Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was an Iranian Shia cleric and the leading political and spiritual figure in the 1979 revolution that overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the then Shah of Iran. He is considered to be the founder of the modern Shiite State and ruled Iran from the Shah's overthrow to his death in 1989.
He was born in the town of Khomein as Ruhollah Mousavi on May 17 1900. Khomeini was named an Ayatollah in the 1950s. In 1964 he was exiled from Iran for his constant criticisms of the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He fled to Iraq, where he stayed until being forced to leave in 1978, after which he went to Neaufle-le-Château in France. According to Alexandre de Marenches (then head of the French secret services), France offered to the Shah that they should arrange for Khomeini to have a lethal accident; the Shah declined, arguing that this would make him a martyr.
Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, 1979, invited by a revolution already in progress against the Shah, and seized power on February 11. From then on an Islamic Republic was formed in which a president is elected every 4 years, but only those candidates approved indirectly by the Supreme Leader (through a Council of Guardians) may run for the office. Khomeini himself became Head of State for life, as "Leader of the Revolution," and later "Supreme Spiritual Leader".
On February 4, 1980 Khomeini approved the elected Abolhassan Banisadr as the first president of Iran.
Khomeini's rule quickly ended the westernized society that had existed under the Shah. Shia Islamic Law was instituted, strict Islamic dress code (hijab) became the law and enforced for both men and women. Women lost many of their rights as equal citizens, and freedom of speech and press continued to be curtailed. Khomeini became the center of a large personality cult, and opposition to the religious rule or Islam in general was often met with harsh punishments. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution there were widespread allegations of systematic human rights abuses, including torture.
Early in the revolution in the years of 1979 - 1981, Khomeini's followers held 52 Americans captive in Tehran's US embassy, holding them hostage for 444 days, an event often referred to as the Iranian hostage crisis. Khomeini stated on February 23, 1980 that Iran's parliament would decide the fate of the American embassy hostages. President Jimmy Carter attempted to rescue the hostages, but this failed when the helicopters sent on this mission failed under unexpected desert conditions in Tabas. Some Iranians considered this to be a miracle. Many commentators point to this failure as a major cause of Carter's loss in the following elections to Ronald Reagan.
Shortly after taking power, Khomeini began calling for similar Islamic revolutions across the Middle East. Ambitious to occupy the oil-rich Iran (particularly Khuzestan province), and fearful of the spread of Khomeini's militant brand of Shiism, the republic of Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran, starting what would become a decade-long Iran-Iraq war.
In early 1989, Khomeini, in a fatwa, ruled the killing of Salman Rushdie a religious necessity for Muslims, because of blasphemy against the prophet Muhammed. The Satanic Verses, Rushdie's novelistic examination of the integration of Indian characters into modern Western culture, contains passages which can imply that the Koran has not been preserved perfectly, and other passages that many Muslims including Ayatollah Khomeini considered highly offensive to Islam and Muhammed. This event caused many Western leftists, who had been generally in favor of the revolution against the Shah, to reconsider their support of Khomeini.
After eleven days in a hospital for an operation to stop internal bleeding, Khomeini died on June 3, 1989. A crowd of more than a million Iranians is believed to have gathered around the burial location which was not supposed to be revealed at the time. Khomeini was named Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1980.