Revolutions devouring their own
In the Atlantic article I discussed yesterday, a name on the first page caught my eye: Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the Iranian foreign minister at the time of the hostage crisis.
Suddenly, although I hadn't thought of him in decades, the memory came back. Ghotbzadeh! I recall his sardonic, jaded, man-of-the-world expression--a strange combination of arrogance and weariness. As the spokesperson for the regime, he was featured often on TV (I think on the nascent "Nightline," then entitled "America Held Hostage"). As a visible and familiar figure, he became somewhat of a focus for my frustration and annoyance with the entire situation. Something about him seemed hollow, although he was clearly intelligent and articulate.
As events unfolded, it turned out that Ghotbzadeh was one of those cautionary figures, a man who was instrumental in planning a revolution that then got away from him and proceeded to devour him in the process. Like Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins; like Trotsky and so many other engineers of the Russian revolution who were slaughtered in the great purges; authors of violent revolutions often come to violent ends at the hands of their violent former comrades.
Thus it was with Ghotbzadeh. Here he is:
Ghotbzadeh was close to the Ayatollah Khomeini while both were in exile in Paris, and became one of his right-hand men back home in the early days of the revolution. He seems to have been motivated most strongly by hatred of the Shah's regime. But, paradoxically, his role in the hostage crisis was as a relative moderate (accent on the "relative;" moderate in comparison to what?). He seemed to be working for a diplomatic solution, and lost favor with the Iranian powers that be in the process.
Former hostage and Ambassador at the time, Bruce Laingen, has this to say about Ghotbzadeh:
I didn't like him at the outset for the role he played as Foreign Minister, but I sensed as time went on over those months, that he came to the conclusion, himself, fairly early, that this hostage business was counterproductive to the revolution and that it needed to be ended. I think he genuinely wanted to end it and was prepared to make some concessions to do that. And he stuck his neck out to do that. He showed some guts.
It all unraveled rather quickly:
Ghotbzadeh finally resigned in 1980 over the deadlock in negotiations. That year, after he was arrested and briefly detained after criticizing the ruling Islamic Republican Party, he retired from public life. In 1982 he was arrested on charges of plotting against the regime. Although he denied any conspiracy to take Khomeini's life, he apparently admitted complicity with Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariat-Madari in a plot to overthrow the government. Ghotbzadeh was convicted in August 1982 and executed the following month.
Did he really plan to end the Khomeini reign, and, if so, with what was he planning to replace it? Or were the charges trumped up, and was he forced to confess to crimes he didn't commit? At the time, I remember being astounded at the news of his startling reversal of fortune and allegiance; it was quite a switch from disliking him to feeling some sympathy for the man.
Guillotining having gone out of style, Ghotbzadeh was shot by a firing squad shortly after his trial. The revolution had eaten another of its own.
But not everyone connected with the early days of the revolution has met such a fate. Others connected with the hostage crisis have prospered. It's unclear whether or not the current Iranian President, our good friend Ahmadinejad, was one of those "student" hostage-takers, although several former hostages have identified him as such. But there's very little doubt about the identity of another former hostage-taker who's riding high at present: Hussein Sheikholeslam, recently an Iranian diplomat and legislator.
Why do I mention Sheikholeslam? Only because I came across an interesting fact about him, an indication of the sort of cross-fertilization process that seems to have been at work in the revolutions of the 60s/70s. Sheikholeslam may not have been an actual student at the time of the hostage-taking in Iran. But whether or not Sheikholeslam was a student at that point, he certainly had been a student earlier--at UC Berkeley, where he learned a thing or two:
UC Berkeley gained a reputation as a center of student anti-war protest during the 1960s and 1970s. During that tempestuous period, an Iranian student named Hussein Sheikh-ol-eslam attended Cal. He became fluent in English. He also absorbed the demonstrations criticizing American imperialism in Vietnam and other nations.
After Hussein returned to Iran, writes Mark Bowden in his new book, "Guests of the Ayatollah," his anti-Americanism planted deep roots in his Islamic religion. In late 1979, the tree connected to those roots bore ugly fruit.
The student protests of the 60s didn't actually revolutionize much in the political sense in this country. The "revolution" they began here was more cultural than anything else. But not so in Iran, where students who had learned the anti-American and propaganda lessons of the 60s used them later to great effect. Some forget that the 60s didn't just happen in this country; the protests occurred in Europe as well.
Khomeini spent some of his exile in France, but I was surprised to learn (from Wikipedia, so this could be taken with a grain of salt) that the French were not necessarily simpatico to him during his rather short sojourn there:
In 1963, [Khomeini] publicly denounced the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He was thereby imprisoned for 8 months, and upon his release in 1964, he made a similar denunciation of the United States. This led to his forced exile out of Iran. He initially went to Turkey but was later allowed to move to Iraq, where he stayed until being forced to leave in 1978, after then-Vice President Saddam Hussein forced him out...after which he went to Neauphle-le-Château in France. According to Alexandre de Marenches (then head of the French secret services), France suggested to the Shah that they could "arrange for Khomeini to have a fatal accident"; the Shah declined the assassination offer, arguing that this would make him a martyr.
[NOTE: My post about Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, is relevant here. Nafisi, an Iranian national, likewise fell in with other radical Iranian students while studying in this country. Then, when she returned to Iran, she saw quite a few of those former associates imprisoned--and in some cases executed--by their former comrades-in-arms.]