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Khomeini: From Ataturk Avenue to the Holy City of Najaf | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Between 1964 and 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini was exiled from Iran for a total of 14 years. His exile was split between three different countries, Turkey (11 months), Iraq (13 years) and France (four months). Each of these venues had a unique impact on the course of the Iranian Revolution and on Ayatollah Khomeini himself.

Lebanese journalist and intellectual Hani Fahs revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that during Khomeini’s exile in Turkey he was welcomed as, “One of the major scholars and non-violent freedom fighters. He engrossed himself in writing his applied message ‘Tahrir-ol-Vasyleh’ in the style of a traditional Marja [religious authority] with no revolutionary project in mind.”

However his exile in Iraq was a completely different experience. At the Hawza [religious institute] of the holy city of Najaf, Khomeini gave a series of 19 lectures between 21 January and 8 February 1970. This series of lectures was later turned into a book entitled Islamic Government: Velayat-e Faqih which was the foundation upon which the post-revolution Iranian constitution was built upon, and is a Shia equivalent [with regards to importance and influence] to Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones.

The lecture series was compiled in a 150-page book that was published under the title The Islamic Government; Authority of the Jurist and a Letter from Imam Musavi Kashef al-Qita in order to deceive Iranian censors. The book was smuggled into the town of Qom in Iran where it was distributed amongst Khomeini’s disciples within the Qom Hawza. The book was intentionally not distributed amongst Iran’s secular, liberal and left-wing groups, which were irreconcilably opposed to the Wilayat al Faqih system of government.

Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of Iran following the revolution, believed that Khomeini benefited from this non-dissemination of his thought regarding the Wilayat al Faqih prior to the revolution. Liberal and left-wing trends, even clerics from within the Hawzas, like Ayatollah Montazeri, were against replacing the Shah with a religious figure. However, it was the revolutionary ideas and the rousing language, employed by Khomeini which was a key factor in mobilizing the Iranian street.

When the revolution eventually broke out it came as a surprise to everybody, including the Shah and his government, the military, and even the US government. Gary Sick, a member of the US National Security Council [NSC] during President Carter’s administration told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We did not have sufficient information about Khomeini and his group…yes the revolution took us by surprise,” but he hastened to add that “even if we had sufficient information, we would not have been able to stop it [the revolution].”

Khomeini had not stopped his criticism of the Shah even after the Shah announced the “White Revolution” in 1963; in fact, Khomeini argued that these reforms were in violation of the constitution as they extended the Shah’s authority. Following the White Revolution, Khomeini informed his supports that the target is “no longer the government” but “the Shah himself.”

On 3 June 1963, during the holiday of Ashoura, Khomeini compared the Shah to Yazid Ibn Muawiyah during a speech at the Al Fayziya Madrassah, and described the Shah as a “miserable man” warning him that unless he changed his policies, the day would come when the people would drive him out of Iran. Two days later Khomeini was arrested, taken to Qasr Prison for 19 days, before eventually being released and placed under house arrest in Tehran for the ensuing 8 months. On 7 April 1964, he was released and returned to Qom.

The Shah signed an agreement with the US that provided immunity to all American personnel in Iran. On the anniversary of the birth of Fatima Zahra [daughter of Prophet Mohammed] Khomeini announced his opposition to this agreement. Once again Iranian Special Forces broke into his house and arrested him, this time taking him to Tehran International airport where he was informed of his immediate exile to Turkey. The exile decree was signed on 3 November 1964 by the then Iranian Prime Minister Hassan-Ali Mansur. The decree read, “According to credible information, witnesses, and evidence, sufficient to prove to us that the actions of Mr. Khomeini and the unrest that they have sparked, are clearly against the best interests of the people, the security, independence, and unity of the nation. Therefore it has been decided to expel him from Iran on 3 November 1964.”

Less than a year after Khomeini’s exile from Iran, Fedayan-e-Islam, a group loyal to Khomeini that was founded in Qom, carried out the assassination of Hassan-Ali Mansur in response to his signing of Khomeini’s exile order.

Khomeini spent the first night of his exile in Turkey at the Bulvar Palace hotel. The next day he moved to Ataturk Avenue in Ankara where he spent an entire week. As a result of the secular system envisioned by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, the Ayatollah was forced to remove his religious turban and robe. In pictures of Khomeini during his time in Turkey he is seen bare-headed, and wearing a long coat.

