Iran Reenacts History With a Giant Cardboard Cut-Out Ayatollah

A larger-than-life, but not actually alive, Ruhollah Khomeini is trotted our for a very special military ceremony.

mf feb1 p.jpg

Mehr News Agency

The Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran this morning reenacted a very important moment in their country's history with a very bizarre ceremony. The solemn event was photographed by the state-run Mehr News Agency, the website of which has since gone down (as it often does). Fortunately, we have preserved the photos and reproduce them below.

But before the photos comes the history. On this day in 1979, Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned home after 14 years in exile. He had been forced out by the secular and U.S.-backed Shah, who rightly feared his popularity. While in exile, he made high-profile sermons, wrote books, and circulated audiotapes explaining his vision for a Shia theocratic state. The revolution began in 1977 and, by the time the Shah fled in January 1979, Khomeini was living in France. When he flew home on February 1 he was joined by U.S. reporter Peter Jennings and others, and was met by millions of cheering Iranians at the airport. He declared his opposition to the interim government, led a popular campaign against it, and by the end of the year had established the Islamic Republic, with himself as Supreme Leader.

Thirty-three years later, Khomeini's return is still remembered as one of the most important moments in the founding of Iran as we know it today. So you can perhaps forgive the country's leaders for getting a bit carried away in commemorating the event. The idea to reproduce his arrival on the tarmac of the Tehran airport is an interesting one, but of course Khomeini himself can't participate, being deceased. So, naturally, someone decided to construct not one, not two, but three giant cardboard constructions of the Islamic Republic's founder and march them around the Tehran Airport.

Flipping through the photos above, you can watch a couple of sunglassed soldiers dutifully marching Khomeini's scowling (and enormous) face out of an airplane and down the tarmac in an "inspection" of a waiting regiment. The gathered troops salute solemnly -- trying not to laugh? genuinely moved? -- as the fake ayatollah glares back. A marching band plays in the background, because why not. At this point, the ceremony switches to a smaller reproduction (presumably because the original is too large to transport), which is gingerly seated in a truck and driven off. My favorite part is the third Khomeini, an enormous free-standing photo of his original 1979 arrival, that stands in the back, watching over the entire ceremony.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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