In 1979, a coalition of Iranian liberals, leftists, and Islamists overthrew the tyrannical Shah Reza Pahlavi—and a new regime more dangerous and brutal than the last took its place.
An alliance of liberals, leftists, and Islamists made sense at first. The Shah oppressed them all more or less equally. But the Iranian Revolution, like so many others before it, devoured its children. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamists emerged the strong horse in the post-revolutionary struggle for power, and they liquidated the liberals and leftists.
One young Iranian man, who now goes by the name Reza Kahlili, joined Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards right at the beginning. He quickly became disillusioned, however, when he saw young people tortured and murdered in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Repressing his countrymen was not what he had in mind when he signed up. Rather than quit and place himself and his family under suspicion, he contacted the CIA and agreed to work as an American agent under the code name “Wally.”
“My role was to look and act the part of a devout Muslim enforcing all the new rules laid down by the mullahs,” he writes in his terrific book A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, which was released today by Simon and Schuster. “A full black beard was a mandatory accessory to the Guards’ uniform, and I sported one along with every other member of the Guards. The image of a scowling black-bearded Guard in uniform mustered fear and garnered respect. Playing the part of a zealot did not come naturally to me, and there were times I had to do things I dreaded: cautioning young girls to cover up, barking at kids for not displaying proper Islamic behavior, taking on the persona of a fanatic. I knew I would have to try to convince myself that doing these things allowed me to maintain my role—and maintaining my role allowed me to contribute to the downfall of the organization to which I so fervently imitated allegiance.”
Reza lives safely in Los Angeles now, though he hasn’t stopped doing whatever he can to contribute to the downfall of his home country’s repressive regime—a regime he understands better than most having spent so many difficult years pretending to serve it.
He and I spoke for an hour on the phone over the weekend.
MJT: So why did you join the Revolutionary Guards in the first place?
Reza Kahlili: It was a special time after the revolution against the Shah in 1979. Everyone was jubilant and thought democracy had finally arrived. We were promised that the clergy wouldn’t interfere in the new government, that people could choose the government they liked, that we would have freedom of speech and could criticize top officials. It was a great atmosphere at the time. We could stand on the corner and talk about politics. Everybody was really happy about the direction we thought it was going to take.
It was during this time that my friend Kazem told me about the opportunity with the Revolutionary Guards. They hired me immediately after the interview. I thought they were formed to serve the people, to protect the country, to help make sure the poor participated in the new infrastructure. I was willing to teach, I was willing to work, and that’s why I joined.
MJT: You had no idea Khomeini was going to take control of the country the way he did.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Reza Kahlili: I don’t think anybody had any idea. Everyone was so overwhelmed. We thought the Shah would never leave the country. It was unthinkable that anyone could force his regime to collapse. Something magical had happened.
MJT: Khomeini portrayed himself then as a democrat.
Reza Kahlili: Absolutely. I hope that I show that in the book. He deceived Iranians. He presented himself as a democrat. Everything he said indicated that different political parties would be involved, that the clerics would not interfere, that people would have the right to choose whatever they wanted. But he lied through his teeth. Everything he said was a lie. Nobody expected that from him because he was a figure from the 1960s. He was criticizing the Shah when nobody else dared to. Everybody thought of him as an honest, righteous man.
MJT: When we look at Iran now, it’s obvious that a huge percentage of Iranians don’t like the government. But we didn’t see these big demonstrations or hear much criticism of Khomeini in the 1980s. After he seized control, after he ran President Banisadr out of office and so on, it appeared, from here in the United States, that most Iranians supported him.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (copyright Getty Images)
Reza Kahlili: This is the fault of the Western media. Barely one year into the revolution, a majority of the people wanted Khomeini and the clerics gone. They started clamping down on every sector of the society after just four or five months. Then there was the hostage-taking, political parties were banned, and women were forced to wear hijab. Hezbollah gangs were in the streets. It all happened very quickly. People realized a much worse dictatorship was coming, and that’s when the resentment against Khomeini began.
Before the revolution, mainstream Iranians didn’t have that much resentment against the United States. Many Americans lived there. And from 1981 or so, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, people were praying every day and night that there would be a coup or that the U.S. would do something. They wanted to be freed from these clerics. There were demonstrations, there were uprisings, but they were never covered by the foreign mass media. They weren’t as large as the ones we’re seeing lately, so they were clamped down fast. Demonstrators were taken to prison, tortured, and killed.
Iranian post-revolutionary firing squad
MJT: What is this government’s ultimate goal?
Reza Kahlili: Every opinion put out by the Western analysts over the years has been wrong. Just last year Newsweek came out and said everything we know about Iran is wrong, but they found out a month later that they were wrong about everything they said. The same with the New York Times reporter, I forget his name.