After only a short period of time Khomeini left Ankara for the city of Bursa in northwest Turkey. In January 1965 the Iranian authorities also exiled Ayatollah Khomeini’s eldest son Mustafa from Iran, and he joined his father in Turkey. Khomeini began to learn the Turkish language, and started to write his book Tahrir-ol-Vasyleh which includes political fiqh [jurisprudence] as well as commentaries, although the book did not incorporate any of Khomeini’s revolutionary political vision.

Hani Fahs, the Lebanese writer and intellectual who liaised between Iran and Palestine said, “In my opinion, and according to my own information, when Khomeini was exiled to Turkey he was considered to be a great scholar and a non-violent revolutionary, this is a strong opposition [member] and nothing more. A relative void had existed in political Fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] since the death of Ayatollah Borujerdi. Khomeini’s exile resulted in the religious population growing even more attached to him, and considering him a traditional Marja.”

Fahs added that Khomeini “communicated with those who would visit him asking for Fatwas or inquiring about their legal rights. Many of his close companions spoke of the necessity of acting as a religion Marja, a position he had always shunned, but had now become a reality. So Khomeini dedicated himself to writing Tahrir-ol-Vasyleh in the method of a traditional Marja, not incorporating any revolutionary ideology, but instead an opposing political view. This left the choice of deciding the political system that was right for the time to the public, and especially to the rising middle class.”

Fahs points out that “This did not stop Khomeini the Marja from influencing the behaviour of the public, as well as the Imams, the religious students, civil figures, and members of the Bazaar, who had all been flocking to Turkey in order to interact with Khomeini. So Khomeini gradually began to engage in activities and communication, as well as openly attending political engagements. The jurist became a politician, and by doing so he breached the conditions that the Shah had agreed upon with Turkey.”

Fahs revealed that the solution to this problem was “to exile the Ayatollah again, this time to Iraq on the basis of mutual political concessions between the Iraqi government and the Shah’s regime, allowing Khomeini residence within the city of Najaf as a professor to the young clerics that accompanied him, the Iranians students in Najaf, and those that might wish to flee Iran and join him there in the Najaf Hawza, subject to strict Iraqi security surveillance, and non-participation in politics.”

Khomeini’s movements, his speeches, his writings, his relationship with certain Turks, and even the mosques he visited, disturbed the Turkish authorities to the extent that he was exiled once again. Without informing him of his new destination, Khomeini boarded an airplane on 5 October 1965, landing after only a few hours in Baghdad.

Iraq was under the rule of President Abdul Salam Arif at this time, and had come to a crossroads. The Iraqi monarchy had been toppled in 1958, resulting in the deaths of King Faisal II and his Prime Minister Nuri as-Said during the coup d’état that was led by Abd al-Karim Qasim. Following this, Iraq withdrew from the Baghdad Pact [Central Treaty Organization]. However there were similarities between Iran and Iraq, especially with regards to the history of the Shia movement in both countries, particularly between 1958 and 1963. The [similar] movements were led by Mohamed Baqir Al-Sadr in Iraq, and Khomeini in Iran.

Khomeini stayed in the Kadhimiya district of Baghdad for two days before heading to Karbala, where he stayed in the company of Ayatollah Muhammad Shirazi. From there he went to the city of Najaf which would be his home for the next 13 years.

Ayatollah Khomeini, and his eldest son Mustafa who had joined him in exile, were shortly joined in Najaf by Khomeini’s wife, and his second son Ahmed. The authorities in Iran were not overly concerned with Khomeini’s exile to neighbouring Iraq; indeed the popular opinion was that Khomeini’s exile to the Najaf Hawza would weaken him and his following. This was based upon the assumption that the Najaf Hawza was isolated from the situation in Iran, and was wary of interfering in politics. Moreover, Khomeini was not well-informed with regards to the [interior] affairs of the Najaf Hawza. While the Grand Ayatollahs in the Najaf Hawza, for example Ayatollah Mohsen Al Hakim, Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, and Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr, all held higher positions than Khomeini at the time. It was the combination of these factors that made the Iranian authorities hopeful that Khomeini’s removal to Iraq would signal “the beginning of the end of his influence in Iran.”

