Imam Khomeini was a man of “great will-power and immense charisma,” with a “totally uncompromising” attitude, according to the first western broadcaster to interview the late Islamic revolutionary leader.
“I came away from that interview with the feeling that this was a leader who was driven by one overwhelming passion,” former CBS News journalist Tom Fenton recalled after visiting the Imam in exile in the French village of Neuphle-le-Chateau on 6 November, 1978.
“The Ayatollah was seated on a rug. I sat opposite him for the interview. I had never met anyone quite like him,” Fenton told in an interview to marked the 22nd anniversary of the Imam’s demise.
“He was an elderly man of great will power and immense charisma. His most striking features were his eyes, that seemed to look right through you,” he said.
Fenton served as bureau chief in London, Paris, Rome, Moscow and Tel Aviv during his 34-year career with CBS News, before retiring in 2004.
He became renowned for carrying out the first broadcast interview by a western journalist with the Islamic revolutionary leader three months before the overthrow of the shah in Iran.
“When I questioned him about the shah, his attitude was totally uncompromising. He insisted the shah must be overthrown, by armed struggle if necessary. He rejected the Shah’s promises of reforms as worthless, and called on the army to join the opposition,” he said.
“The shah himself must be brought to trial for his crimes, and at the least, would be sentenced to life imprisonment for having ordered the killing of innocent people. He would be judged by Islamic law.” he recalled the late Imam saying.
Prior to the interview, Fenton took a CBS News television crew to Iran in October 1978 to report on the political situation in the midst of revolutionary fervour throughout the country.
“I filmed university students and the role of women in opposing the government, reported on the corruption in the shah’s government and the repression of dissent by the Savak – the secret police organized and trained by the CIA and the Israeli Mossad,” he said.
The US journalist also interviewed professors at Tehran University, who he said did not wish their names or faces to be revealed, as well as Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari in Qom.
Although Shariatmadari told him he wanted an end to the killing of civilians, to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture, to corruption and end to dictatorship, he said that unlike the Imam, he would not object to the shah remaining on the throne as a constitutional monarch.
“It was clear to me that the opposition to the Shah was as deep and as wide as the country’s attachment to the Shi’ite branch of Islam. Religion seemed to be the one force that would rally the vast majority of the population.” Fenton recalled.
“Except for a small communist element, the opponents of the Shah – who ranged from devout Muslims to old-line liberals and leftist intellectuals – had turned to the mosque as their only possible forum for political dissent,” he said.
“Although it was obvious that opposition to the Shah was widespread and growing, the producers at CBS News in New York did not believe my report and refused to broadcast it,” he revealed.
It was in the French village near Paris that Fenton later found the opposition to the shah was being directed from the Imam’s “small unheated office,” which he said had only one telephone, but was used to pass orders that brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators out on the streets of Iran.
“Despite his years in exile, the Ayatollah’s influence was so considerable that opposition political leaders felt the necessity to make the pilgrimage to this French village to receive his blessing,” he said.
“He insisted that he had no desire to head the Islamic Republic and would prefer to retire to the holy city of Qom, from where he would oversee events,” he recalled.
“He also warned me that friendly relations could not be maintained with the United States unless the relations were placed on a new and more equal basis,” he added.
From his perspective, Fenton suggested the Imam had a detest for “the west in general and the United States in particular, for having put the shah on the throne and maintained him there.”
The overthrow of the shah, he said, “sent shock waves around the world” with the establishment of the Islamic Republic that gave Muslims a “new model for government.”
One of the reasons, it was not copied by other countries, was “perhaps because the Iranian experience seemed to have less relevance in the Sunni and Arab countries,” the journalist surmised.
“Nevertheless, Imam Khomeini’s ideas still carry weight among Shia populations in Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere,” he still believed.
With regard to the Arab spring now sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, Fenton pointed out that some observers argue that one lesson from the Imam’s life may have “relevance today is that an uprising needs strong leadership if it is to succeed in overturning a government.”
“Egypt and Tunisia have succeeded despite the absence of a strong leader because the armed forces in those countries sided with the protesters,” he believed.