He was the blood enemy of the Shah, he held the United States hostage for 15 months while keeping 52 Americans prisoner in Tehran, and he probably instigated last year’s bombing of the Marine headquarters in Beirut.
The hostages were released in 1981, but the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in which that crisis was rooted is very much with us, as is its spiritual leader. Thousands of Iranian revolutionaries are in Lebanon providing moral and military support to their Shi’ite brethren and helping to turn that entire country into a killing ground. Followers of Khomeini have struck fear of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism into moderate Arab states and the West—and that fear may be justified. Just a few weeks ago, two of the Ayatollah’s leading opponents in exile were gunned down in Paris. The new concrete barriers in front of the White House and the State Department testify to the U.S. government’s reported belief that a Shi’ite terror cell is operating in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac from the capital. Its object: a suicide truck bombing of a major U.S. institution, much like the Marine massacre. Organizers of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics likewise have taken precautions to thwart any would-be Shi’ite “martyr” who tries to buy a ticket to heaven with a terror assault.
The Shi’ites’ improbable leader was born in 1899 some 160 miles south of Tehran in the town of Khomein, for which he was named, to a priestly family steeped in a feeling of clerical superiority and a lust for vengefulness beyond compassion. As a toddler, he watched the execution of bandits who had murdered his father. He showed no emotion at the death of two of his children, and he has been equally stoic in sending thousands of unarmed youths to face mechanized divisions in the three-and-a-half-year war with Iraq.
Ironically, the Shah’s crackdown on dissidents helped Khomeini to power. He was chosen marja’—the leading interpreter of Shi’ite doctrine—by prominent Ayatollahs, because under Iranian law the marja’ could not be executed. After his 1963 investiture, he went into exile and waited for his moment. It came when Jimmy Carter’s hard line on human rights pushed the Shah toward moderation; by that time, Khomeini was the only nationally recognized opposition leader, and as such he drew support from virtually all segments of Iranian society.
Though he is 84 and in failing health, the Ayatollah has not mellowed. He has eliminated most of his opponents and seems intent on continuing the jihad—holy war—he wages against all who disagree with him. For all his learning, the great teacher in Qum has apparently forgotten a line from the Koran: “Make not mischief on the earth.”