In reality, Khomeini’s 13 year exile in Iraq provided a solid foundation for his future endeavours, and strengthened his external ties to countries like Iraq, and even Lebanon via Syria. Khomeini began teaching Fiqh in the Najaf Hawza, at the Sheikh Mourteza Ansarai Madrassah. It was four years after this that he began to hold his lectures series regarding Islamic government [and the system of Waliyat Al Faqih]. These lectures formed the basis of his book Islamic Government: Velayat-e Faqih which was the foundation upon which the Iranian post-revolution constitution was founded. It was in these lectures that Khomeini said, “Islam is not a dull religion limited to the relation between man and his God; Islam is a political religion.”

What aided Khomeini was that the Najaf Hawza itself was beginning to enter a political frame of mind. In the 1960s, Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir al Sadr began to engage in politics, and helped to form the Islamic Dawa Party. However al Sadr’s movement did not enjoy a wide base of support, especially since the Grand Ayatollahs were against the Najaf Hawza becoming involved in politics. Grand Ayatollah Mohsen Hakim was against entering the political and revolutionary sphere, despite Khomeini’s urging to do so. In the end Khomeini decided against interfering so as not to increase the internal rift between the Ayatollahs of the Najaf Hawza [regarding this issue], by refraining from distributing his scholarly message. Khomeini even went so far as to refrain from acting in the role of a traditional Marja in Najaf, instead focusing his attentions on the developments in Iran.

Hani Fahs informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “Khomeini made a smart move in Najaf. He overlooked the widespread public reception and the students in Najaf that rushed to welcome him. He built a wall around himself, and although he did offer aid to some Arab students and the poor in Najaf, he did so without attempting to rally them. He withdrew himself from the rivalry between the different Marjas within the Najaf Hawza, sparing himself the distraction and preoccupation [of getting involved in this].

In Najaf, Khomeini organized a team [around him] where a number of his culturally-diverse supporters had been in exile too. In Najaf, it was inevitable that the political seeds that had been planted in Tehran, and passed through Anatolia, would [take root] and engage with the Iraqi, Arab, and international situation, which would propel them on this political course.”

Speaking about the historical background to this, Fahs said, “Years before Khomeini’s arrival in Najaf, the city, or some within the city, had quickly devoured the writings of the Muslim Brotherhood, and formed the Shia Brotherhood – the Islamic Dawa Party. Heated arguments took place within the Najaf Hawza between the traditional Marjas, and the new politicized Marjas, who were a number of young scholars known for their juristic excellence, and their ambitions to make change, like Mohamed Baqir al Sadr. Khomeini lived in this atmosphere, and was influenced by it. He stood out from those Marjas who were against revolutionary change, and who instead were betting on a slow process of transformation. He turned his lessons and lectures among his ever-expanding group, into research on political Fiqh, which later resulted in his well known book Islamic Government: Velayat-e Faqih, a Shia equivalent to Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones. Indeed Sayyid Qutb, in his infamous book, was closer to the ideas of the new political Islamist Shia movement in Najaf, which had previously been closer to accepting the Shah and his regime on the basis that it was against the pan-Arab movement, especially its Nasserite, Arafite [President of Iraq Abdul Salam Arif] and Baathist trends.”

Khomeini did not cut himself off from Iran during the years that he spent in Najaf, and he would receive daily visitors who would make the journey from Qom in Iran to Najaf. Khomeini’s students helped him broaden his popular foundation in the villages and cities [of Iran] by founding political groups. Among Khomeini’s students were figures like Ayatollah Motahhari, Ayatollah Beheshti, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ayatollah Khomeini’s statements were printed in secret and smuggled into Iran via Syria or Kuwait, usually by way of Khomeini’s students who had been trained in Fatah camps in Lebanon and were working with that movement. He would also send cassette tapes [of his speeches to Iran] by way of the relatives that would visit him in Najaf; these tapes would then be copied and distributed throughout the city of Qom. Abdul Salam Arif also aided Khomeini in broadcasting his ideas throughout Iraq and Iran by setting up an Iranian opposition radio station in Najaf under the directorship of Khomeini. [It was all of this] that gave Khomeini room to take action.

