May 25, 2013
Will the Egyptian Revolution Also Devour Its Young?
Posted on Feb 18, 2011
By Barry Lando
Egypt in February 2011 is not Iran in January 1979, and those darkly predicting that Egypt’s revolution is fated to turn into another Islamic dictatorship are ignoring the many stark differences between the two situations. But as Egypt enters an unknown course, I am reminded of the fate of Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, once Iran’s foreign minister, ultimately destroyed by the man and movement he devoted his life to bring to power.
I first met him in October 1976 in Paris when I was a producer at “60 Minutes” teamed up with Mike Wallace. I was investigating the activities outside Iran of the shah’s feared secret police, the Savak. The most remarkable story came from Ghotbzadeh, then a 37-year-old Iranian dissident, active with one of the many exile groups in the French capital. A handsome, impeccably dressed Iranian, he spoke fluent English and French and had been working against the shah since his university days in the United States. He introduced us to a stocky 67-year-old Armenian by the name of Jules Khan Pira—his would-be assassin.
In heavily accented French, Khan Pira recounted how, under threat of a complex blackmail scheme by the Savak, he had been ordered to assassinate several opposition leaders. At the top of the list was Ghotbzadeh.
This led to one of the most unlikely interviews we had ever filmed: a large suite at the George V, a dapper Ghotbzadeh in dark blazer and tie, and sitting next to him, the shabbily dressed Khan Pira, the two revolvers that Khan Pira said he had received from a Savak agent sitting on a table between them.
Improbable as it seemed, Khan Pira’s tale checked out both in France and the U.S. But what is most revealing in retrospect is that nowhere in the “60 Minutes” report did we feel the need to mention specifically what Ghotbzadeh was up to in Paris. He was the major representative in Western Europe and America of an elderly, bearded, Iranian cleric, who was then exiled in Iraq and hardly known in the West, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. At the time, in fact, Khomeini seemed to be a very discardable footnote to our story.
Most intriguing of all to me was the key role that Muslim clerics and their leaders such as Khomeini were playing in all of this, even from exile. There was an underground network among the theological centers of learning and the mosques across Iran. There were clandestine newspapers and an elaborate system of circulating Khomeini’s revolutionary speeches via audiocassettes throughout the country.
Very little of this had been noticed by the Western press, which was the major reason I was unable to persuade “60 Minutes” to do a report. Finally, in October 1978, with introductions arranged by Ghotbzadeh, I flew to Tehran and was plugged into the clandestine network of the Islamic movement. It was a curious mixture of professors and students of all ages, Muslim clerics from ragged villages in the countryside to the holy city of Qom, wealthy shopkeepers from Tehran’s sprawling Bazaar and middle-class professionals. Many of them, like Ghotbzadeh, had been educated in the U.S. or Western Europe.
I was impressed by their fervor, but also by the fact that, when pressed, none seemed to be able to define precisely what an Islamic revolution was all about. One evening I met with a group of about 10 young men and women in Tehran, many of them university students and teachers. After a lengthy discussion of the ongoing revolt, I suddenly asked what an Islamic government would actually look like. Well for one thing, said one young man in a dark turtleneck, “Women would have to cover their hair.” The women in the room seemed to agree.
“But what if a woman didn’t want to cover her hair?” I asked.
“Then her brother or her husband would take her aside and try to convince her,” said another man, with a soft smile.
“And what if she still didn’t want to?”
“We would keep trying to convince her,” said the man, still smiling.
“And, if after all that, she finally still refused?”
“That would be her right,” said one of the women.
“No,” said a man, “in that case, she would not be allowed to go out.”
“And if she still insisted?”
“We might have to put her in prison,” said the man in the turtleneck. His words seemed to surprise several in the room.
“For now such questions are secondary,” one of the teachers said. “The immediate work at hand is to bring down the shah. Defining the new government will come later through democratic elections.”
The revolution was now gaining momentum, with weekly marches and weekly martyrs. The shah seemed totally unable to deal with the situation. Back in Paris, Ghotbzadeh told me he was heading to Iraq to see Khomeini. “Look,” I said, “if I can get you a small film camera would you take pictures of him for us?” He was delighted with the idea, he said, since it would also give him a chance to get some film footage of Khomeini to circulate in Iran for his own purposes. Up till then, he had none.
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