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Recalling the Ayatollah's return

Ayatollah Khomeini with his followers in his French residence (photo: 8/11/1978)
Ayatollah Khomeini gained "international stature" during his time in France

It was one of the key events of the 20th century. Thirty years ago, religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile and launched an Islamic revolution. The BBC's John Simpson was on the plane that flew the Ayatollah to Tehran.

In the village of Neauphle-le-Chateau, outside Paris, not an awful lot has changed in the past 30 years.

The street, the gardens, even the green wooden gate which Ayatollah Khomeini used to pass through on his way to prayer, are all there still - though his headquarters was blown up not long after he went back to Iran.

Catastrophic misjudgement

But 30 years have seen immense changes in the world outside Neauphle, of course, and what happened in this quiet place played a significant part in that process.

When the revolutionary disturbances of 1978 broke out, Ayatollah Khomeini was being kept under tight control as an exile in the Shia holy city of Najaf, in Iraq.

Iraq was already being run by Saddam Hussein. Then the Shah of Iran asked Saddam to expel him.

It was a catastrophic misjudgement. The Ayatollah flew to France, and could suddenly speak to the entire world.

Ayatollah Khomeini arrives at Tehran airport (photo: 1/2/1979)
A journalist asked what he felt, going back after so many years of exile. 'Nothing,' he replied
In four months at Neauphle, he did 132 interviews; not bad for a man of 78.

With his ferocity and refusal to compromise, he gained an international stature.

When the Shah eventually left Iran, in January 1979, the way was open for the Ayatollah to fly home and overthrow the imperial system.

I managed to get a couple of tickets for his charter flight, for a cameraman and myself.

The BBC ordered me not to go, but I could not resist the excitement, and went anyway.

It quickly seemed like a bad call. During the flight, one of the Ayatollah's officials announced that the Iranian air force, which was still loyal to the Shah, was planning to shoot us down when we entered Iran's air space.

We journalists were a bit subdued by that, but the revolutionary activists who filled the rest of the seats cheered and wept; they wanted to become martyrs.

Islamic Republic established

We went forward to film the Ayatollah as he sat in first class. He looked out of the window and ignored us until a journalist asked what he felt, going back after so many years of exile. "Nothing," he replied.

We were not shot down, of course. Instead, we circled over Tehran airport, while the final negotiations with the authorities below dragged on and we all got airsick.

1979: The Ayatollah returns to Iran

Then we landed, and the Ayatollah was greeted by what some say is probably the largest crowd in human history.

The Islamic Republic was duly established in Iran; Muslim opinion around the world was galvanised; and a major new focus of opposition to Western liberalism took shape.

And the whole thing was planned in a French village, where a traffic jam or a fall of snow is usually something to talk about for days.

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