Sitting less than five feet from the Ayatollah Khomeini in his modest home in Qom on Christmas Day of 1979, I was riveted not only by his words but also by his facial expression.
In contrast to the fiery, defiant media images of the Ayatollah, his demeanor was warm and welcoming, his words softly spoken, his eyes alert and engaging. I found him both grandfatherly and charismatic.
On that memorable Christmas Day in Iran, we talked about Jesus, the Iranian revolution, the U.S. hostages and Christian-Muslim relations.
On the many times after that when I saw Khomeini in person and live on television, my initial impressions were confirmed. Both inside and outside Iran, this intriguing, enigmatic man in clerical garb was fast emerging as an extraordinarily influential religious/political leader during the final quarter of the 20th century.
I was not at all surprised when Time magazine named the Ayatollah Khomeini “Man of the Year” for 1979.
How had I, an American baby boomer from a middle-class family in Tulsa, Okla., come to be here in Iran, in the very center of international media attention, spending Christmas with the Ayatollah Khomeini?
Although I could not have predicted this scenario, it was far from accidental. A long-standing interest in and engagement with the interplay between religion and politics combined with a decade studying Judaism, Christianity and Islam – in college, seminary, at Harvard and in Cairo – had led to this pivotal moment.
Seven weeks earlier, on Nov. 4, 66 hostages had been seized when student militants stormed the U.S. embassy compound in Tehran. Fourteen people were subsequently released, while 52 Americans remained in captivity for 444 days.
The hostage crisis had been the dominant focus of the world’s political and media attention since that fateful day.
The Iranian government was unwilling to meet directly with U.S. officials, in part because the deposed shah was in the United States at the time.
Vivid memories of the CIA-led coup that had toppled Iran’s popularly elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and reinstated the shah in 1953 still fueled widespread fear and distrust.
In an effort to open talks and help resolve the standoff, Ali Agah, the Iranian ambassador to the United States, invited an ecumenical group of six clergy and one former Peace Corps worker to travel to Iran for 10 days of meetings with Khomeini, other top religious and political leaders, and the students who were holding the hostages.
Three other American clergy – led by the late William Sloane Coffin Jr. of New York’s Riverside Church – also traveled to Tehran to conduct Christmas services for the American captives.
The distinctive interplay between religion and politics in revolutionary Iran signaled that something new, powerful and unpredictable was unfolding in one of the most volatile and strategically important regions of the world.
Nestled in the soft underbelly of the Soviet Union, Iran had well-trained and well-equipped armed forces funded by abundant revenues derived from its massive oil reserves.
Henry Kissinger, former national security advisor and U.S. secretary of state, had underscored the critical importance of Iran when he famously called Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi the “rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally.”
Iran was not the only country where political seismic shifts were taking place in an already unstable region. Lebanon was descending into a multisided civil war and fast becoming a proxy battleground for Israelis, Palestinians and other regional powers.
Saddam Hussein, who had just seized power in a coup in Iraq, would soon launch what would become a devastating 10-year war with Iran.
In a harbinger of the deep rancor that produced Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, heavily armed, militant Muslims from within Saudi Arabia stormed and then occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks late in 1979.
Events in the new Islamic Republic of Iran added a potent and distinctively religious dynamic to the turbulent upheavals in the Middle East.
For those who were paying attention to events beyond the locked gates of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, shock waves from the revolutionary tsunami were being felt not only throughout the Middle East but also in faraway lands such as the Philippines, South Africa and Guatemala.
Under Khomeini’s influential leadership, the Iranian revolution was a major watershed event in the final quarter of the 20th century, a tipping point with powerful regional and global ramifications.
Three decades later, the impact and consequences of these tumultuous events are still being felt in various parts of the world.
Charles Kimball is director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of a new book, “When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” This column is an excerpt from his new book. For more information about and to order “When Religion Becomes Lethal,” click here.