אAyatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran

On 11 February 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini established a provisional government in Iran, beginning his effective rule of the country, which continued until his death in 1989 at the age of 87. The Islamic regime he established is still in power. Here the Israel State Archives presents a publication intended to shed light on the processes that brought Khomeini to a position of religious leadership in Iran in the 1960s, and to the establishment of the Islamic Republic at the beginning of 1979. It includes 47 documents, most of them reports from Israeli representatives in Iran and staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the events in that country. These documents were declassified in 2014 for a special publication. Most of them are in Hebrew and are available on our Hebrew website. The English documents can be seen here.

The publication contains two parts: (a) Reports by Israeli representatives on Ayatollah Khomeini’s activities during the 1960s; (b) The Khomeini Revolution of 1978–1979.

Part I: Ayatollah Khomeini and the religious opposition

A. Introduction: Khomeini’s early struggle against the rule of the Shah in Iran
From an early age Ruholla Mousstafavi (his name before he adopted the family name of Khomeini in 1932) was active against the efforts of Colonel Reza Khan (who later adopted the name Pahlavi) to carry out a policy of secularization. Reza Khan ruled Iran from 1921 on, and crowned himself Shah (king) in 1925. Mousstafavi repeatedly clashed with the secular Iranian regime, which emphasized and fostered the heritage of the ancient kingdom of Persia. At the same time, he rose through the hierarchy of Shi’ite Moslem clerics in Iran, and put forward the doctrine that the regime in Moslem countries should be led by religious leaders.

Khomeini as a young man. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

The struggle between Khomeini and the government in Iran continued even after the Shah, Reza Pahlavi, was forced to abdicate in 1941, and his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi inherited the throne. Khomeini, who meanwhile had achieved the rank of “Ayatollah” (the highest rank in the Shi’ite hierarchy), did not content himself with attacking the Shah, but also attacked the Western world, Zionism and Israel. Among other things, he blamed Israel for the continuation of the Shah’s rule.

B. Israel-Iran relations up to the 1960s
Relations between Israel and Iran were problematic. On the one hand, Iran had opposed the establishment of the Jewish state, did not recognize it de jure, and even refrained from establishing full diplomatic relations. On the other hand, Iran did recognize Israel de facto in March 1950, after it had received hints that normalization of its relations would accelerate the processing of civil lawsuits brought by Iranian citizens who fled from Israel during the War of Independence and left their possessions behind, which were transferred to the Custodian for Absentee Properties. Iran sent an official representative to Israel, with the title of “special representative” (whose status was below that of an ambassador or charge d’affaires, as is usual when relations are based on de facto recognition). He was based in a building on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, which had served as the General Consulate of Iran during the British Mandate period. However, Iran refused to permit Israel a corresponding action – establishment of an official Israeli mission in Teheran.

 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion chats with the Iranian special envoy, Reza Saffinia, at a party given by the Iranians. Between them is Shmuel Divon, acting director of the Middle Eastern Division. 1 June 1950. Photograph: Teddy Brauner, GPO

In July 1951 the prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh (1951-1953), decided to close the Iranian delegation in Jerusalem, on the pretext of budgetary problems. In fact, this step was intended to obtain the support of Arab and Moslem countries for his efforts to nationalize the oil industry in Iran, but the de facto recognition was not cancelled.

In the 1950s Israel and Iran were partners in economic and security matters, in accordance with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s concept of a ‘peripheral alliance’ between the non-Arab countries in the Middle East; and Iran’s desire to find allies against the subversive activities of Egyptian ruler, Gamal Abd el-Nasser, against it with the support of the USSR. Ben-Gurion defined the relations between Israel and Iran in his speech to the Knesset on 4 October 1960: “Unofficial friendly relations, which are, however, secret […] and this friendship exists and is stable, because it is based on the mutual advantages which both countries enjoy from their cooperation”. Ben-Gurion hinted that for several years Israel-Iran relations had been conducted through unofficial missions in both countries. The minister of foreign affairs awarded the title of ambassador to the heads of the Israeli missions in Teheran, but it was not recognized by Iran. The four heads of the Israeli missions in Teheran (Zvi Doriel, 1956-1968; Meir Ezri, 1968-1973; Uri Lubrani, 1973-1978; Yosef Harmelin, 1978-1979) never presented their credentials to the Shah, as is customary with ambassadors. See “Documents on the Foreign Policy of Israel”, First Series, 1948–1960, for more information on Israel’s relations with Iran at this time.

