As early as 1953, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a revered and controversial cleric, was denouncing Muhammad Reza Shah and his Western, secular policies. According to Khomeini, it was the Baha’is’ influence over the Shah that caused him to support ideas such as the equality of men and women.
A decade later, on an Islamic holy day in 1963, Khomeini labeled the Shah a tyrant and a “wretched, miserable man.” In response, the Shah’s forces detained Khomeini, sparking 3 days of riots; at least 400 people were killed. Over the next year, more upheaval followed and Khomeini was forced to leave Iran for exile in Iraq and later France. The Islamic Revolution was under way.
The Ayatollah believed that Iran needed a new form of government that he called Velayateh Faqih – guardianship of the Islamic jurist – with himself as the leader. He waged his campaign against the Shah by smuggling audio cassettes of his sermons into Iran. Anti-government protests erupted again in 1978, after an article referred to Khomeini as an Indian-born reactionary, and the Shah’s forces killed still more of Khomeini’s supporters as part of the crackdown. People mourned the dead every 40 days, in keeping with Muslim tradition. On each 40th day, when they gathered together for religious ceremonies to mark the deaths, more violence broke out and more people were killed by the Shah’s forces.
The Shah declared martial law on 6 December 1978, yet despite the new restrictions, millions continued to go into the streets in protest. The country fell into chaos.
Knowing that he had lost control of Iran, Muhammad Reza fled Iran on 16 January 1979. Huge crowds chanted Shah raft, “The Shah has left,” when the news was announced.
On 1 February, Khomeini returned to Iran. Now, the crowds chanted Emad amad, “The Imam [the leader] has arrived.” The Islamic Republic was born.
Spies and saboteurs had infiltrated the Baha’i community for decades. Hojjatieh, a religious society established in 1953 by the charismatic cleric, Sheikh Mahmoud Halabi, made it a mission to argue against Baha’i teachings and to show Iranians that the Baha’i faith was a “fake cult.” More than 12,000 Muslims joined Hojjatieh to attack the Baha’i “threat.” Some Hojjatieh operatives posed as Baha’is to infiltrate the community, steal confidential documents, and spread disinformation about the Baha’is in Iranian society.
After the Islamic Revolution, Hojjatieh’s work was used for a more violent end. Many Hojjatieh members enlisted with the local komitehs, or revolutionary committees, or took positions in the new government; others joined the elite Revolutionary Guard.
The Islamic government thus knew that Hojjatieh had extensive intelligence about the Baha’is – membership lists for leadership bodies and the names of many prominent Baha’i individuals and organizations. The information would be used to hunt down and murder hundreds of innocent people.
The Baha’i community anticipated the coming storm and tried to find some shelter. A number of Baha’is reached out to influential figures in the Revolution, although they never managed to reach Khomeini himself. Foremost, the Baha’is attempted to reassure the revolutionaries that they were not interested in politics and had no grievance with the new Islamic Republic.
Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, accepted the Baha’is’ reassurances, but his authority was limited by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was the country’s supreme leader. Banisadr could do nothing to help the Baha’is.
Few of the revolutionaries believed the Baha’is were innocent of the accusations levelled against them. Many officials in the new government held misconceptions about the Baha’is. They imagined the Baha’is were Zionists or spies for foreign powers. At the very least, they believed the Baha’is were morally corrupt. So, for the most part, the Baha’i interlocutors were not trusted and their efforts to appease the authorities failed.
The authorities wanted to make an example of those who failed to conform to Islam – and religious minorities like the Baha’is were the first target.