The idea that this government is a dictatorship that wants to sustain power and therefore won’t do anything like use a nuclear bomb is incorrect, I think. They have shown through their behavior over the past three decades that they have one goal, and that’s to confront the West.
If you look more deeply into the thought processes of the people controlling the government, these are people who strongly believe Islam will conquer the world. Every act they commit is in that direction. They don’t just want a nuclear bomb to make them untouchable. They think it will be the trigger for Islam conquering the world.
If all they wanted was to protect their government, as many are saying, they have the best opportunity right now. They can negotiate with the West, join the global economy, be respected and all that, but they refuse to do so.
MJT: So do you think if they acquire nuclear weapons they will actually use them?
Reza Kahlili: They will.
MJT: Against Israel?
Reza Kahlili: You have to look at the parallel projects that they’re working on, the missile delivery system and the nuclear project. Currently they cover part of Europe. Their goal is to cover all of Europe. They’re not going to announce they have a bomb unless they have overcome the glitches of putting together a nuclear bomb and a nuclear warhead. But once they do that, they will make enough bombs so that all of Europe is under their coverage.
Iranian missile test
Reza Kahlili: Then they will begin their most aggressive behavior in trying to control the Middle East, moving toward the goal of destroying Israel, bringing the imperialistic system of economics to a halt, creating chaos, and waiting for the Mahdi to appear. It’s all right out in the open. Just look at their Mahdi philosophy.
MJT: They do say all this stuff out in the open. It’s just a bit hard for some of us to believe that they actually believe it. I take Iran more seriously than most Americans, and it’s still a bit hard for me to believe this.
Reza Kahlili: Look. It is hard for Westerners to believe this kind of philosophy. The problem is that everyone here has been raised with freedom and democracy. You are free to conduct your own research and have your own opinions. So this philosophy immediately sounds to you like nonsense. I mean, why would they want to do such things?
I can argue both sides of the coin. If you don’t believe they’re going to do it—and a lot of people don’t—the least that’s going to happen if they become a nuclear power is that they’ll become more aggressive and hold the world hostage. Just look at the past thirty years of behavior. They arm Hezbollah, Hamas. The defense minister is on Interpol’s Most Wanted list. They’re providing arms to the Taliban. They’ve gone to Venezuela, Mexico, they’re spreading their forces. The least that will happen is they’ll become the power in the Middle East and they’ll control the energy resources of the world. This is a logical argument, based just on previous behavior, if they become a nuclear power.
The twelve imams, beginning with Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. The hidden or “occulted” twelfth imam, or Mahdi, is on the far left.
Twelver Shias believe the Twelfth Imam, or Mahdi, will return to bring peace and justice to the world during a time of massive upheaval and chaos. Khomeini and his disciples deviate from traditional Shia doctrine and say the deliberate creation of upheaval and chaos may hasten the Mahdi’s return.
Reza Kahlili: The other side of the coin is the crazy talk. They believe what they say. I know they do. I know Khamenei has private prayers with the Mahdi. It’s all crazy talk, but they take it seriously. Thirty years ago they were told the Mahdi wants them to proceed with the nuclear project, and that’s why they’re not bending. They think they’re untouchable and that the Mahdi wants it.
It would be a disaster for the world. They should not be allowed to become a nuclear armed power. It should be totally unacceptable.
MJT: What do the Revolutionary Guards think of Iran’s regular army? It’s the Shah’s old army, right?
Reza Kahlili: Yes, it’s the Shah’s old army, but they control it now.
MJT: Correct me if I’m wrong here, but if the regular army is a conscription army, the political opinions of regular soldiers should more or less reflect those of the society. And if most of the country is against the government, doesn’t it follow that most of the army is also?
Reza Kahlili: After the revolution the regular army was the Shah’s army, yes. That’s why the Revolutionary Guards were formed. Just like the other forces, it was formed to confront the forces of the Shah. But now the army officers come from the Revolutionary Guards. The regime has full control of the regular army. They are separate military organizations, but as of the past ten or fifteen years, it is theirs.
MJT: Saddam Hussein only trusted his elite Republican Guard. He didn’t trust the regular army so much. So you’re saying there isn’t a similar dynamic in Iran, where all the trusted officers are in the Revolutionary Guard?
Reza Kahlili: The Revolutionary Guard is the main force, but the regular army no longer has the commanding infrastructure that would allow it to attempt a coup or confront the Guards.
They don’t even use the Revolutionary Guards against the people. They have special groups for that like Hezbollah and the Basij. They have trained these groups to be harsh and wild and ruthless. These are the dogs they unleash on people.