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol signing the official register in memory of assassinated Iranian prime minister Hassan Ali Mansour, 21 January 1965, at the Swiss embassy in Tel Aviv. Photograph: Moshe Pridan, GPO

C. Reports from Israeli representatives on Khomeini’s subversive activities
At the beginning of the 1960s the Israeli diplomats in Iran began to pay attention to Khomeini’s activities, and to report on them to the ministry of foreign affairs in Jerusalem. In November 1962 the Israeli representatives in Teheran sent a telegram with information about a leader in the city of Qom called ‘AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI’, who was attacking the “Zionists who are in Iran” (Document No. 1). The use of Latin letters to write Khomeini’s name shows that it was unfamiliar to the readers of the telegram in Israel. During 1963-1964 the mission in Teheran sent reports on Khomeini’s anti-Israel broadsheets, accompanied by translations of some of them (Documents Nos. 2, 3). On 4 November 1964 the Ayatollah Khomeini and his son Mustaffa were exiled to Iraq. The Israeli representatives in Iran ceased to report  on him until 1978, the eve of the Islamic revolution. For a comprehensive analysis of “the basic elements of the [Islamic] revolution”, see the document written by Yael Vered, head of the Middle East Division, in March 1979 (Document No. 44).

Part 2: The Khomeini Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic republic, 1978 -1979

Knesset member Yitzhak Navon and other Israeli lawmakers visit Teheran in 1966 for the Interparliamentary conference. Photograph: Yitzhak Navon Archives. the Association for the Commemoration of the Fifth President, Yitzhak Navon

A. The situation in Iran and Khomeini’s subversive activities, 1965–1978
During the years between Khomeini’s exile and the outbreak of the revolution, relations between Israel and Iran grew closer. The oil pipeline laid between Eilat and Ashkelon served to export Iranian oil to Europe after the Suez Canal was blocked in 1967. In addition, the two countries cooperated in providing aid to the Kurdish uprising in Iraq until 1975. At that point the Shah decided to reach an agreement with Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq. According to the agreement Saddam agreed to relinquish Iraq’s claims to the Shatt al-Arab River, in return for which Iran would stop aiding the Kurdish rebellion. The agreement forced Israel to stop its aid as well, due to the lack of a direct geographical link with the Kurds.

From 1975 the Shah’s control over the government in Iran began to decline, and the Moslem clerics increased their power among the Iranian public. In December 1977 Khomeini, who was then living in Iraq, issued a religious edict that the Shah should be deposed. The Shah’s rule continued to weaken during 1978, with mass demonstrations against the regime becoming a common occurrence. In June Ambassador Uri Lubrani wrote a memorandum on the causes of the political unrest,  mentioning the impact of Iran’s increased oil revenues after the oil boycott in 1973, leading to social tensions and widespread protests against the officials and the regime. The Shah had adopted a policy of liberalization, which had enabled the opposition to organize more effectively, and it was not clear if he could regain control. Lubrani expressed the opinion that the present regime would fall within five years. He could not say who would inherit it; like most observers he believed a military coup was likely, but also warned against Soviet influence. Any change was likely to harm relations with Israel, which was closely associated with the Shah’s regime.  (Document No. 4). In August Lubrani met with Deputy Inspector-General of Police Jafari. Jafari said that without dramatic changes in the direction of a constitutional monarchy, the regime would fall. He expressed his concern that the present leadership – the Shah and Prime Minister Jafar Sharif Emami – were unable to carry out this change,especially as Emami himself was seen as corrupt (Document No. 5).

