Ayatollah still casts a sinister shadow over Iranian hopes for a new dawn

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NOT LONG after he returned to Iran, I had my only chance to talk to Ayatollah Khomeini.

We had been shown his thin blankets on the humble concrete floor of his home in Qom, told of the yoghurt that he ate for breakfast and then shown into a tiny room crowded with Revolutionary Guards and Islamic clerics. The Ayatollah lectured us on the evils of America, the necessity of deporting the Shah back to Iran for trial and the eternal nature of the Islamic Republic.

A small crack in the sun-drenched window had cast a pool of light on the floor; at this emanation, the Ayatollah stared throughout our conversation. It was as if he was transfixed by this light; he never took his eyes off it.

It was half an hour before we grasped the fact that he would not look at us. He spoke in a slow, rasping but quiet voice, his words translated by Sadeq Qotbzadeh, his ally in Parisian exile whom he equally ignored.

A few years later, he would acquiesce in Qotbzadeh's execution for plotting against the Islamic Republic. Here, indeed, was a revolution that could consume its children.

Would the revolution, whose 20th anniversary Iranians celebrated yesterday, have been any different - any more generous - if Saddam Hussein (our friend at the time) had not invaded Iran in 1980 in the hope of destroying the new regime?

Already, the revolution's enemies in Tehran were being strung up or put before firing squads. I returned to Qom a few weeks later to report on the trial of a staff sergeant in the Shah's army, accused of firing at demonstrators in the last days of the Shah. The crowd in the courtroom demanded his death and I tried desperately to explain to the American-educated brother of the doomed man that the presence of a Western reporter would not spare him. I told the judge, privately, that I regarded mercy as the greatest of virtues. I was wasting my time.

There were no velvet gloves in the Iranian revolution. And after Saddam sent his legions across the frontier, I found myself in a troop train travelling north from the battlefields of Ahwaz, its dying passengers coughing the mustard gas out of their lungs into white bandages.

At the battle of the Fish Lake, young men took off their helmets to show their fearlessness amid the shellfire, the corpses of their Iraqi enemies piled around them, the shells hissing into the Somme-like mud. I spent an afternoon in a dug-out with Iran's young boy soldiers, some of them only nine, village boys with miniature swords of paradise hanging around their necks to ensure their place in the next world.

When they rode their mo-peds through the Iraqi minefields, they wore greatcoats in the heat - so that every part of their shattered bodies could be returned for burial.

Saddam was our man then. And when they've called for our support in bombing Iraq, not once have our Western leaders mentioned those tens of thousands of Iranian victims of Saddam's butchery. That would be asking too much; besides, without the Iraqi invasion, the ferocious anger of the Iranian revolution may have cooled earlier.

In the event, Khomeini - these are his words - "ate poison" when faced with the collapse of his western front in 1988. In revenge, the regime turned on its imprisoned opponents. Young Iranian men and women, interrogated and lashed, many of them having already served their time in jail, were herded into courtyards for mass executions, hanged like thrushes on groaning scaffolds. Perhaps 8,000 died, some say many more.

In the new Iranian era, it is sometimes difficult - in the streets of Tehran or talking to the liberal, intelligent, bright young men now running part of the government - to imagine what cruelty was acted out in the Islamic Republic's name.

And with a president as admired as Mohamed Khatami - democratically elected and more popular among his people than Israel's elected leaders - it seems almost churlish to remember the brutality of what went before.

But Iran's intransigent clerics are still there, as loyal to their dead Imam as the boys who drove to their death through the minefields. The Islamic Republic still has a Khomeini-inspired Supreme Leader - Ayatollah Ali Khamanei - and it still has its enemies.

Khatami's brave attempt to open a dialogue with the United States was rebuffed by an administration whose Middle East policies are virtually identical with Israel's. Only this week, Martin Indyk, the former head of the most powerful Israeli lobby group in America and now US Under-Secretary of State, was asking for Arab support for the old, discredited policy of dual - ie. Iraqi and Iranian - "containment". Has the memory of the 1979 siege of the US embassy and the long months of imprisonment for its diplomats infected the Americans as deeply as the cruelty of the Shah neutered the compassion of the Iranians?

Alas, the brutality still exists. Even as Tehran was preparing its jazz bands and religious ceremonies to commemorate the revolution, an old Iranian woman was sentenced to amputation and then hanging for the murder of two young women. Only weeks after President Khatami was elected, a convicted Afghan rapist - his crimes were, of course, truly terrible - was publicly hanged from a crane, his corpse suspended 300ft above a crowd.

This is not the future of Iran, merely a reminder of the harshness of its revolution. Khatami, if he is not betrayed by his internal opponents - or destroyed by the Americans who claimed they wanted to be his friends - may yet turn Iran into one of the great peacemakers of the Middle East.

A laughable idea? What about the new missiles Iran is constructing? Or the reports of chemical warfare preparations? Or the old torturers still at large?

Well, how many other Middle East countries - Israel as well as the Arab nations - can claim to have no long-range missiles, no chemical warfare capability, no cruel old men in retirement?

The tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini is now a Shia shrine of epic proportions, lit up so brightly that airline pilots can see its golden lights from 50 miles away. Was it not he who said that wherever oppression existed in the world, Iran would be fighting against it? Was it not he who said that "we are men of war and we shall export our revolution to the entire world - until the cry of `Allahu Akbar' reigns over the world, the struggle shall continue?"

Ten years after the old man's death, the West might pause to ask itself if there is still oppression and betrayal in the Middle East and to reflect upon the revolutionary forces that could still be stirred by its barbarity.