MJT: I’m a bit surprised that over the past year, since uprising after the fake election, that more people haven’t been killed during street demonstrations. I expected thousands to be killed like in China in 1989. If Khamenei were to order something like that, would the Revolutionary Guards carry it out?
Reza Kahlili: That is a very good question.
What happened in Iran totally destroyed the legitimacy they claimed to have, that they represent God and protect the oppressed. So if Khamenei wanted to do what he has seen other dictators do by killing thousands, I am sure it would affect the Revolutionary Guards’ mentality and spirit. They might not participate. That’s a very good question.
They don’t use the Revolutionary Guards to beat people or knife them or spy on them. They have the Basij and the special forces and the plainclothes police for the dirty jobs. The regular forces couldn’t sustain such an act. It would deeply affect them.
MJT: So what do you think they would do if they were given those orders? Would they just refuse to comply, or would they move against the government?
Reza Kahlili: They won’t move against the government. They just wouldn’t carry it out. They wouldn’t show up. Or if they did show up, they wouldn’t do what would be expected of them. It would create doubt in the hearts of the loyal forces who would fight a foreign force to the last drop of blood.
MJT: If you’re right about that, the government is eventually going to lose.
Reza Kahlili: The government will eventually lose, but we still have to help Iran’s people. It’s a race. It’s a race to overthrow the government before they build nuclear arms, because once they have nuclear weapons, they’ll be untouchable.
MJT: Well, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to stop them, but they could still be overthrown from inside, couldn’t they?
Reza Kahlili: People cannot overthrow this government just by demonstrations. That’s not going to happen.
MJT: So how could they do it?
Reza Kahlili: One scenario would be a military confrontation between the Western powers where the West controlled the skies over Tehran. The people could take care of the government. The West doesn’t need to invade or blow up the country. Just take out the Guards and the Basijis. We know the location of every base. Just take them out. Every time they move, take them out. They could be destroyed in a matter of weeks. But to think that people can come out into the streets and overthrow the government by themselves—that’s not going to happen.
MJT: There are a lot of people in the United States, and in the Obama Administration, who believe that if we were to do something like that, most people in Iran would support the government against a foreign enemy.
Reza Kahlili: Let me tell you this. There have been certain people in back channels who have sold different ideas at different times with the same goals, to get the West into an inaction situation. We’ve seen this for three decades. By that I mean they put out the idea that if you say anything bad or even try to do anything that you’re weakening the moderates.
When Mohammad Khatami was president, they said the West had to stay on the sidelines. Later they said that if the West used harsh sanctions, it would hurt the people, and they’d be unhappy with us because it would be our fault and they wouldn’t sympathize with our cause.
Then there was this line that if you attack, they’ll join the government. And now there’s this claim that the nuclear issue is a matter of national pride and that the people will support the government.
All of these are total b.s. This is sold by the mullah’s lobbies in Washington, and it has been going on for years and years. They have influence in the State Department and the White House.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
MJT: When you say the mullah’s lobbies in Washington, who exactly are you talking about?
Reza Kahlili: They are groups that represent the Iranian-American societies in the U.S. All you have to do is look and see who does what.
MJT: I think I know who you mean.
Reza Kahlili: There are quite a few of them. Every one of them has tried to persuade Congress and the White House not to implement sanctions. They were successful during the time of President Clinton. Madeleine Albright publicly apologized, as that was one of the requirements for normalization.
These are the open acts they’ve done. There are more in back channels. These people have access to the State Department, and they travel to Iran. They lead the U.S. administrations into inaction.
Right now, President Obama is another casualty of those people. He got signals from Ahmadinejad and others, the same characters, who said he should try to bend backwards and send a letter directly to Khamenei. And here we are, a year later. Not only has that not worked out, putting pressure on China and Russia hasn’t worked out. China and Russia don’t agree with crippling sanctions. They just want a watered-down resolution that isn’t going to have much effect.
Let me ask you this: Do you think people who are being raped, killed, and tortured—people who cannot breathe or talk on the phone about what’s going on—do you think they are going to be mad if the U.S. takes the government out? No.
MJT: Well, I know at least some of them won’t be angry because they’ve told me they won’t be angry.
Reza Kahlili: Of course. I mean, I don’t know how many of the 69 million people feel this way, but I can tell you that on the streets of Tehran and other cities, under no circumstances are they going to support this government unless there is an invasion. If there is an invasion by a foreign force like Iraq, of course people won’t like it.
Iranian trench during the Iraqi invasion in the 1980s
Reza Kahlili: It would terrify them. Who wants foreign forces landing and all that destruction? But I know many of them want the U.S. to take action and take these people out. But they don’t want their country destroyed.