In the autumn of 1978, before ending his term in Teheran, Lubrani met with the Shah, who seemed to be in a bad state. In fact, he had been suffering for some time from lymphoma, and it seems that the drugs used to treat it influenced his mood, making him apathetic and fatalistic. Lubrani wrote: “His mood is bleak, and he hardly smiles; he is nervous and distant”. The two discussed the situation in the Middle East following the Camp David agreements. The Shah blamed the mass demonstrations on the Communists, and expressed his disappointment at the Americans, who did not understand this. “In conclusion – my impression of the man was grave. He is not the same man we knew. He is distant and sometimes even stares off into space. There is no doubt that he has undergone a nightmare, from which he has not completely recovered. He is full of fears and is uncertain about the future. The most troubling thing is the feeling that he sounds as if he has accepted his fate; I have not found in him determination or will to direct the course of events and change them”, Lubrani wrote (Document No. 6).

Khomeini continued his activities from Iraq, from Najaf, the holy city of the Shi’ites. His location did not prevent him from continuing to publicise his ideas in Iran, by means of audio cassettes and broadsheets. In October Azriel Karni, the counsellor at the mission in Teheran, sent two broadsheets signed by Khomeini (Document No. 7). That same month the foreign ministers of Israel and Iran, Moshe Dayan and Amir Khoshrow Afshar, met in New York during a session of the UN General Assembly. In their talk they discussed a variety of problems in the Middle East, including the situation in Iran and Khomeini’s activities (Document No. 8, section 5).

B. The deterioration of the internal situation in Iran and Khomeini’s influence from his exile in France
At that time Saddam Hussein exiled Khomeini from Iraq at the Shah’s request. On 6 October Khomeini landed in Paris. Avshalom Megiddon, of the Israeli embassy in Paris, reported on his activities there (Document No. 9), as did Ambassador Mordechai Gazit (Document No. 10). The security officer in Teheran reported that the PLO was aiding the Shah’s opponents in Iran (Document No. 13).

In December the situation in Iran deteriorated due to a combination of demonstrations and a strike. Some of the government authorities ceased to function, as reported by the staff of the Israeli mission in Teheran (Documents Nos. 12, 16). Following these events, the security officer of the delegation decided to forbid the Israeli representatives to leave their homes during the “4 days of the siege” (Document No. 15). Yael Vered issued three memoranda emphasizing the strengthening of Khomeini and its negative repercussions for Israel-Iran relations (Documents Nos. 17, 18, 19) .


Demonstrators against the Shah during the revolution. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

C. Concern in Israel over the situation of the Jews in Iran
The deterioration of the situation in Iran and the danger of Khomeini’s rise to power aroused concern in Israel for the welfare of the Jews there. At the time, approximately 80,000 Jews lived in Iran. The first expression of this concern, and decisions related to it, are expressed in a telegram sent by the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean Division in December, after a meeting with Yehuda Dominitz of the Immigration Department of the Jewish Agency (Document No. 14). On 7 January 1979, while the government was discussing the fate of Vietnamese refugees, the minister of education and culture, Zevulun Hammer, raised the issue of the Jews of Iran – “that was, after all, the reason for establishing the state of Israel”. Prime Minister Menachem Begin replied that if the Jews of Iran had wanted to immigrate to Israel, “we would have brought them over in their thousands; however, that is not the case” (Document No. 20). At the end of January Begin held a meeting with top officials from the Jewish Agency, where decisions were taken on how to continue Jewish immigration from Iran (Document No. 26). Following that meeting, El Al planes were sent to Iran, which brought approximately 1,500 Jews to Israel.

In February Khomeini sent an envoy called Shahriyar Rouhani to the US, who asked to meet with heads of the Jewish organizations in the US – AIPAC, (the pro-Israel lobby) and the Anti-Defamation League – to allay their fears that Khomeini intended to harm the Jews of Iran (Document No. 32).

