Headlines on the October 6th attack of Israel are absolutely heart wrenching! They are also hard to understand. While I can’t make full sense of this unfolding tragedy, I can provide some historical context. (In fact, I’ve been asked by readers of my early volumes to “fill in” with history from my last volume.) If you don’t know me, I’m Linda Lacour Hobar, the author of The Mystery of History, a world history curriculum for all ages, written from a biblical worldview.
My stories are from The Mystery of History Volume IV (spanning 1708 to 2014). They are:
- Part 1—The Formation of Israel (1948)
- Part 2—Ayatollah Khomeini Forms the Islamic Republic of Iran (1979)
- Part 3—The Assassination of Anwar Sadat (1981)
These history lessons are longer than a typical blog, so I’ll divide them into three posts. (This is the second post of three.) And, for expediency, I’ll leave out the photos. (If you’re interested, there are color photos in all of our volumes.) Please keep in mind these lessons were written years ago for middle school and high school students. They won’t address everything going on today, nor are they supposed to. But I do hope this pertinent background information will help families as they pray for the Middle East!
Part 2—Ayatollah Khomeini Forms the Islamic Republic of Iran (1979)
The history of Iran stretches back to ancient times when it went by the name of Persia. Over the centuries, the Persian Empire was conquered and reclaimed many times by many rulers. As I taught in Volume III of this series, it was Ismail I in 1502 who established the Safavid (Suh FAH weed) Empire of Persia and branded it a Shiite Muslim nation. Surrounded by Sunni Muslim nations, and blanketed in fields of purple saffron, Persia would stand unique in the Middle East. Its history would be unique, too. We will see this more clearly today in the story of Ayatollah Khomeini (Eye yuh TOE lah Koe MAY nee), the Shiite spiritual leader who turned to politics and formed the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Ayatollah Khomeini (see the featured image of this post) was born into a prosperous Muslim family in 1902. His birth name was Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini. Ruhollah is a common Muslim name meaning “the spirit of god.” Khomeini comes from Khomein, the name of the town in which Ruhollah was born. Khomein is an orchard-filled village about 200 miles south of Tehran, the capital city of Iran.
Ruhollah’s father came from a religious Shiite family and was himself a Shiite cleric. Tragically, when Ruhollah was only five months old, his father was assassinated. The motive behind his death is not entirely clear, but Ruhollah’s father may have been the victim of a land dispute. Ruhollah’s mother and aunt raised him and his siblings, but unfortunately, both women died when he was 15.
Ruhollah’s education started at the age of 6. He attended a Muslim school where he was expected to memorize the Koran, which Muslims consider to be the holy book of Islam. In addition to his education at school, Ruhollah was tutored in Arabic and grammar by relatives. His brother sent him at 18 to the city of Arak (or Sultanabad, as it was known then) for further religious study. After that, Ruhollah followed his favorite teacher and mentor to the city of Qom, the spiritual capital of Iran, for additional study at a madrasah (muh DRASS uh; spellings vary). A madrasah is a highly regimented school of Islamic theology usually attached to a mosque. As you would expect from this kind of religious education, Ruhollah Khomeini was immersed in Islamic thought, Islamic literature, and Islamic philosophy. Strict Shiism would guide Ruhollah all his life.
As a married man and the father of five, Ruhollah Khomeini spent most of his adult life teaching in the Shiite schools of Iran. He enjoyed literature and poetry and taught Islamic law and history. Ruhollah had a special interest in philosophy and Gnosticism, which is a mystical approach to religion. (Some would label it radical.)
Ruhollah was in his 60s before he entered the world of politics. He had strong opinions about the role of clerics like himself and believed they should be political leaders as well as spiritual leaders. These beliefs trace back to Shiism. To help you understand Ruhollah’s political aspirations, it’s critical that I pause here to elaborate on some unique aspects of the Shiite faith.
Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims divided after the death of Mohammed over the issue of leadership. Sunni Muslims chose to follow Abu Bekr, the closest friend of Mohammed. Shiite Muslims chose to follow Ali, the closest relative to Mohammed through his daughter. Because Shiite Muslims look to the descendants of Mohammed for divine leadership, they don’t believe in electing their highest leader. In fact, they would look down on Western societies that vote for their highest official. (Shiites will vote for the president of their nation, but he is not considered the highest official of the land. A spiritual leader occupies that position.)
There is more. After splitting from the Sunnis, the Shiites relied, in their earliest centuries, on 12 special men for spiritual guidance and political leadership. These men were supposedly infallible and through divine revelation were able to draw upon the wisdom of Allah, the god of Islam, for all matters civil and spiritual. Shiites call these special men imams (ih MOMZ). (Sunnis have imams, too, but they are not of the same status.) Mainline Shiites believe that the 12th Imam of the Shiite faith, Muhammad al-Mahdi (born in A.D. 869), did not die but is in spiritual hiding. The Shiites are “waiting” for the 12th Imam to return as a messiah figure who will deliver the world from injustice and establish a pure form of Islam. This sect of Shiism is called “Twelver Shiism.”
Until the return of the 12th Imam, Shiites view their highest spiritual leaders as “intermediate” imams. The greater the credentials and the reputation of these imams, the greater the authority they have over Shiite Muslims. Now, let me tie this in to Ruhollah Khomeini. Ruhollah Khomeini was so well educated in the ways of Shiite Islam, and so respected in his community, that he rose to the status of an imam with an exceptional level of authority. In fact, some would say Khomeini had the same authority as one of the special, infallible 12 imams of earlier centuries!
Knowing this, you can only imagine the amount of influence that Ruhollah Khomeini would have over Twelver Shiites around the world, and especially those in Iran. Like the 12 imams, he would be considered an authority figure in politics, as well as in spiritual matters. In fact, in the 1950s he was recognized as a “Grand Ayatollah,” a title given to the most highly ranked Shiite clerics. Among Twelver Shiite Muslims, Ayatollah Khomeini is, out of reverence, most often called Imam Khomeini. (Sunni Muslims would hold no reverence for the man.) Let’s get back to our story.
As Ayatollah Khomeini grew in popularity, power, and influence over Twelver Shiites, so grew the fact that he was a threat to the existing government of Iran. You see, in the 1960s, the government over Iran was a rather liberal one. Iran’s ruler, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran (shah means “king”), was open to the modernization and secularization of Iran. For example, the shah opened up elections to non-Shiites and dropped a requirement that officials swear an oath on the Koran. To devout Shiites, like Khomeini, the shah was diminishing the role of Islam in government affairs and ruining Iran with his open ideas. Among other things, the shah was highly criticized for negotiating oil deals with the United States and growing richer for it.
It is true that the shah of Iran was extremely wealthy. Many Shiites perceived him as a corrupt and extravagant ruler who was as oppressive as he was rich. Ironically, the United States “liked” the shah of Iran in his early reign, or at least worked with him, to keep close tabs on the bountiful supply of oil coming out of Iran. In fact, the United States was instrumental in helping the shah secure the throne of Iran in 1953 through a non-democratic coup.
Now, when Ayatollah Khomeini organized a boycott against the programs of the shah, and denounced him publicly as “that little man,” Khomeini was arrested. With talk of revolution, Khomeini was exiled. Starting in 1964, he was banished first to a prison in Turkey where contemptuous Sunni Muslims refused to let him wear his turban head covering and cloak. (These were symbols of his clerical authority.) After a year in a Turkish prison, Khomeini was moved to Iraq, where he spent 13 years in a much more relaxed state of exile. The shah assumed that Khomeini’s protests would be muffled in Iraq. They were not. Ayatollah Khomeini wrote extensively in Iraq and taught in the schools there. (Though Sunni Muslims governed over Iraq at that time, the majority of the population was Shiite.)