In 1968 the Baathist coup took place [in Iraq], and Khomeini’s relationship with the new Iraqi regime turned sour due to criticisms levelled by new President Ahmed Hassan Al Bakr at the Najaf Hawza and the Islamic movement. Needless to say, the relationship between Khomeini and the new Iraqi regime improved later on after disputes emerged between the Shah of Iran and Iraq in 1971. In response to the Shah arming Iraqi Kurds that occupied the border region between the two countries, Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan Al Bakr expelled a number of Iranians from the Najaf Hawza, and placed a number of others under house arrest.

Tension between Baathist Iraq and the Shah of Iran continued to escalate until 1974. During this time the Baathist regime attempted to court the Iranian opposition in Najaf, sending a delegation to meet Khomeini. However when Khomeini announced his intentions to leave Iraq, the Baathist regime forced him to stay in order to use him as a playing card at the opportune moment. Thereafter Khomeini’s residence in Najaf was placed under tight security. In protest to this, Khomeini resolved not to set foot outside of his house; this was until the death of his eldest son Mustafa on 23 July 1978 under suspicious circumstances.

Following the death of his eldest son, Khomeini resolved to leave Iraq no matter what. He first decided to head to Syria via Kuwait, but the Kuwaiti authorities denied him entry. He asked to be put on an airplane and sent to any other destination [other than back to Iraq], but this was refused as well.

Ayatollah Khomeini subsequently returned to Baghdad knowing that he would be denied entry into Iraq, as the country was not willing to risk discord with the Shah after an agreement between the two countries was reached in Algeria in 1975 [Algiers Accord]. From Baghdad, Khomeini booked tickets to France where he was granted entry on the condition that he refrained from becoming involved in political action against the Shah. Khomeini responded by saying, “I will not engage in any political activities inside France, but I will continue making statements regarding Iran.”

Khomeini stayed in France, along with his son Ahmed, from October 1978 till February 1979; his wife had remained behind in Iraq. During his time in France Khomeini would give five press interviews a day, and in a span of almost four months, he managed to conduct around 450 interviews.

According to Iranian journalist Mohamed Ali Mohtadi, “Iran was falling apart, and the civilian government was replaced by a military one. Fear spread amongst the public, and tanks were deployed to the streets. The Shah then began to have articles criticizing Khomeini published in official newspapers like Ettelaatt thus crossing the historic boundary of paying ones respect to the Ayatollah. This first began under the Saffavid Shah, later under the Pahlavi Shah, and after this the Shah of the Supreme Marja, whether this Marja is of the Qom Hawza, or the Najaf Hawza.

Mohtadi explains that the Shah paid a heavy price for crossing this historic line. Throngs of people staged mass demonstrations in Qom, Tehran, Yazd, Tabriz, and Abadan. Hundreds were killed in clashes between protesters and the Shah’s police force.

At the same time, US President Jimmy Carter was busy making peace between Egypt and Israel, and so was not overly concerned with the developments in Iran, having been given assurances by the CIA. The only problem was that the CIA had a presence in all political sectors of Iran, except within the Qom amongst the Islamic clerics.

Gary Sick, who was a member of the NSC under three different US Presidents; Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that “Our intelligence regarding what was going on inside the Khomeini camp was extremely limited. But we did have a number of contacts with those surrounding Mehdi Bazargan [Leader of the Freedom Movement in Iran] in Tehran, including Ibrahim Yazdi who was a companion of Khomeini in Paris. However, despite this, we cannot attribute the success of the Iranian Revolution to our lack of intelligence as to what was going on inside Khomeini’s camp. One cannot say that if we had more accurate intelligence we would have been able to stop the revolution, because the Shah himself was completely unable to deal with this. If there was anyone who had misguided information with regards what the Mullahs in Iran could do, or how they would do it, it was the Shah.”

Gary Sick added, “He [the Shah] truly failed to understand the developments of the situation up until the very end. He thought that the Russians or the CIA were orchestrating the revolt in the Iranian street. This was his only explanation to the revolution as he could not believe that the Mullahs and the religious figures in Iran were capable of leading a revolution in this way against him. As a result he had no idea whatsoever about how to deal with the Iranian revolt. We, in the Carter administration, also did not have enough information. This is completely true. But even if we had possessed all the information, this is still no guarantee that we would have been able to stop the revolution. There were millions of Iranians demonstrating in the streets every day. This is a tide that is hard to turn once it has begun. So the Shah allowed this tide to reach a point that it was very difficult to stop.”

