The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the political priest who overthrew the world's most powerful reigning monarch but never achieved his dream of either national unity or a worldwide Islamic revival, has died at the age of 86, Tehran Radio announced today.
The white-bearded imam died 12 days after surgery for intestinal bleeding, the report said. The terse announcement did not disclose the immediate cause of death or the exact time. The announcer choked with emotion as he said at 7 a.m. today (8:30 p.m. PDT Saturday): "Imam Khomeini has passed away." U.S. intelligence has claimed that he battled cancer, but that was never confirmed by relatives or family physicians. Khomeini, however, had long suffered heart trouble; the problem dated to the 1950s. He was hospitalized in 1980--within a year of the revolution--for about five weeks.
In fact, the pressure and excitement of returning from exile on Feb. 1, 1979, led him to faint at the airport. When he came to, he muttered in a feeble voice, "Water."
Since Khomeini fired his heir-apparent, the Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, in the spring, Iran's succession has been in question--leading Iran's specialists to conclude that the country is in many ways more vulnerable in terms of future leadership than at any point since the revolution.
In August, Iran faces presidential elections. One of the few things it shares with the United States is a two-term limitation on the presidency. Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, long the second most powerful figure in Iran, has been a leading candidate, but his religious credentials are widely considered insufficient to alone inherit the mantle of "supreme jurisprudent"--the post Khomeini held for 10 years.
The situation is complicated by current deliberations over constitutional reforms, which have not been finalized and which officially needed Khomeini's approval. Without an obvious heir-apparent and without final agreement on the reforms, the theocracy faces a highly volatile period.
In many ways, Khomeini could not have died at a worse time. The religious leaders may coalesce in the short term, but over the long haul, the power struggle that has divided the regime since 1979--and that Khomeini managed to avoid by playing off pragmatists and hard-liners--must be solved.
His menacing black brows and piercing eyes were recognized by most people of the world, yet he was truly known only by a handful of relatives and disciples who followed him for decades from the seminary to the corridors of power.
His beliefs and ideas on almost every subject from the most mundane acts of daily life to the most profound philosophical, political and theological questions flowed prodigiously from his pen and pulpit for more than 60 years, yet relatively few of his lay followers even pretended to understand them.
Khomeini led a popular revolution that drew nearly unanimous support from the Iranian people to end the 37-year rule of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as well as 2,500 years of monarchy. Yet he almost placidly let his victory slip into civil strife, bloodshed and political morass. His tall, slender figure, distinguished by a dark flowing cape and carefully wrapped black turban, cast a longer shadow across the oil-rich Middle East region and the world of Islam than all but a few historic figures.
To Americans, most of the achievements of the priest who shook the world were dismaying paradoxes, and the imam (representative of God on Earth) remained an enigma to the end. His public and private personalities were rooted in the mystic conviction that he was God's appointed spokesman. He saw worldly problems in the strictly fundamentalist religious terms of the Shiite branch of Islam and firmly believed that their solutions were clearly charted 13 centuries ago in the Koran.
Although he confessed to human frailties--"I cry, I laugh, I suffer"--he never showed emotion as he ordered waves of executions, cold-bloodedly abandoned his closest associates and approved the seizure of American diplomats as hostages.
The high point of the revolutionary ayatollah's reign was his triumphant return from 14 years in exile, most of it in Iraq and then France, to Tehran on Feb. 1, 1979, when the shah's army was still intact and the shah's last prime minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, clung tenuously to power. Millions poured into the streets to welcome the austere religious figure whose portrait and tape-recorded messages had become rallying points of the revolution, and the shah's army and government crumbled 10 days later.
The low points, from an international perspective, were the seizure of the U.S. Embassy by militant students Nov. 4, 1979, and the 14-month ordeal of the American hostages, which Khomeini used to revive the zealotry of Iranians at a time when his revolution appeared to be running out of steam.