The Ayatollah (Arabic, “Reflection of Allah”) Ruhollah Khomeini became leader of Iran in 1979 by forcing the overthrow of the shah and Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar. Born in Khomein, Iran on May 27, 1900, the son of an ayatollah of the Shiite sect, he studied theology and by 1962 was one of the six grand ayatollahs of Iran’s Shiite Muslims. Exiled in 1964 for his part in religious demonstrations against the shah, he was expelled from Iraq in 1978 and moved to France, where he emerged as the leader of the anti-shah movement. In January 1979, after the shah left Iran, he returned to lead the country, becoming faqih (supreme religious guide) for life of Iran’s Islamic republic in December.
In his efforts to transform Iran into an Islamic state, Khomeini was hostile to the West. In November 1979 he supported militant students who invaded the U.S. embassy and precipitated the Iranian hostage crisis. Khomeini and other fundamentalist clerics faced opposition from Western-educated moderates, from minorities within the country, and from various leftist guerrilla groups but gradually consolidated control, imposing rigid censorship, executing members of the opposition, and banning Western customs. Khomeini used the Iran-Iraq war initiated by Iraq in 1980 to help unify the country, although he was less than successful in exporting his revolution and reluctantly accepted a cease-fire in the costly conflict in 1988. After his death, on July 3, 1989, Iran remained a theocracy, although the powers of the president were increased.