MJT: And they don’t want it occupied.
Reza Kahlili: Of course. No one wants the country to be occupied.
MJT: A far more likely scenario, though, is the Israelis bomb the nuclear facilities. I can’t see the Obama Administration taking any kind of action, but the Israelis might. What do you foresee happening if they do? I realize no one can really predict the future, but how might something like that affect Iranian public opinion and internal politics?
Reza Kahlili: Israel is a special subject. People in Iran do not sympathize with Israel the way they sympathize with the U.S. They’re looking for help, right? But they’re not looking for the same kind of help from Israel.
So if Israel bombs the facilities in Iran, don’t expect people to come out into the streets to celebrate or confront the government forces. That’s not going to happen. They’re just going to sit at home and pray this thing doesn’t get out of hand.
Reza Kahlili: Israel will take a big penalty for doing such, but the Obama Administration might drag its feet so long that the Israelis think they have no other choice. There will be a major war if they do it, most likely. I mean, nobody knows, as you said. But it’s likely, and Israel could pay a very heavy price.
If the Israelis do this, the West had better support them and make sure it means the end of the Iranian government. Just a hit and run won’t solve anything.
MJT: What if the Israelis destroyed the Revolutionary Guards? How might the Iranian people react to that?
Reza Kahlili: That would be very different from just destroying the nuclear facilities. I would say that if any power takes on the Revolutionary Guards, they will find sympathy from the Iranian people. Even Israel.
MJT: Iranians don’t hate Israel the way Arabs do.
Reza Kahlili: No. It’s very different. We have family members who are Jewish. This wasn’t a problem during the Shah’s time. Iranian people do not hate Israel like they do in Arab countries. We aren’t Arabs. Persians are very different from Arabs. I’m sure you know that.
MJT: Oh, yes.
Iranian women fight back against the Basij
Reza Kahlili: There is animosity between Persians and Arabs. I mean, I don’t think there is anything wrong with Arabs, I don’t want to sound like a racist, we’re all humans, but Iranians feel animosity toward Arabs, even more now since the revolution.
MJT: Why more now? Because of the Iran-Iraq war or because of Khomeini’s Arabization policies?
Reza Kahlili: Because of the religion. Iranians believe that what the mullahs have brought to Iran is the religion of Arabs. A lot of Iranian officials, many of them, lived in Iraq and Syria for so many years that they speak Arabic better than they speak Persian.
And on top of that, the clerics have continuously attacked our Persian heritage. Every custom that Iranians have is being replaced with an Arab one. This is something Iranians really resent.
MJT: Let’s say President Barack Obama invites you to the White House and says, “Reza, I need your advice. What should I do?” What would you tell him?
Reza Kahlili: I would tell him that he needs to do the following, and this is just my opinion, obviously.
Immediately, the Western countries should cut off all shipping lines and air lines, and deport all Iranians who work in offices connected to the Iranian government. They’re Quds Force members. They’re intelligence guys. Deport them. And stop sending refined oil to Iran. They rely on that.
Corner the country and give them a deadline. And if the Iranian government doesn’t give up its program, take it out. Do not allow this country to become nuclear armed. Sanctions are not going to work.
In the worst case scenario, if there is a military confrontation, do not invade the country. Do not destroy the country. Take the Revolutionary Guards out. If you take the Revolutionary Guards out, this government can’t last 24 hours.
An uprising against the Iranian government
Reza Kahlili: We know all their bases. We know all their officers. We know all their buildings. If they move in convoys, take them out. And that will be the end of this government.
MJT: [Long silence.]
Reza Kahlili: It needs a lot of courage and understanding of what we’re facing right now. All this talk of sanctions and ultimatums is not going to change anything.
MJT: The administration does not want to hear this. Nobody wants to hear this. And I have a hard time imagining anything like it happening.
Reza Kahlili: Yes.
But the advantage of this government not being in the Middle East will be huge. It will weaken Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Venezuela [laughs], and bring benefits to many parts of the world.
It will weaken China and Russia and their foreign policies. It would be huge. If we are able to achieve this, not only would it be fantastic for the people of Iran, it would benefit the whole world.
You’ve read my book. You know where my heart is.
Reza Kahlili: I’m in pain because of my people. I’m in pain because of what I’ve seen. I’m in pain because the West doesn’t get it. I didn’t have to come out, Michael. I was living under the radar. Nobody even knew I existed. I’m putting myself out there to get this message across, to sound an alarm, and hoping that somebody will listen.
Reza Kahlili is a pseudonym used by the author to protect himself, his family, and his friends from retaliation by the Iranian government. He lives somewhere in Los Angeles. You can order your copy of A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran from Amazon.com.
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