Flashback on the Iranian revolution

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 the revolutionaries were being careful not to shoot back. I watched one chilling video that an ABC cameraman shot of a young man in his 20s walking up to a policeman, tearing his own shirt open and asking to be shot. The policeman complied and shot him in the chest, but then another volunteer from the crowd appeared and did the same thing. By the time the third person had asked to be shot, the policeman, a young peasant from the countryside, had collapsed in tears. The police station fell almost of its own accord.

I was standing on a sidewalk looking at a large puddle of blood. Two shoes were in the middle of it. A young boy dipped his hands into the blood and then covered his face. Then he spread it over a nearby wall so that we would all remember what had happened there.

I attended a press conference with Bakhtiar. "How do you plan to hold on," I asked,"when you have no political base in the population?" "You will see," he said. That afternoon, he came over to ABC to ask if we could fly him out of the country.

That night, I sat next to a police radio with ABC's interpreter and listened as one police station after another fell to Khomeini's supporters. "We cannot hold out any longer," said a desperate voice. "You must send reinforcements." "There are none," came the answer from headquarters. We heard silence and then, "Allahu Akbar." The police headquarters came back on the radio with a mixture of hatred and bitterness: "We will kill your wives and your children!," a man said, but soon he was off the air as well.

Then it was over, or nearly. The remaining government offices surrendered the next day, and there was almost calm as Khomeini's supporters moved into position.

There were still occasional fire fights. I came back to the Intercontinental Hotel, which would eventually be renamed the Tulip in honor of the revolution. The journalists who had stayed in Tehran were wolfing down the caviar in the hotel's kitchen at lunch and drinking what wine there was. A sniper began taking pot shots at the windows from a construction site across the street. "Don't look out the window," a colleague said,"he'll get you." I pulled back the curtain and a bullet sailed through the window into the wall behind me. We were jumpy. I thought for a moment that an armed group was going to go from room to room in the hotel and shoot everyone. One of Khomeini's aides came in and asked if we wanted to go to a press conference in the school Khomeini was using as his headquarters.

Despite the drama of the previous few minutes, a few of us decided to go. Yazdi, whom I had not seen since Paris, was there, dressed up in an army field jacket. The commanding officers of the Shah's army, navy and airforce were seated behind a card table alongside Amir Abbas Hoveda, who had been prime minister before the Shah had him put in prison.

Yazdi furiously shouted at Hoveda,"Admit that you are a war criminal!" Hoveda looked at him calmly, and then he said,"I assume from the way you are speaking that you are part of the group that is in charge now. All I can say is that six months from now, you will find that you have done things that you never thought yourself capable of."

After that exchange, the press conference turned into a deconstruction of the final takeover. The generals contended that they had meant to keep bloodshed to a minimum and had tried to keep weapons and ammunition away from the mob. It was strangely civilized, and when it was over, the generals were taken to the roof and shot. Hoveda was executed several months later.

I had gone to the TV station in early evening to file a story using the satellite uplink. Someone started shooting outside the station, and then everyone was shooting. I grabbed the interpreter who was working with me and shoved her through the front door, down a flight of stairs and into the basement. I looked up and there was Sadegh. He would soon be foreign minister, and not long after that he, too, would be executed. "What do you think of all this?" I said. He shrugged his shoulders.

I flew out of Tehran on the first plane that was allowed in. We were woken at 3 a.m. and driven to the airport in a convoy. It was a Pan Am flight. The company had sent the plane to evacuate its own personnel who had been working at a secret listening station monitoring the Soviet Union.

The spooks working for the company's communications eavesdropping subsidiary had been so terrified that they had nearly surrendered themselves to the Soviets that they had been spying on. The pilot and stewardesses, who had flown in from Dubai, had been forced to lay on the floor of the plane while revolutionary guards trained sub-machine-guns on them.

We took our seats in the early morning darkness. The stewardesses looked shaken, but said nothing.

Revolutionary guards with AK-47s walked up and down the aisles picking out Iranians and Afghans who had tried to join the flight. They were assembled on the tarmac, and then they were gone.

The plane took off, and when the pilot announced that we had left Iran and crossed into Turkish airspace, a cheer erupted from just about every passenger. The plane landed in Amsterdam, and I disappeared for three days without talking to anyone. ABC's news desk was furious that I had dropped out of sight without telling them. I didn't care. I have had a soft spot for the reassuring calm and civility of Amsterdam ever since.

I went back to Iran in 1993, this time as a Middle East correspondent for TIME. Khomeini was dead by then. I took a taxi to where the U.S. embassy had been. "Have they opened it yet?" the taxi driver asked. "No, " I said. I wanted to go to the "Nest of Spies" bookstore, which had a complete set of U.S. classified documents that had been shredded and then pasted back together after the U.S. hostages had been taken. I bought the books. There wasn't much interesting in them. They were mostly filled with business information that the revolutionary guards had considered dangerous intelligence.

I interviewed the leader of the economics committee of the Majlis (the parliament). "Is the interview over," he asked. "If you want it to be," I said. "Fine," he said. "Now I can tell you. I really love the United States."

I interviewed the leader of the chamber of commerce. "Why are you Americans so suspicious of us?" he asked. "Look behind you," I said. On the wall behind his head was a large banner that said, "Kill Americans!" "Oh, that," he said. "That doesn't mean anything." "I know," I said, "but we are a very literal people."

Once Iran is in your blood, it does not leave easily. It can be energetic and marvelously creative. It can also be volatile, dangerous and occasionally suicidal.

I had little doubt watching Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago, or Hamas in Gaza recently, that the spirit of Iran is there, shoring up the Islamic revolution and forging a crescent of crisis from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. I have no doubt that even if Iran is not the first foreign policy emergency that Barack Obama faces, it is likely to be the most dangerous and difficult. Sadegh had certainly discovered that. Iran can be a wonderful country, but it is also one that you ignore at your own peril.