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Khomeini, Ruhollah (1900–1989)

Iranian Muslim cleric, head of the antishah revolution (1979–1980), founder of the first modern Islamic republic (1980), and leader of Iran (1980–1989). Born in Khomein, a village near Tehran, on 17 May 1900, Seyyed Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, as with his father, pursued theological studies, attained the rank of ayatollah, and ultimately became an Islamic jurist.

For decades, Khomeini watched passively as Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi promoted secularization and restricted the influence of clerical powers. Khomeini also remained detached from the crisis of the early 1950s, as the shah turned to the United States for assistance. In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered a coup against a popularly elected government and brought the shah back to power.

A disciple of Iran's preeminent cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Boroujerdi, who was a defender of the tradition of clerical deference to established power, Khomeini took over this role in 1962 following Boroujerdi's death and began a sharply antagonistic campaign against the shah. That same year, the shah passed a bill that permitted municipal officials to take oaths of office on whatever holy scripture they preferred. This move deeply offended Khomeini and other Islamic fundamentalists, who considered the Koran to be the only appropriate scripture for such occasions. In January 1963 Khomeini issued a strongly worded declaration denouncing the shah and his plans.

Condemning Iran's ties with Israel, Khomeini also called a proposal to permit American servicemen in Iran to be tried in U.S. military courts "a document for Iran's enslavement." After several arrests, in 1964 Khomeini was finally banished to Turkey. He was then allowed to relocate to the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq. In exile, he became the recognized leader of the antishah fundamentalist opposition. While in exile, he shaped a revolutionary doctrine. Condemning the shah's dependence on the United States and his blatant secularism, Khomeini called for the creation of an Iranian clerical state.

In 1978, unrest began to spread throughout Iran. Islamic fundamentalists were joined by students and others disaffected with the shah's heavy-handed rule, state-sanctioned police brutality, and a corrupt bureaucracy. By the end of the year, a host of student-led protests shook the shah, who was then ailing with cancer. Members of the middle class also began to demand the shah's ouster. On 3 January 1979 Shapur Bakhtiyar of the National Front was appointed prime minister. Ten days later, the shah left Iran.

In February 1979, Khomeini became Iran's unquestioned leader. He ended the brief parliamentary experiment and ordered an Assembly of Experts—a group of high-ranking Islamic clerics—to draft an Islamic constitution that would establish and enforce religious law. In November 1979 Khomeini's partisans, most of them young college students, seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held fifty-two Americans there hostage for 444 days. The affair led to extremely tense U.S.-Iranian relations and ultimately contributed to President Jimmy Carter's electoral loss in 1980.

In the remaining ten years of his life, Khomeini consolidated his power, proving fully as ruthless as the shah. He instituted a strict regime of Islamic law and suspended the criminal justice system in favor of religious courts. He also tried to export his revolution by calling for Islamic revolutions throughout the Middle East.

In September 1980 Iraq's Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, hoping for a quick victory and access to Iran's rich oil fields. Hussein believed that the political chaos in Iran would ease both the invasion and occupation, but he badly miscalculated. Khomeini and his followers saw the Iraqi invasion as a holy war and rallied the Iranian people in a fanatical defense of the country. Khomeini was disdainful of Hussein's secular regime. The war dragged on until 1988, bringing staggering casualties and great suffering to both sides.

Meanwhile, life in Khomeini's Iran was repressive, particularly for those who did not subscribe to its fundamentalist tenets. Khomeini encouraged a veritable personality cult by the late 1980s, while harsh punishments were meted out to those who did not adhere to the strict Islamic laws enforced by the state. Reports of wholesale human rights abuses, including torture, were attributed to the Islamic regime. In early 1989, Khomeini precipitated an international uproar when he publicly called for the murder of the writer and novelist Salman Rushdie, who, Khomeini charged, had committed blasphemy in his book The Satanic Verses. As the fatwa against Rushdie continued to create controversy, Khomeini became gravely ill and died on 2 June 1989 in Tehran.

Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr. and Luc Stenger


Further Reading
Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.
 

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