RFL/RE – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic, was publicly opposed to the United States, which he branded the “Great Satan.”
But Khomeini and his close aides secretly engaged with Washington before and after he came to power following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, according to U.S. documents that have been declassified in recent years.
A declassified U.S. Embassy cable recently obtained by RFE/RL’s Radio Farda provides further evidence of the covert contacts between Iranian clerics and U.S. representatives.
Dated February 26, 1964, the confidential document reveals that Khomeini’s longtime friend and associate, Ayatollah Seyed Mohammad Sadegh Lavasani, met with two U.S. Embassy officials at his residence in Tehran.
The embassy cable said Lavasani’s “position as Tehran representative of Ayatollah Khomeini contributes to his importance and influence in the Iranian clerical community, particularly in its political role.”
Lavasani was a comptroller, according to the U.S. document, suggesting that he oversaw the expenditure of funds and donations that Khomeini received “from all over the Shi’a world.”
The document said Lavasani was one of only 18 people who had access to Khomeini, who by 1964 had become a key critic of the U.S.-backed shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom he accused of being a Western “puppet.”
After publicly denouncing the shah in June 1963, Khomeini was detained for around three months. In November 1964, Khomeini was detained again and immediately sent into exile to neighboring Turkey. He spent more than 14 years abroad, including in Iraq and France, before returning to Iran.
The declassified U.S. document said Iran’s clergy opposed the shah’s policies, including on women’s rights and “the influence of Baha’is and Jews in the Imperial Court.”
The document added that the shah’s policies were “in flat violation of Islamic law and are calculated to upset the divinity.”
Khomeini and Lavasani are believed to have been close friends after studying together in the holy Shi’ite city of Qom in the 1920s. Their friendship remained intact after the revolution, although Lavasani did not appear to play a role in the new clerical government. Iranian media have reported that Lavasani stood with the supreme leader until the end and visited him regularly until Khomeini’s death in 1989. Lavasani died a year later.
The revelation that Lavasani reached out to the United States is likely to cause embarrassment for the clerical establishment and supporters of Khomeini, who often praise his anti-American stance.
Relations between the United States and Iran deteriorated sharply in the wake of the Islamic Revolution, particularly after the Iran hostage crisis, or the “conquest of the American spy den,” as it is known in Iran.
In November 1979, Islamic students stormed the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in the Iranian capital. Fifty-two U.S. citizens and diplomats were held hostage in Tehran from November 1979 to January 1981.
Lavasani is among several of Khomeini’s aides who had secret contacts with U.S. officials before 1979.
Declassified CIA documents have revealed contacts between Khomeini and the administration of then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter just weeks before the revolution. The documents suggest that Khomeini was open to dialogue with Washington and would not undermine U.S. interests if he came to power.
Khomeini and his aides also reached out to the administration of then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, according to a CIA analysis written in 1980 that was partially released to the public in 2008. The analysis said that Khomeini did not oppose U.S. interests in Iran.
Iranian officials have dismissed the declassified documents as fabricated.
U.S. documents declassified in recent years have also revealed that U.S. representatives met with key Iranian officials after the revolution, including Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, who was considered Khomeini’s second in command; former Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi; and Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister after the revolution.
Paris-based Iranian scholar Mohammad Javad Akbarein told Radio Farda that the disclosure of secret contacts between Khomeini’s aides and U.S. representatives highlighted the hypocrisy of Iran’s clerical establishment.
“It shows that the leaders of the revolution were in general not honest in their comments about their ties with [Western countries],” Akbarein said
He added that the revelation of Lavasani’s meetings with U.S. representatives was significant.
“The important feature of the newly released document is that the person who communicated with the Americans was in close contact with Ayatollah Khomeini,” he said. “His ties with Khomeini were not political, his relationship with Khomeini was spiritual.”
“Khomeini and other founders of the Islamic republic were allowed to have contacts with the U.S. and other Western officials. But now, [the authorities] reproach others and say such contacts are not allowed,” Akbarein said.