Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 July 2019

Exiled Iran critic Mehrdad Khonsari: The dream I had for my country turned to ashes

Iran's ageing opposition mourn lost opportunities 40 years after the Islamic revolution

Mehrdad Khonsari in London. Stephen Lock / The National 
Mehrdad Khonsari in London. Stephen Lock / The National 

For Mehrdad Khonsari, the personal impact of Iran’s 1979 revolution was not clear until a recent visit to Japan, where he was struck by a contrast in fortunes with his homeland.

The former diplomat grew up as a scion of the Shah’s inner circle. His father had served as first deputy foreign minister until the last weeks of the monarchy. The son was working in the country’s embassy in London when the Islamic Republic was declared. In the 40 years since he has not returned home.

His epiphany in Japan came when he thought of how the Shah’s government had pursued Japanese-style advancement.

Speaking to The National at a west London tennis club, Mr Khonsari recalled how the Shah’s drive for social progress predated the enormous windfall from oil exports in the last decade of Reza Pahlavi's reign.

“The transformation of Iran from feudal backward country took place in 15 years. It was called a second Japan for a while and the Shah was consumed with that project but as a result he made mistakes in pursuing it,” Mr Khonsari said.

“The Shah cultivated a feeling in me, and many people like me, of a resurgent Iran, an Iran that would rise and become a modern power,” he added. “It was only much later that I recognised that the dream I had for my country, which had been instilled in me by the Shah, had turned to ashes and I would never see realised what I had wanted as young man.”

As a self-confessed Young Turk in the monarchy’s inner circle, Mr Khonsari often saw the Shah at first hand. While working as private secretary to the 1970s foreign minister, Ali Abbas Khalatbari, he was regularly in the monarch’s presence. As such he witnessed the flaws of a government centred around one driven man determined to impose his vision on a 2,500 year old culture.

“I am not unbiased, I have sympathy for the Shah,” he said. “From eight in the morning to eight in the evening, the Shah was behind his desk. But the Shah had become arrogant as he tried to put Iran on the map.

“Sadly it did not work because he was supposed to a constitutional monarch.”

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2016 file photograph, an Iranian woman holds the national flag during a rally commemorating the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, in Tehran, Iran. Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution initially inspired both Islamic militants and Islamists across the Mideast. They saw the revolution as the starting gun in a competition to push out the strongman Arab nationalism that had taken hold across the Middle East. However, analysts say Iran's push to back militants in the wider Mideast and Saudi Arabia's efforts to mobilize the Sunni world against the Shiite power would turn many away. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)
An Iranian woman holds the national flag during a rally commemorating the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, in Tehran in 2016. AP Photo

The tumult of the revolution came as shock to Mr Khonsari, who was educated in Europe and the US, and had worked in Washington as well as Tehran before his appointment as press attache in London.

He recalls how he and his fellow diplomats were told the Islamic Republic had been established on a Sunday night, the eve of the working week.

In the light of the collapse of other regimes across the region, he pointed out the transition between governments was seamless.

He recalls the now virtually forgotten fact that the US and Britain were among the first foreign states to recognise the transitional government of Mehdi Bazargan, which ruled between February and November, 1979.

On Monday morning, Mr Khonsari turned up to work and sat at his desk wondering what the future would hold.

In fact he was soon involved in a piece of superpower diplomacy. As the embassy's designated liaison with American diplomats, Mr Khonsari received a phone call from the desk officer April Glaspie. She was later to find notoriety as the US ambassador to Iraq, when she was accused of greenlighting Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait.

Ms Glaspie expressed concern that a Soviet-aligned militia was establishing itself at military installations around Tehran and elsewhere. She asked if her interlocutor could make these fears known to the Soviet embassy.

The following day Mr Khonsari got a chance to do so. And on Friday he received a return phone call from the Soviet counsellor that Moscow would be recognising the transitional government.

The danger the revolution could bring the type of chaos recently seen in Syria and Libya was contained within a week, he concludes.

“While the American feared these surrogates of the Soviets could take advantage of the situation but between Monday and Friday the Soviets had recognised it couldn’t be done and recognised the new government,” he said.

As Mr Khonsari struggled with conflicted loyalties, he watched other members of the staff rush to embrace the new order. The Charge d'Affaires held a meeting to sign a pledge of support for the Islamic Republic and Mr Khonsari was one of four from the 46 diplomatic staff who refused to sign.

Within two months he had resigned after receiving the news that his former boss, Dr Khalatbari had been executed. “I had served in his office for more than two years and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “I couldn’t serve, he was an innocent victim to the hilt.”

With hindsight he notes that many of those who rushed to pledge loyalty also fell foul of the tightening grip that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his henchmen exercised on the new government.

“The Khomeini regime did not fall for the sycophants, they punished them,” he said.

In fact, the suffering under the new authorities came as a shock in the aftermath of a relatively bloodless consummation of the revolution. Mr Khonsari recalls how he travelled to Paris in December 1978 to remonstrate with his father for going into exile, yet subsequent developments showed how prescient that decision had been.

“Nobody had imagined that anyone would get executed after the revolution,” he said.

“A couple of months later I was grateful he had left when my mother was arrested. My parents were divorced but they were after my father. It took two months for them to recognise this but the time in prison had life-changing consequences for her.”

After decades of political activism, Mr Khonsari advises that democracy cannot be "turned on with a button" in ancient cultures. Now dedicated to a cause of reconciliation and transition, he laments how an increasingly hardcore faction monopolises control in Iran.

“Look at it in context of 40 years, no political actor in Iran in the ruling establishment – or among the opposition – is where they were in 1979,” he said. “Then the constituency that brought Khomeini to power was unified. Out of it came the organisations like the IRGC, the revolutionary foundations, all the paramilitaries and surrogates outside Iran.

“They were unified and behind the revolution but a hell of a lot has happened since.”

Under the iron grip of the second supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, the regime has shrank to factions of loyalists with vested interests in maintaining a status quo. He points to leading figures who clearly support a different outlook but are stymied by the hardliners, including the now deceased former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and the current foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“I now think that 90 per cent of the people running the country now think like me and that the 100 per cent commanded by Khomeini has shrunk to 10 per cent,” he said.

Whether a transition can come in time for Mr Khonsari remains unknowable but the sacrifices of 40 years can’t be erased.

“When the revolution happened we were all young, we didn’t think about death or things like that,” he said. “It was only when my mother was terminally ill much later in 2003 and I knew I couldn’t go when the emotional impact set in,” he said.

Updated: February 11, 2019 09:47 AM