“It’s been 40 years, but I still remember climbing the fences of Tehran University so I could see what was happening,” said Majid Heidarnik, now a teacher in Iran’s holy city of Qom.
He was among the millions who lined the streets of the Iranian capital on Feb. 1, 1979, hoping to catch a glimpse of their beloved “imam,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as he returned from more than 14 years in exile.
Just 10 days earlier, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had fled Iran following mass uprisings and the country was braced for the return of the man who had spearheaded the Muslim revolution and would soon bring an end to 25 centuries of monarchical rule.
Caught up in the revolutionary fervor, Heidarnik would soon abandon his computing major at university to join a seminary.
“We were there to see the one person who dared to resist and protest. We were about to see our leader in the flesh,” he told reporters.
There was excitement, but also anxiety — would the airplane carrying Khomeini back from Paris be allowed to land, would it be shot out of the sky by the military, which was still nominally supporting the shah?
Visiting Khomeini’s mausoleum in southern Tehran — as he does once each year — 62-year-old farmer Golberar Naghipour said that it was a nervous time.
“We were crying out of happiness, but we were worried as well. The country was still under the control of the shah’s regime,” he said.
The Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, where many opponents of the shah were buried, was Khomeini’s first destination after his Air France flight landed. It was there that he made a fiery speech declaring the monarchy must finally be ended.
“I will designate the government, I will slap this [shah’s] government in the face,” Khomeini said.
An austere and charismatic cleric, Khomeini had wedded the fashionable rhetoric of the radical left at the time — anti-Western, anti-colonial, oppressed versus oppressor — with the historic imagery of Shiite Muslim martyrdom to build a revolutionary vision of politicized Islam.
His mausoleum built next to the cemetery, where he was buried after his death in June 1989, is a sprawling and magnificent building decorated in the traditional Muslim manner.
Even now, nearly three decades after his death, which prompted the biggest funeral in modern Iran’s history, many visit the newly renovated building to pay their respects.
However, 40 years on, Khomeini’s vision of the Islamic Republic is still a work in progress for some.
“It is called the Islamic Republic, but it has yet to be realized,” Heidarnik said.
The anniversary of the revolution comes at a difficult time, with Iran’s economy hit by the return of sanctions following US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
That has added to long-standing problems of mismanagement and corruption, which has brought criticism from all sides of the political spectrum — with many accusing Iran’s officials of abandoning the ascetic example of their revolutionary founder.
“When the people see the cost of living rising, they should see that everyone is suffering, there shouldn’t be any difference [between classes]. There are some people who preach about Islamic and austere living, and yet they live like aristocrats,” Heidarnik said.
For the pilgrims at Khomeini’s mausoleum, it is above all his image as a selfless and incorruptible leader that remains most powerful.
“The imam made so many sacrifices for the country, but wanted nothing for himself,” said Maryam Yazdan-nejad, a 57-year-old housewife from the northwestern city of Mashhad, who visits the shrine every year or two.
“If only — if only! — some of the officials today had the same nature as the imam had,” she added.
For Heidarnik, there is no question that the blame lies squarely with Iran’s enemies, who he said are seeking to divert the country away from Islam.
“Unfortunately, infiltrators have penetrated, be it in the economy, the education system or the political system,” he said. “But we were subjugated to the rule of monarchies for 2,500 years. It has only been 40 years since the revolution — that’s nothing in comparison.”
“God willing, we will realize the Islamic Republic in its entirety,” he added.
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