As criticism of the shah escalated from Khomeini’s mouth, the shah of Iran, with the help of Iraqi leaders, banished Khomeini from Iraq in 1977 — thinking that the farther Khomeini was moved, the less he would be heard. The shah was wrong again! Khomeini found refuge in Paris and worked from France to overthrow the shah. In Paris, Khomeini gained a worldwide audience because, quite simply, Westerners came to know him. Through television, the West grew to recognize images of Ayatollah Khomeini. Some would have sympathy for his cause; some would not.
As we’ve seen many times in history, the exile backfired. It did the opposite of what the shah hoped for. Though physically absent from Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini reached out spiritually to the Iranian people and encouraged a revolution. His appeal was so strong that some would describe it as mystical. Revering Ayatollah Khomeini as a special imam of the highest authority, the Shiite masses embraced every word he wrote or spoke.
When rioting broke out to overthrow the shah in 1977, thousands of Iranians waved copies of Ayatollah Khomeini’s words and raised photos of his face, distinguished by his dark, penetrating eyes and long white beard. Pressure grew against the shah, and strikes abounded across Iran. In 1979, the shah of Iran finally fled his own country. Two weeks later, Ayatollah Khomeini boarded a plane in France and flew to Iran, with revolutionary papers in hand. He would wind up not needing the papers to convince the masses of his authority. Five or six million Iranians welcomed Khomeini with cheers and tears of joy! By stepping off the plane in Iran, he essentially stepped into power — without a battle, without class warfare, and without a financial payoff. For these reasons, the Iranian Revolution (as it has been labeled) would be one of the most unique revolutions in history. On April 1, 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran was made official, and Ayatollah Khomeini reigned supreme.
The American Hostage Crisis
As Ayatollah Khomeini settled into his new role, a dramatic story unfolded in history that involved the United States. Here’s why. When the shah of Iran fled his homeland, he was a “wanted man.” The new government of Iran wanted the shah to stand trial for crimes against the people of Iran and against Islam. Viewing him as a criminal on the run, very few nations were interested in offering refuge to the shah. In fact, Jimmy Carter, the president of the United States, thought it was a bad idea to continue a friendship with the shah or to extend him shelter. (Carter knew there would be ramifications from the Shiite community.) However, unknown to most of the world, the shah of Iran was fighting cancer. He was in critical need of medical treatment and asked the United States for special permission to enter the nation for care. President Carter, in a controversial gesture, said “yes” to the shah and his wife and allowed them entrance to the United States. (The shah checked into a hospital under a fictitious name.)
As predicted, there were ramifications to accepting the shah in America! Shiite students in the city of Tehran schemed a plan to force the release of the shah. On November 4, 1979, they stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans as hostages in exchange for two things: (1) the shah of Iran, and (2) an apology from the United States.
At the time of the embassy takeover, Ayatollah Khomeini was reportedly taking a nap. According to most sources, it was not Khomeini’s idea to place these demands on the United States. However, once the hostages were secure, he did agree to hold them. In no time at all, nearly every news station in the world was broadcasting the crisis. Americans were sickened to see their fellow citizens blindfolded and bound as hostages and paraded before TV cameras. Though Americans had grown to recognize Khomeini, few understood his zealous leadership and the demands of the Iranian students to see the shah brought to justice. What these angry students wanted most was the execution of the shah.
President Carter was in an impossible situation. He would not go back on his decision to extend refuge to the shah, but he did not want to sacrifice the lives of the hostages. To create leverage with the Iranians, Carter authorized the “freezing” of billions of dollars of Iranian assets held in U.S. banks. This proved only to aggravate the hostage takers! As a result, they added to their list of demands the release of the frozen assets.
Iranian officials informed the United States that the hostages (reduced in number to 52 because 14 had been released for various reasons) were “guests” and were being well taken care of. While the hostages were eventually moved from the embassy to a prison, and then to a secure mansion, they were not well taken care of. According to the hostages, they were shackled, threatened, beaten, interrogated, and placed in solitary confinement. A few tried to escape, but failed. A few attempted suicide, but failed in that as well.
