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World - Middle East

Iran marks 20th anniversary of Islamic revolution

Khomeini led Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979  
Iran in the 20th Century
A picture of Iran
January 31, 1999
Web posted at: 12:53 p.m. EST (1753 GMT)

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- On February 1, 1979, a tall, bearded mullah stepped off an Air France plane in Tehran, returning to finish a task he had begun years earlier.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, arrested and sent away in 1964 for opposing Iran's shah, triumphantly ended 15 years of exile from his homeland that day. Ten days later, the fall of the shah's government was complete, and Iran was in the hands of conservative Islamic clerics.

On Monday, Tehran begins 10 days of celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the Islamic revolution's stunning takeover of Iran, a country backed for decades by Western power and money.

Under Khomeini's spiritual leadership, the Iranians thumbed their collective noses at the might of the West and threatened to export their brand of fundamentalism outside Iran's borders.

After proclaiming Iran an Islamic Republic in April 1979, Khomeini gave his blessings to student militants who took 52 Americans hostage at Tehran's U.S. Embassy that November -- holding them for 444 days.

Conservatives, moderates still battling

The overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ended a 2,500-year period dominated by autocratic monarchs in Iran, formerly Persia. The shah was undone by an explosive opposition to his drive to modernize his country and maintain close ties to Western powers.

The United States hopes Khatami's leadership will help thaw relations with Iran  

But 20 years after the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran -- and 10 years after Khomeini's death -- the soul of Iran is again pulled in different directions by moderates and conservatives.

Khomeini died just five months after calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie for insulting Islam in his book "Satanic Verses." He was succeeded by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the country's spiritual leader.

But the political leadership has fallen to reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami, who won his post handily in 1997 thanks largely to the support of women and young people. Khatami has pushed for closer relations with Western powers, particularly the United States -- Khomeini's "Great Satan."

And with local elections coming up nationwide, moderates and conservatives are again at odds, threatening to overshadow the anniversary celebration.

Celebration in the streets

With political turmoil in the air and an economic crisis in full swing, Tehran was busy preparing for the anniversary. The celebration begins with bells and whistles at 9:33 a.m., the time Khomeini's plane touched down in Iran. A helicopter will drop flowers on the mullah's tomb.

Sporting events, film, music, theater festivals and exhibitions on the country's achievements will mark the 10 days leading up to February 11. Each day's events will be capped with a laser show on revolutionary themes.

And on February 11, the city will mark the fall of the Pahlavi regime with a mass rally and a military parade.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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