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Monday, February 1, 1999 Published at 10:38 GMT

World: Middle East

Iran's 'great day of hope'

Tehran in 1979: "The street was like a river of people"

By World Affairs Editor John Simpson

It was one of the key events of the 20th century. Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Tehran after 16 years of exile launched an Islamic revolution that changed the balance of power in the Middle East, humiliated America and shifted Iran back centuries in time.

[ image: Ayatollah Khomeini: Backed by all sides]
Ayatollah Khomeini: Backed by all sides
But the mullahs around him were really the only ones who really knew what they wanted. Everyone else was carried away by the desire for a new start.

This was a genuinely popular revolution and the crowd that turned out to greet him - at least three million - was probably the biggest gathering of human beings ever.

There were peasants, office workers, intellectuals - and a poet, Esmail Khoi.

"The street was like a river of people. Even on the trees you could see people instead of birds. There were so many people, all with faces shining with hope and aspiration," Mr Khoi remembers.

"Everybody was so kind to everybody. It was as if everybody was everybody's loving sister or brother," he says.

[ image: The Ayatollah's cavalcade:
The Ayatollah's cavalcade: "Everyone shining with hope"
Moderates, conservatives, the extreme left - they all wanted Ayatollah Khomeini.

They managed to persuade themselves that, with him as their leader, they could put an end to the corruption and the cruelty and the political weakness of the Shah's regime which had brought it tumbling down.

It was willing self-deception.

"All of the Iranian people had joined together to get rid of a mighty emperor. It was and it will remain one of the greatest days in our history," Mr Khoi says.

'Dream that turned into nightmare'

This was one of the last days of unity. Soon there would be mass executions, bombs in the street, an eight-year war provoked by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, heavy-handed controls on every aspect of life.

The alliance which brought everyone together quickly fell apart. But on this day it all lay in the future.

"The day was a great day of hopes and dreams, the day of our greatest dreams. And it will remain a great day even though our dream was soon to turn into a great nightmare," Mr Khoi says.

The revolution has not satisfied anyone, not even the fundamentalist clerics who think the moderates are betraying the revolution.

Yet for all that, the day the Ayatollah returned was one of the great moments of the century.

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