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5 of the most controversial choices for TIME Person of the Year

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Ayatollah Khomeini was TIME’s Person of the Year in 1979, one of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century.

Khomeini was the central figure in the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which saw a pro-Western government ousted and involved the Iran Hostage Crisis at the US embassy in Tehran.

The politically active Shi’ite cleric had lived in exile for many years before a public uprising led the Shah of Iran, a US-backed monarch, to flee in early 1979. Khomeini returned shortly thereafter and spearheaded the establishment of a theocratic government based on Islamic law. He referred to the US as the “Great Satan” and dramatically altered the relationship between the two countries to this day.

In November 1979, Khomeini condoned Iranian students who seized the US embassy in Iran and took the staff hostage. The 52 American hostages were ultimately held in captivity for 444 days.

Writing on the decision to name Khomeini Person of the Year in early 1980, TIME said, “The lean figure of Khomeini towered malignly over the globe. As the leader of Iran’s revolution he gave the 20th-century world a frightening lesson in the shattering power of irrationality, of the ease with which terrorism can be adopted as government policy.”

The magazine added, “Khomeini’s importance far transcends the nightmare of the embassy seizure, transcends indeed the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The revolution that he led to triumph threatens to upset the world balance of power more than any other political event since Hitler’s conquest of Europe.”

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