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Flashback on the Iranian revolution

Thirty years after the revolution, GlobalPost's William Dowell remembers what it was like to be there.

Students wave Iran's national flag as others hold pictures of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) and Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square Feb. 10, 2009. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)

GENEVA — Thirty years ago, I found myself standing on the tarmac at Tehran's international airport when an Air France plane arrived with Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini.

Like everyone else there, I was swept up by the emotion of the moment. The crowd — half of Tehran — was delirious. Few of us realized the extent to which Khomeini was about to change the destiny of Iran, the Middle East, and America's relationship to the region. For me, Khomeini was a familiar — if tantalizing — figure.

My interest in Iran had started a little more than a year earlier when I was on a freelance assignment in Paris for TIME Magazine. At the time, none of us paid much attention to Iran. I had driven across the country earlier without being particularly impressed, and I thought that I knew more about the place than most of my colleagues. TIME had commissioned a cover story looking into whether torture can be an effective political tool, and Iran under the Shah was a place where a great deal of torture was taking place. My job was to track down former victims.

One of my sources was a young exiled Iranian student leader named Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. "We know these tortures are being done by the CIA," Sadegh kept insisting. "How do you know it's the CIA?" I asked repeatedly. "When the same torture takes place in a dozen different countries, and they only share one link in common, it is pretty obvious," he would respond.

I never managed to pin down the accuracy of Sadegh's theory, but we did become friends and a short while later he invited me to Friday prayers at a small house at Neauphle-le-Chateau, outside Paris. I had just witnessed a parade of hundreds of Iranians along one of Paris' broad boulevards. Women wearing black chadors carried photographs of their spiritual leader who had just been granted political asylum in France. His name, Sadegh explained, was Khomeini, and he was going to change the world as we knew it.

At Neauphle-le-Chateau, this elderly but vigorous, charismatic and handsome figure would kneel on a blanket spread on the patchy grass in front of his cheaply built suburban house and pray in the direction of Mecca. There seemed nothing special about the performance, but Sadegh and another Iranian friend, Ibrahim Yazdi, had clearly become the imam's closest aides in France. They were excited by Khomeini, and they were extremely accessible. Something was clearly in the air. I asked a friend at the American embassy in Paris if anyone had at least talked with Sadegh or Yazdi. "We're not allowed to," was the answer. "It would look like we were sending a signal."

While Khomeini bided his time in Paris, the situation in Iran became increasingly tenuous. SAVAK, the Shah's secret police, was engaging in widespread arrests of students and just about anyone who could be identified as part of a political opposition. The reports of torture and brutality were horrifying. And then the Shah fled, leaving his prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, who had previously been a member of the moderate opposition, to face the growing revolt. It was at about this time that I flew into Tehran on a freelance assignment for ABC News.

The atmosphere in Tehran was tense. The Shah's imperial guard staged a number of exercises to convince the press that they were still in control, and at one point a dozen or so helicopters were dispatched to circle the city in a pathetic show of force.

I went to the American embassy to interview a U.S. political officer. "We don't know what is happening," he told me. "We get all our information from SAVAK."

And then Khomeini arrived, installing himself in what had been a large secondary school. For a few surrealistic days, both Khomeini and Bakhtiar seemed to be running parallel governments.

At the hotels where American expats hired by the Shah had been staying, there was an atmosphere of panic. The airport was closed, and everyone was piling supplies and possessions into cars and heading for the Turkish border. Some of the Americans had armed themselves with AK-47s. They looked scared.

I had been in several incidents when the police opened fire on the crowds, but