There has always been controversy surrounding a picture of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini disembarking from a plane in Tehran in February 1979, after a 15-year exile.
The plane brought Khomeini as well as over 100 of his close aides and as many reporters to a city that was less than two weeks away from a revolution that had started months ago and 10 days later toppled Mohammad Reza Shah, ending Iran 2,500-year-old monarchy.
Once in every few years, with the elimination of one or more of those seen alongside and behind Khomeini from the aircraft to the airport tarmac, the picture was doctored by in the Iranian press. This was repeated so many times that in some versions Khomeini was almost alone on the steps.
A doctored photo showing only Khomeini and his son
Several well-known political figures can be seen in various versions of the picture taken within seconds of each other before the ayatollah stepped onto the tarmac. Some of those who accompanied Khomeini ended up in tragic deaths. These include Dariush Forouhar who was slain with his wife Parvaneh in 1998 by Iranian intelligence officers at their home for opposing the clerics. He was labor minister in the first revolutionary government.
Abolhassan Banidsadr, one of the ayatollah's hosts in France, became Iran's president but was ousted a year later and fled to France where he died in 2021. Ayatollah Hassan Lahouti whose sons were married to former President Akbar Rafsanjani's daughter was reportedly killed in a prison in Tehran and his death was portrayed as suicide by prison wardens. Sadeq Qotbzadeh, the first head of Iran's state TV in the Islamic Republic was executed on charges of plotting to kill Khomeini and overthrow his regime only a few years later. Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, the chairman of the revolutionary council and a close Khomeini aide was killed in the street only a few months after the revolution.
A re-enactment of Khomeini's arrival with a strange cardboard cutout. February 2012
Khomeini's other companions had a better fate. Sadegh Tabatabai, whose sister was the wife of Khomeini's son, Ahmad, was the spokesman of the first Islamic government. Later, as war broke out with Iraq he was reportedly involved in purchasing weapons for Iran and in one incident he was arrested in Germany for being in possession of a large amount of narcotics. But his case was later dismissed by a German court. He died in Germany of cancer in 2010.
Mohammad Ali Sadoughi, also seen in most pictures became the Friday Prayer Imam of Yazd in central Iran and died of natural causes in 2011. Meanwhile, Mohammad Musavi-Khoiniha, a young cleric who was the leader and mentor of the young students who occupied the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979 was also among Khomeini's companions. He held several government positions until he reportedly stopped his political activities in 1990 when the Guardian Council barred him from the assembly of experts.
Khomeini's son, Ahmad, who also accompanied his father in this journey and was his confidant until the ayatollah's death, died in a mysterious incident in 1995 that was reported as a heart attack. Recently an Iranian journalist, Hossein Dehbashi, wrote on social media that the cause of his death was drug abuse. The journalist was forced to withdraw the post after a day. Another journalist, Emad Baghi, quoted regime insiders as having said that Ahmad was killed by Iranian intelligence officers.
Finally, was the French-Algerian Captain who ushered Khomeini into Tehran's Mehrabad airport. Khomeini probably did not want to be helped by any of the Iranians around him to avoid lending unnecessary prominence to anyone among his aides. It was later disclosed, but not verified, that the captain was married to an Iranian woman and the couple's two children still frequently visit Iran. Rumor has it that he stayed in Tehran until 2015 when he died. Some reports have said that he was among the security agents the French government had assigned to protect Khomeini while he was in France.