Khomeini launched a revolution from a sleepy French village
NEAUPHLE-LE-CHATEAU, France (AP) — From a sleepy village outside Paris, the man who would become the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran sat cross-legged beneath an apple tree, delivering messages daily to hundreds of followers clamoring to glimpse the glowering cleric in the black turban.
For several months in late 1978 and early 1979, the humble site became a megaphone for the pronouncements of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that were sent back home to Iranians seeking to overturn 2,500 years of monarchical rule.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had expelled Khomeini from Iran in 1964, and he spent most of his time in Najaf, Iraq, a pilgrimage city for Iranians and other Shiite Muslims. But Iraq, reportedly under pressure from the shah, forced the cleric to flee to France in 1978.
Khomeini’s entourage in Neauphle-Le-Chateau had only the simplest of tools in those pre-internet days. With telephones and cassette tape recorders, they turned the exiled cleric’s cottage and garden into a media hub.
“The fate of the Iranian revolution depended on what came out of Mr. Khomeini’s mouth,” said Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who was among the ayatollah’s closest aides and later became the first president of the new Iran.
Bani-Sadr was a student in Paris with family ties to Khomeini when he was contacted by the cleric’s son seeking help in arranging a French exile.
Khomeini arrived at Paris’ Orly airport on Oct. 6, 1978, spent a few days in the southern suburb of Cachan, where Bani-Sadr then lived, before relocating to Neauphle-le-Chateau, 25 miles west of Paris.
Today, a large plaque honoring Khomeini’s four months in the village stands at the entrance to the unkempt garden that along with the cottage served as his operational headquarters before his triumphal return to Iran on Feb. 1, 1979 .
The house where his team worked has been razed. But the apple tree, spindly and leafless, still stands, adorned with a plastic Iranian flag and surrounded by a red-and-white chain.
This week, workers were setting up a tent for an Iranian Embassy ceremony on Sunday to commemorate the brief but critical period in Khomeini’s life.
Bani-Sadr, in an interview with The Associated Press, said it was far from certain for Khomeini that a revolution was at hand.
“For me, it was absolutely sure, but not for Khomeini and not for lots of others inside Iran,” Ban-Sadr said.
He added that Khomeini’s son, Ahmed, who was in France with his father and other family members, asked him almost daily, “Are you sure the shah will go and the regime will be toppled?”
Khomeini’s inner circle included Bani-Sadr, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, Ibramhim Yazdi and three mullahs. Each was in charge of a task, including dealing with the media whose coverage boosted Khomeini’s profile.
Bani-Sadr said he and a group of friends fashioned or vetted the messages Khomeini delivered — based on what they were told Iranians wanted to hear. Tape recordings of his statements were sold in Europe and delivered to Iran. Other messages went out by telephone, read to supporters in various Iranian towns, where they were disseminated.
The activity in Neauphle-le-Chateau put the French government in a bind. Khomeini had entered France like all Iranians at the time, on a passport allowing for a three-month stay. But his activism was increasingly distressing to France, which like other Western countries, was a firm ally of the Iranian monarchy.
Then-President Valery Giscard d’Estaing sent a diplomat to Neauphle-le-Chateau and later an emissary to Tehran to meet with the shah. The French offered to expel Khomeini, but the shah said no, apparently not wanting the cleric to end up anywhere near Iran. The French emissary concluded that the shah’s days on the throne were numbered anyway, according to diplomats and press reports.
Jean-Claude Cousseran, the first secretary at the French Embassy in Tehran at the time, denied that France was opportunistically playing both sides or was in the dark about the weight Khomeini carried within Iran.
“There was no ignorance. Everyone knew who Khomeini was, starting with the Americans, starting with the shah,” he said. But diplomats kept asking “what will happen next week. ... It’s not easy to predict a revolution.”
Added Francois Nicoullaud, ambassador to Iran from 2000 to 2005: “From the start, there was no Machiavellian plan.”
Cousseran pointed out Khomeini had full telephone access to Iran.
“That means Iran never forbade calls between Khomeini and his friends,” a tactic that would have shut down a lot of the cleric’s media operation.
Scores of grateful Iranians brought flowers to the French Embassy, but with what Cousseran viewed as a subtle message that “you will protect him.” The Tehran street where the embassy sits was renamed Neauphle-le-Chateau.
The shah, who was secretly ill with cancer, flew out of Iran on Jan. 16, 1979, on an aircraft that he himself piloted.
That paved the way for Khomeini’s return weeks later.
There are conflicting reports as to whether Khomeini’s entourage chartered the Air France Boeing 747 that brought him home, or whether, as a French diplomat at the time said in a documentary, that France decided “to take a risk” and arrange for the plane.
Either way, supporters and journalists scrambled to get on the flight, paying the airfare for a coveted seat.
“We always said it was the journalists who paid the return voyage of the ayatollah,” said Associated Press photographer Michel Lipchitz, who was on the flight.
During the flight, Khomeini was out of sight, keeping to the upper deck lounge of the jumbo jet and praying, Lipchitz said.
Khomeini arrived to a hero’s welcome in Tehran on Feb. 1.
“It was a moment worth 1,000 years of life,” Bani-Sadr said. “Extraordinary. Extraordinary.”
The plaque in the garden of Neauphle-le-Chateau, inscribed in French and Farsi, says the village name “is forever registered in the history of French-Iranian relations.”
But the Iran’s Islamist government quickly toughened, and France soon was vilified as “the little Satan” when it began taking in members of the Iranian opposition, said Nicoullaud, the former ambassador. Among those exiles were members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a politically active opposition group that is active to this day and still despised by Iran.
Bani-Sadr, who had become president in Iran, fell from favor. He said he protested to Khomeini the many executions that were carried out, and fled to Paris in July 1981 in an air force plane piloted by a dissident with the then-head of Mujahedeen, Massoud Rajavi.
Now, Bani-Sadr feels betrayed by Khomeini, saying that the cleric “changed in Iran. He restored a dictatorship.”
Of the inner circle in Neauphle-le-Chateau, Bani-Sadr is the only survivor. Ghotbzadeh was executed and Yazdi died in exile in Turkey.
Still, Bani-Sadr is hopeful.
“A revolution is the beginning, not the end,” he said.