Shahpour Bakhtiar served as prime minister in the last weeks of the Shah’s regime. Since escaping from Iran after February 1979 he has been living in exile. Fred Halliday spoke with him in Paris in August 1981.
Mr. Bakhtiar, what is your estimation of the current strength of the Iranian regime?
As I have explained ten thousand times, the problem of Khomeini was the widespread belief that he has a divine mission. People followed him and thought he would create a paradise in Iran. Now less than a quarter of those who believed in him two years ago still do so. But these believers have certain advantages: They are armed, they receive funds, and they are imposing a reign of terror. Khomeini gained support because he was opposed to the corrupt regime of the Shah. But his outlook is completely archaic — he is a blinkered, pigheaded mullah. Even within the Iranian context he is not really an Iranian. He is someone who believes that he has a divine mission, whether from refined charlatanism or from conviction I do not know. If Khomeini had had a program for Iran, it would have been possible for him to rule for many years. But you cannot go to bed one night and wake up the next day as a statesman. This is also the problem with halfwits like Bani-Sadr. For 14 years he sat here in France brewing up his economic system, tawhidi economics. What is revolting is the claim he makes that Iran is nothing without Islam. What they have done is very bad for Iran and for Islam, because there is now such a strong reaction against Islam in our country.
What is your evaluation of Bani-Sadr’s opposition and of the Mojahedin?
Bani-Sadr is a clown. He has been finished for at least the past year. If Khomeini’s government did anything legal, it was to depose Bani-Sadr. Why? Bani-Sadr helped to confect the Islamic Republic. He voted for it and for its constitution. He then presented himself as a presidential candidate. He must have read the text of this constitution, which makes clear the procedure for deposing the president: a vote in parliament, at the request of the president of the supreme court, and then the faqih’s approval — I prefer not to call him faqih but vaqih, the foul-mouthed. Anyway, Bani-Sadr had told Khomeini some months beforehand that he had submitted his resignation in writing, for Khomeini to use any time he wanted. In the end, Mr. Khomeini did get rid of him. The whole Islamic Republic is nonsense, but if you accept it then you must accept that the president can be dismissed.
There is a widespread sense that Bani-Sadr had become a symbol of opposition to the regime.
When political parties and individual freedoms are not allowed, such judgments are very difficult. Bani-Sadr was elected by 11 million votes. A short time later the same electorate chose a parliament in which Bani-Sadr’s supporters were in a minority. Is this natural? In both cases there was only one vote, that of Mr. Khomeini. Bani-Sadr backed the official line of the Islamic Republic and he was elected. He had no power of his own, and he ended up with Rajavi. Parliament would not support his proposed ministers. This man is responsible for the Kurdish and Turkoman-Sahra policies, and himself drowned the university in blood as president. As a member of the so-called Council of the Revolution, he condemned dozens of people to death without trial. He is what in France is called a coquette. When they are young, they do what they want; when they are old they become respectable and try to conform.
Bani-Sadr changed once he found that he could not find any opening in working with the leadership of the mullahs. He then started to flirt with the remnants of the National Front — that ratatouille of Sanjabi and other idiots. Then he flirted with the Mojahedin. People backed him because it was possible to do so. If they had shouted “Long live Madani” or “Bakhtiar” or “the Shah,” they would have been shot. So they said, “Long live Bani-Sadr.” But it is a complete illusion to think that people really supported him, let alone for him to think that the army would back him. This was another idiocy of his, to imagine that someone who had backed the mullahs as he had would gain respect in the army. Now his only allies are armed young people, trained by terrorists in Palestinian camps.
To be honest, I find there is something mysterious about these Mojahedin. I cannot see how they can be Marxist and Muslim at the same time, and they are Marxists in their whole political approach. I have no time for politicians who say there are Muslims. I am from a Muslim family and I will always remain a Muslim. But I absolutely reject this use of Islam for political purpose or as a way of trying to run a country. The mullahs must stay in the mosque. Brzezinski and Carter believed otherwise, but I do not accept this: So I do not comprehend the Mojahedin. Secondly, the Mojahedin are fanatical young people. When I was young I was in Nazi Germany and I saw the Hitler Youth. You could not argue with such people. I have never supported the Mojahedin and I do not think they have a future. Without knowing it, they are being manipulated by external forces. I have no proof of this, but it is not impossible.
What about the Tudeh?
At least with the Tudeh things are clear. This is just an administrative group remote-controlled from the Soviet Union. You can argue with a Marxist. I cannot understand this style of quoting the Qur’an all the time in political speeches. There is something hypocritical in this. It is both ridiculous and obscure.
A Muslim would reply that the great majority of the Iranian people do not accept secularism. To win them over you have to combine religion and politics.
We Iranians have been Muslim for centuries, but ours is an Islam of our own kind. The Islam of an educated Iranian includes elements from Greek philosophy, from Manicheanism, from Christianity. This can be found in the work of Persian poets like Moulavi and Masnavi. The Islam of an Iranian is selective. These poets practiced what we term irfan (mystically acquired knowledge) and someone like Moulavi knows more about the Qur’an than Khomeini does.