Sick reiterated, “We had limited information regarding Khomeini and his group. Yes, we were surprised at the ability of the clerics in Iran to mobilize the Iranians against the Shah. Yes, we were surprised that the Shah was unable to put forward a solid strategy to deal with the situation. He reiterated a number of times that he would come up with a strategy to deal with the situation, but he never did. Yes, we were surprised by a number of things. But to say that if he had possessed sufficient intelligence we would have been able to stop the revolution, that is not true. These were not a handful of people who could have been stopped by merely possessing sufficient information about them. In truth, this was a large-scale revolution. It was not just Khomeini and his group in Paris. It included a number of his aides, students, and military officials who worked with him for years, and who worked independently in Iran, and inside Iranian mosques, a sector which the Shah had definitely failed to monitor and control, and his secret police had failed to even discover what was going on inside these mosques. The entire situation was complicated and interconnected. So if we had enough information, would we have been able to stop the revolution? My answer is definitely not.”

The USA was surprised at the influence the opposition political trends wielded on the Iranian street, and the precariousness of the Shah’s position, and the lack of time to find a solution [to this problem]. In fact, time was already running out.

Gary Sick informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the Carter administration did not consider the option of “unilateral military intervention” to rescue the Shah’s regime. He said “The Shah had any army of 400,000 troops who were loyal to him. The Shah did not support them in addressing what was happening. When the moment came, and it became clear that the revolution would emerge victorious, and infrastructure was in the hands of the revolutionaries. The Iranian army simply collapsed. Its commanders were unable to agree on a strategy to combat what was happening. On the contrary, they gave up their arms and fled their barracks. If you have an army of 400,000 troops loyal to the Shah who totally failed to respond to the revolution, what would this mean for any US military intervention? The idea that the US had the ability to intervene and save the Shah’s regime at that particular time, when the Shah’s army could not or would not step in, left us in a difficult position. The fact is that the option of US unilateral military intervention to regain control of the situation was not discussed during the crisis”

Sick added that when the Carter administration was certain that the revolution would emerge victorious, it decided to hold meetings with Khomeini in Paris in an attempt to get to know him better. He said, “As I recall, we held talks in Paris twice with associates close to Khomeini in order to discover whether there was any common ground between us. But these initial talks did not achieve any results, and things did not progress beyond this. They were very limited talks. Anyway, there are those who criticized America for not having sufficient communication with Khomeini and his group, or the opposition in general, while there are those who criticize America for having more contact with the Iranian opposition at the time than was necessary in their point of view.”

Iranian journalist Mohamed Ali Mohtadi points out that by the time the US began attempting to open dialogue with the revolutionary trend in a bid to prevent the collapse of the regime, it was already too late. As a result, the relationship between the revolutionary movement and the US completely deteriorated.

Mohtadi informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “America could not do anything. America could do no more than it did, which was to evacuate its military bases advisers from Iranian soil, once they were certain that the revolution would succeed. There was no way to prevent the revolution; there was no way to kill the millions of people who took to the streets. The Iranian army was on the verge of collapse, the Americans were well aware that the army had become increasingly unreliable, as the bulk of the army – not including the senior generals who were loyal to the Shah- were with the people. In the end the rebellion broke out, and the soldiers left their barracks and camps, and handed over their weapons to the people. And so the Americans realized that it was impossible to intervene and put a stop to the revolution.”

Mohtadi said “These events [the revolution] occurred only a few months after President Carter had delivered a speech during a visit to Iran in which he said ‘Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world.’ This shows the extent to which the US administration was unaware of the realities in Iran. No foreign power or superpower could have done anything for this collapsing regime, and as soon as the Americans were certain that the Shah’s regime would collapse they attempted to open dialogue with Imam Khomeini…via certain journalists, advisors, and well-known figures. But these failed because Imam Khomeini did not trust the Americans.”

On 1 February 1979, Khomeini returned to Tehran, and the battle for the streets of Tehran between Khomeini and his supports, and the Shah-appointed Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar and his supporters went on for days. Violent clashes erupted all over Tehran, and barricades were set up to divide the city in half. The fighting went on until Khomeini supports finally took control of key facilities, including radio and TV stations, from where he issued his first statement: The revolution is victorious!