December 24, 1979 12:00 PM

The West is but a pack of dictators full of injustice. Humanity must strike these troublemakers with an iron fist if it wants to find peace again.

—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

To his Shi’ite followers, he is an infallible descendant of Muhammad. To other Muslims he is “a lunatic…a crazy old imbecile.” Most Americans care little whether he is devout or deranged, only that he is at the moment holding 50 countrymen in captivity with the iron fist of Islamic extremism suspended over them.

U.S. foreign policy has rarely had to deal with the likes of Khomeini. Catapulted to power, the 79-year-old fanatic has in a year’s time transformed the country into a tyrannical theocracy, and the casualty list is staggering. Some 600 of the Shah’s followers have been executed, along with hundreds of homosexuals, adulterers, usurers and other “evil-minded people.” Music and free speech have been banned, women are covered in black chadors, and Iran’s gathering social and economic problems are only camouflaged, not solved, by Khomeini’s rallying cry: “Rub America’s snout in the dirt!”

The wrath of Ruhollah Khomeini was years in the making—and it is his motivating force. The son of a minor religious leader who was murdered when the boy was 5 months old, possibly by the government, Ruhollah Hendi (the “Khomeini” refers to his birthplace, Khomein) was steeped from infancy in Shi’ia Islam. It teaches that martyrdom for the faith is the highest good. The author of 21 books on Islam, Khomeini personally trained 1,200 mullahs—the religious elite of Iran—and made the austere stoicism of his sect a personal trademark. In 1977, when his son Mustafa was murdered, allegedly by agents of the Shah, he showed “no emotion at all,” reports Princeton professor Richard Falk. “He treated it simply as the will of Allah.”

Though thoroughly trained in Islamic law and philosophy, Khomeini was elevated to ayatollah less for his learning than for his fiercely vocal opposition to the Shah. His attacks on the Pahlavi dynasty for its attitude toward Islam began in 1941 and never let up. When the Shah visited Shi’ite clerics in Qum in 1953, Khomeini—alone among them—refused to stand up. He accused the Shah of conspiring with Americans and Jews to corrupt his country. That, along with his opposition to a land-reform program that dispossessed Shi’ite clergymen of massive land holdings, gained him first house arrest in 1963, then expulsion from Iran in 1964.

From exile in Turkey and later in Iraq, Khomeini sent back taped diatribes against the Shah which were played clandestinely in mosques throughout Iran. In 1978, under pressure from the Shah, Iraq too expelled Khomeini—and put him on the road to power. “The Shah actually handed the revolution its leader,” Oxford professor Majid Tehranian says. “Suddenly he was outside Paris, where the media are. He became the focus of attention.” Intelligence sources in Paris say that both Khomeini and his latest foreign minister, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, were in contact with Soviet agents in France.

The Ayatollah insists that he serves no cause but his country. He serves it in a curious way. Unemployment is high, production is slack, and increasingly the Shi’ites are clamorously dividing. “I was chosen by God to perform a task,” he says. “My visions were the miracles which saved the country.” But Iran is far from saved, and Khomeini’s visions ignore his nation’s quickening march toward chaos.

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