D. Khomeini returns to Iran and seizes control of the government, January-February 1979
On 4 January 1979 the Shah was forced to appoint Shapour Bakhtiar (1914-1991) as prime minister. Bakhtiar was a veteran member of the opposition, who had served as deputy minister of labour in Mossadegh’s government.  However, the Foreign Ministry experts reported that Bakhtiar had little public support and relied mainly on the army (Document 21). On 16 January the Shah left Iran. Bakhtiar established political freedom, released political prisoners, disbanded the “SAVAK” (secret police), allowed Khomeini to return from exile to Iran, and even welcomed him back (Document No. 27). The Iranian mission to the UN in New York released an official announcement on the events (Document No. 28).  But soon Khomeini rejected Bakhtiar and deposed him as prime minister, and on 11 February he established the Islamic Republic and appointed Mehdi Bazarghan as prime minister. In April Bakhtiar left Iran for exile in France, where he was assassinated by envoys of the Iranian regime.

By the end of January the mission building was closed for security reasons. Following the deposing of Bakhtiar, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean Division sent a telegram to Israel’s missions abroad describing how a mob had seized the building after it had been abandoned (Document No. 29). At the beginning it was not clear whether Khomeini had, indeed, seized power; as can be seen in the telegram sent by the Division on 12 February (Document No. 30). Soon afterwards the situation became clear. PLO chairman Yasser Arafat arrived in Teheran, met with Khomeini, and turned the Israeli mission into the PLO embassy. More reactions to the events in Iran can be seen in Document No. 33.

Ayatollah Homeini meeting with Yasser Arafat, shortly after handing over the building previously occupied by the Israeli mission to the PLO representative in Teheran. Photograph: GPO

E. Evacuation of the Israeli representatives in Iran after the establishment of the Khomeini regime
In view of the situation in Iran, and the rampant anti-Israel feelings there, the personal safety of the staff of the Israeli mission was threatened and urgent steps were taken to evacuate them immediately. The families of the staff had already been evacuated in the autumn of 1978. The minister in Washington, Hanan Bar-On, discussed the issue with Undersecretary of State David Newsom (Document No. 36). Documents Nos. 34 and 35 also document the contacts with the US Administration, in order to assist in evacuating the Israelis from Teheran. The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that all the Israelis leave Iran quickly (Document No. 37). The only possibility to do so was the flights to evacuate American citizens. At first it seemed that the Israelis would be evacuated in several flights. Ambassador Yosef Harmelin (the former head of the General Security Services) refused to leave on the first flight (Document No. 38). Later, it became clear that it was possible to evacuate all the Israelis together (Document No. 39). On 16 February the Iranians announced the severance of relations with Israel (Document No. 40). On 18 February the Israelis were flown to Germany, and from there they returned to Israel. The following day Prime Minister Menachem Begin thanked US President Jimmy Carter for American assistance in rescuing the Israelis from Teheran (Document No. 41).

After the severance of relations, Israel asked Canada to represent its affairs in Iran (Documents Nos. 43, 46), and Iran asked Switzerland to represent its affairs in Israel (Documents Nos. 42, 45).

Before the revolution, Iran was the source of a significant part of Israel’s oil supply, and even used the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline to export oil to Europe. These commercial ties were disrupted following the establishment of the Islamic Republic. On 20 March 1979, at the meeting of the Knesset in which Begin requested the Knesset’s approval for the peace treaty with Egypt, he mentioned that during the last months of the Shah’s reign, the minister of energy, Yitzhak Moda’i, had made efforts to find an alternative source of supply for Israel. (Document No. 47). A US guarantee of Israel’s oil supply accompanied the peace treaty, in which Israel gave up the Alma oilfield in Sinai, and Egypt agreed to sell it oil on a commercial basis.

Editors: Baruch Gilead and Arnon Lammfromm
Online content editing: Oranit Levi
Translation: Shosh Ornstein (MGS Language Services), Arnon Lammfromm
English editing: Louise Fischer