The Iran Chamber Society’s biography of Ayatollah Khomeini states that “he did not fulfill his pre-revolution promises to the people of Iran but instead he started to marginalize … the opposition groups and those who opposed the clerical rules.”

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