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.
Over the next few months, however, Ghotbzadeh, with the fervor of the true believer, continued to provide me the latest printed petitions and protests from the Iranian opposition, condemning this or that brutal aspect of the shah’s regime and calling on a highly indifferent world to take action.
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.
But events were moving too fast. The French government, always attuned to the changing political winds, yielded to Ghotbzadeh’s entreaties and allowed Khomeini to go to Paris.
By December 1978, it was obvious that the shah was out. Ghotbzadeh was exultant as we entered a fine restaurant for lunch in Paris. He was immediately recognized by the maitre d’ and escorted to the best table. The now 39-year-old dissident, who for years had traveled about from one Western capital to another, staying in shabby hotels, attempting to interest reporters and politicians with his apparently forlorn cause, representing an Iranian cleric none had even heard of, was now appearing on everyone’s TV screen. He was one of the key spokesmen for the bearded ayatollah, whose image was now recognized around the world. They were on the brink of power. The shah’s rapid collapse had amazed everyone, including the opposition.
In a few days they would fly to Tehran, Ghotbzadeh told me with supreme confidence. Khomeini would be the new guard’s spiritual leader, but the real source of government, he assured me, would be Western-educated reformers like himself.
I raised the question of the world’s great revolutions and how they all seemed to follow the same dynamic—from the French to the American to the Russian. How they all seemed to arrive at some terror, how they devoured their young before they subsided and the political pendulum gradually swung back to center. “How will you avoid being devoured?” I asked Ghotbzadeh, only half in jest. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We know what we’re doing.”
That’s, of course, not the way it worked out. The revolution became increasingly chaotic, increasingly radicalized, as competing parties and factions struggled violently for power, particularly after the American hostages were taken. Ghotbzadeh maneuvered desperately, trying to stay on the political tightrope—head of Iranian TV, ultimately foreign minister.
He helped us get an exclusive interview with Khomeini after the hostages were taken. Nine months later, in December 1980, with the hostages still being held, we returned to Iran. War had broken out with Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded, quietly encouraged by the United States.
We interviewed Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, an economist turned president who was totally out of his element. The war had even further radicalized politics in Iran, and Bani-Sadr had become a virtual prisoner in his own presidential palace. The Imam Khomeini had thrown in his lot with the Islamic radicals. The Western-educated revolutionaries such as Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh had been thrust to the side.
In a Kafkaesque interview, Bani-Sadr talked frankly of the mounting wave of torture and repression under what in theory was his own government. He condemned the road the revolution seemed to be taking. Shortly afterward he fled for his life to become an exile in Paris.
Ghotbzadeh chose a different fate. A few months before our visit he had been thrown in prison, charged with conspiring against the regime. It was only Khomeini’s personal intervention that saved him.
Ghotbzadeh was released, and ordered by the imam to go home, stay there and stop his plotting.
Our last evening in Tehran in December 1980, Wallace and I went over to Ghotbzadeh’s spacious residence. He greeted us with a wan smile. He was blunt in his criticism of Khomeini and the way in which the revolution had been perverted from the goals that Western-educated Iranians had hoped it would take. “The imam,” said Ghotbzadeh, “had promised us before the shah fell that, once the revolution had won, he would go back to the holy city of Qom and give us occasional spiritual guidance. But the real job of government would be left to us. But he misled us. Once he tasted power, he liked it. We were betrayed.”
It was obvious Ghotbzadeh was ignoring Khomeini’s stern warning to stop conspiring. Several people were there, some of them mullahs, others with the bearing of military officers. They talked softly in small groups. Occasionally one came over to speak in Farsi with Ghotbzadeh. Yet Ghotbzadeh was still optimistic about the future, he said as we left. It was after midnight. The others remained.
Ghotbzadeh was rearrested a few months later and charged with attempting to overthrow the Islamic government in order to establish a secular republic. Though at his trial he denied the accusation, he was also charged with planning to assassinate the Imam Khomeini, the man he helped bring to power.
On Sept. 21, 1982, at Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison, Ghotbzadeh was placed before a wall and executed, shot through the neck.
AP / Lefteris Pitarakis
An Egyptian protester flashes the V-sign as riot police use water cannons against protesters in Cairo in the early days of the uprising.