In mid-December 1979, barely six weeks after the hostages were taken, the shah of Iran left the United States. He went first to Panama, and then to Egypt. Americans thought this would end the hostage crisis. But it didn’t! Still doling out punishment for U.S. assistance to the shah and still demanding an apology and billions of dollars in assets, the students in Iran continued to hold the American hostages with the approval of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The harrowing weeks of the hostage crisis turned into months. News broadcasts on TV were notorious for chronicling a daily count of the event, saying, for example,“Day 105 of the hostage crisis!”“Day 106 of the hostage crisis!” And so on and so on went the daily count. No one knew how high the numbers would go. Your parents and grandparents may remember this well. They may also remember the “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” campaign that swept the nation after loved ones of the hostages tied yellow ribbons on trees (or wore small yellow ribbons on their clothes) in hopes of the hostages’ return. (Yellow ribbons have since been used to commemorate soldiers and other causes.) I was a freshman in college about this time, and like a lot of Americans, I saw and understood the yellow ribbons, but I struggled to really understand the politics behind the scenes of the Iranian situation.
On April 24, 1980, about five months into the crisis, a daring rescue mission authorized by President Carter was launched. However, with sandstorms raging in the desert, the mission failed. Five helicopters were abandoned or captured; one crashed and burned; and nine people died (eight Americans and one Iranian). The nation was stunned as Carter apologized in front of the press and took full responsibility for the blunder. Americans waited and prayed some more.
On July 27, 1980, the shah of Iran died in Egypt. It was hoped then that the American hostages would be released. News reporters were up to about “Day 270” in the headlines. But the death of the shah did not appease the hostage-takers or Ayatollah Khomeini! They continued to demand an apology and Iranian money held in U.S. banks. In addition, they asked that the United States make a promise to stay out of Iranian affairs. To retaliate, the United States placed sanctions against Iran, meaning the United States deprived Iran of trade items — especially those needed for war.
To complicate matters a great deal, the country of Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. Why did Iraq dare to invade at that time? There were several reasons, but one reason was that the hostage crisis was a drain on Iran. With sanctions placed against it, Iran was vulnerable. To Saddam Hussein, it was the perfect time to settle an old score over a waterway and boundary line between Iraq and Iran. (In case you didn’t know, Iraq is considered an Arab nation; Iran is not. Iranians are a non-Arab group that speaks Farsi instead of Arabic. This ethnic difference fuels the animosity between the nations.)
As events played out, Iran suspected that the United States was in cahoots with Iraq. Officially, the United States was not involved. Unofficially, it was — because the United States did little to stop Iraq and secretly provided Iraq with chemical weapons and satellite intelligence! (Endnote 1) Needless to say, distrust grew deeper between Iran and the United States. At the same time, Iran desperately needed sanctions lifted to defend itself against Iraq! So serious negotia- tions with the United States finally began to take place.
Back in the United States, President Carter lost the next presidential election to Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican. As Reagan’s inauguration ceremony approached, Carter’s final hours in the White House would be extremely tense! Pleading and bargaining for the release of the hostages, Carter and his staff would not sleep during their last 36 hours in the White House. On and off the phone with ambassadors and bankers, the White House worked on release efforts as the moments ticked down to Reagan’s presidential ceremony on January 20, 1981.
On that day in Iran, two hours before Reagan’s inauguration, the hostages were being shuffled about without knowledge of their fate or their destiny. After 444 days in captivity, they did not know if they were headed for freedom or a firing squad. The White House didn’t know either. There was no clarity coming from Iran. Without word of the release of the hostages, Carter changed his clothes to attend Reagan’s ceremony.
