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German Journalist Peter Scholl-Latour: "Khomeini Trusted Me"

Thirty years ago, everything changed in Iran. The rule of the shahs was ended by the Islamic Revolution. A key figure in this was Ayatollah Khomeini. German journalist Peter Scholl-Latour witnessed the events up close.

Iran Revolution 1979

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 led to the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini

DW-WORLD.DE: On Feb. 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran from Paris, where he'd lived in exile to flee the shah. The Islamic Revolution was then in full force. You were on the same plane as Khomeini -- how did that come to pass?

German journalist Peter Scholl-Latour

Scholl-Latour had the ear of Ayatollah Khomeini

Peter Scholl-Latour: That flight was the crowning achievement of all my preparations for the revolution. Before Khomeini returned to Tehran, I went there with my camera team and, back in Paris, I showed him what I'd filmed there. I'd spoken with many of the revolutionaries. The contact to Khomeini came via Tabatabei, a teacher from Bochum, who'd seen my film and who was related to Khomeini.

You became Khomeini's confidante…

Well, really, Khomeini didn't have any confidantes, not even among Iranians. But I was the European, the non-believer, who got closest to him -- and whom he trusted.

What did you think of Khomeini? What kind of person was he?

He was very strict, he led a very ascetic lifestyle. The home where he lived in exile in France became a place of pilgrimage. Many exiled Iranians in Germany and France were opposed to the shah. All of a sudden, many young people were gripped by religious fervor. Even girls whose jeans couldn't be worn tight enough and who usually walked around in tiny T-shirts started covering their bodies. Young men started growing long beards.

Back to Feb. 1, 1979. You're sitting with Khomeini in a plane from Paris to Tehran. What was it like? Did you speak to each other?

It certainly wasn't a normal flight. We were accompanied by a French special unit, because we didn't know how we'd be received. We didn't even know if we'd be able to land in Tehran. There was the danger that the Iranian airforce would attack us, because it wasn't totally clear whether part of the force would continue to support the shah.

What do you remember of the flight? How did Khomeini seem to you?

Ayatollah Khomeini sits inside the chartered airplane to Tehran on Feb. 1, 1979

Ayatollah Khomeini on the flight to Tehran

Khomeini was always a very serious person. You almost never saw him smile. But on this day, he was really relaxed, almost happy. He was sitting up in the top part of the Boeing, and Tabatabei said to me: "The Imam is doing his morning prayer, and if you want, you can film him." That was very unusual. And then something extraordinary happened. He gave Tabatabei a big, yellow envelope, and he passed it on to me and said: "If we're arrested or killed when we land in Tehran, then please hide this envelope carefully. If everything goes well, then please give it back to me." When we arrived, there were 2 million people out to greet Khomeini. So I gave the envelope back. Only eight months later did I learn what was in there: It was the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Khomeini was afraid, then, that someone would catch him with the constitution and arrest him.

Yes. They were patted down, whereas I, as a foreigner, would have been spared that. Khomeini wanted to avoid having someone find the constitution on his person.

Peter Scholl-Latour is a German journalist and writer. He headed the Paris office of German public broadcaster ARD from 1963 to 1969. In 1971, he became the program director of WDR television.

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