In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini intentionally held on to the American hostages — until 20 seconds after Ronald Reagan was sworn into office! Under the watch of the new president, Khomeini let them go for the exchange of the frozen assets. It was a slap in the face to President Carter and an insult to his staff and the United States. Nevertheless, when the hostages landed in Germany, en route to the United States, Jimmy Carter was there on the ground to greet them. No longer president, Carter welcomed them home like a father. Americans continued the welcome-home celebration for the former hostages with a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
As for Iran, that nation’s attention was needed elsewhere. First, there was a government to put in place. With a new constitution, Khomeini secured Iran as a theocracy based on Twelver Shiite beliefs. He appointed himself the supreme leader of Iran for life, with a president serving under him. To flush out his “enemies” (those loyal to the shah, or those in favor of democracy), Khomeini privately and publicly saw to the torture and execution of hundreds! Second, there was a war to fight against Iraq, called simply the “Iran-Iraq War.” At the cost of a million lives, that war went on for eight years without either side winning.
Ayatollah Khomeini served Iran for 10 years, while overseeing the terms of three Iranian presidents. In this time period, he reinstated a strict dress code for women, which had existed for centuries but grown lax under the shah. (By Islamic custom, women dress in extreme modesty with head coverings and full-body cloak. The degree of the coverage varies from country to country.) As might be expected, shorts and sunbathing were forbidden in Iran for reasons of modesty, but Khomeini also forbade anything and everything of a Western flavor, like American music and American movies.
During his 10 years of leadership, Ayatollah Khomeini also gave significant support to Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim organization based in Lebanon that is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Khomeini not only gave aid to terrorists, he saw to the building of special schools in Iran designed to teach and train radical Muslims in the acts of terrorism.
As for the fate of Ayatollah Khomeini, he died in office on January 3, 1989. Months before his death, Khomeini was concerned about who would fill his shoes. He was not satisfied with the candidates who met the qualifications outlined in the constitution. So Ayatollah Khomeini made an amendment to the constitution that would open the door for Ali Khamenei (Ah LEE Khah muh NAY), who was not an ayatollah at that time, to serve as the next supreme leader of Iran.
Ali Khamenei assumed office on June 4, 1989, and holds the position as of this writing. However, he would not have the clout of the former ayatollah. Ali Khamenei was overshadowed by the strong personality of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran from 2005 to 2013. According to an article in the New York Times (posted on October 26, 2011), Ali Khamenei would like to dissolve the position of the president to reestablish his authority as the supreme leader of Iran. (Endnote 2) We wait to see who gains the upper hand in Iran. Be it a cleric or a politician, Iran is gaining frightening attention in world affairs for its openly negative attitude toward Israel and its interest in nuclear technology!
For more understanding of the Middle East, don’t miss my first and third posts related to this topic:
- There are numerous reports of U.S. support of Iraq with chemical weapons, as a result of the release of thousands of previously classified State Dept. documents about the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War. See, for instance, www.gulfwarvets.com/news11.htm. This site refers to Senate Report 103-900, issued May 25, 1994, and specifically page 264 of that Report, which states as follows: “The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs has oversight responsibility for the Export Administration Act. Pursuant to the Act, Committee staff contacted the U.S. Department of Commerce and requested information on the export of biological materials during the years prior to the Gulf War. After receiving this information, we contacted a principal supplier of these materials to determine what, if any, materials were exported to Iraq which might have contributed to an offensive or defensive biological warfare program. Records available from the supplier for the period from 1985 until the present show that during this time, pathogenic (meaning “disease producing”), toxigenic (meaning “poisonous”), and other biological research materials were exported to Iraq pursuant to application and licensing by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Records prior to 1985 were not available, according to the supplier.” The full text of S.R. 103-900 can be seen at: www.archive.org/stream/unitedstatesdual00unit/unitedstatesdual00unit_djvu.txt.
Additional commentary on this issue can be found at the following sites, among others: www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/08/25/secret_cia_files_prove_america_helped_saddam_as_he_gassed_iran. Also, the Washington Post article at this URL: http://tinyurl.com/oahahax.
- Robert F. Worth,“Iran’s Power Struggle Goes Beyond Personalities to Future of Presidency Itself.” Published Oct. 28, 2011. Accessed at: www.nytimes.com/2011/10/27/world/middleeast/in-iran-rivalry-khamenei-takes-on- presidency-itself.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=iran&st=cse.