If you want to get back to real, original Islam, then Khomeini does represent this. That I accept. So we have a choice: either a hard and pure Islam — Khomeini’s version — or the Islam created in Iran over centuries. We have given Islam a human face: it is like the difference between Stalinism and Eurocommunism. We are now fighting those who advocate this hard and pure Islam, whether it be someone with a turban like Khomeini or someone like Bani-Sadr. We insist on human dignity. We do not want to be ruled by imbeciles, a reign of terror. We do not want the Islam of Khomeini or Rajavi. Rajavi was, I think, brought up under the influence of Ayatollah Taleqani. Taleqani was a man of very limited intelligence and he was an extremely weak man. Taleqani was a demagogue. If he was alive now he would be in jail. Such fanaticism is not necessary to Islamic countries: look at Syria, Iraq or Algeria. They are Muslims too, without being fanatics. These people say they represent the opposition. I was in prison five times under the Shah. I am not going to be given lessons in opposition by anyone.
Let us return to the period when you were prime minister, in January 1979. You tried to reach a compromise with Khomeini when he was still in Paris. Why did this not succeed?
It was the people around Khomeini. I wrote him a letter in which I said that I had struggled for years against the Shah and that I was delighted that freedom, prosperity and respect for Islam were now possible in Iran. I said I would like to talk to him in Paris, and I asked him not to pose any conditions. Khomeini accepted this, but others interfered. There was that little pig Bani-Sadr, as well as the fool Sanjabi. A minister of Mossadeq’s giving way to a mullah! I am glad that he met the fate he did later on. That foolish old man supported the Islamic Republic with his stupid arguments. I tried to act as a statesman, to avoid catastrophe.
Why did you allow Khomeini to come back to Iran?
First, it was practically impossible to stop him. Secondly, I am a lawyer and I believe that it is the legal right of every Iranian to come home when he wants to. I knew Khomeini was a crook, but I was still not prepared to stop him from returning. Thirdly, if Khomeini had stayed in France or elsewhere, and had died or been killed before showing what he was capable of, then he would have been glorified as the imam-e zaman, the imam of the age.
How do you evaluate US policy in this period? Could have they have done other than what they did?
The Americans had been pursuing a mistaken policy since August 1953. For short-term gains they forfeited the good will and the collaboration which we offered in the face of the Russians. We nationalists wanted to build a legal opposition, operating within the constitution. But the Americans opposed us, with the exception of the brief Kennedy period. The other American administrations were against any progressive liberalization in Iran. Some people in their embassy were with us, but the policy as a whole was against us.
Then came Carter. We derived hope from his electoral campaign when he said he would have problems with dictatorial regimes like South Korea. When he talked of human rights, we were with him. Unfortunately Carter could not make decisions. Under Carter a new ambassador, William Sullivan, was sent to Tehran. But in the two years he was there he made almost no contact with opposition personalities. At least I never met him. America knew things were going badly so they backed the Shah. They were also divided. They could have told the Shah that it was time to liberalize but they did not. This is the basic reason why Khomeini triumphed: the secular and other political parties had not been allowed to organize. Had we been able to organize — the Mossadeqists, the nationalists, even the conservatives — we would not have been so weak. Khomeini triumphed because of the inability of the others to organize: only the mullahs were able to do so.
Then we come to the Huyser mission, when I was prime minister. (Gen. Huyser, deputy commander of NATO forces, was a direct link between the White House and the Iranian military.) It was very confused. Sharif-Emami, who had been mixed up in all this dirty business for 20 years, was also involved, lt was decided the king had to go. lt was too late to save things: the king should have liberalized three months before, and he could then have stayed. I myself drew up a government program and I found seven common points, shared by all parties from the Tudeh to the far right: freedom of the press, freedom for political prisoners, dissolution of SAVAK and its replacement by an organization for foreign intelligence and counter-espionage, the reversion of the Pahlavi foundation to the state, and so forth. Under dramatic circumstances, I formed a cabinet. But I wanted to show that I had respect for the institutions of the country. I wanted an honorable solution: If people wanted me to stay I would. It was in this situation that the Americans played such a disgusting role. On the one side there was Huyser, who came to paralyze the army: I never met him. On the other was Mr. Carter. He was a liberal and did not have any antipathy to me. He wanted a progressive, liberal, civilian and nationalist government as 1 did. But the Pentagon had another view. George Ball got mixed up in it all. Vance hated the king. Brzezinski had his idea of a bastion against the USSR, and wanted to play the army card. I was getting contradictory signals. Then, after it was too late, Brzezinski looked for another bastion — religion.
Did the US play any role in the uprising of February 10-11, 1979, which overthrew your government?
They certainly did. Through Huyser the Americans told the Iranian army to declare its neutrality. That was the key thing. With all the difficulties and problems I had, if I had had the support of the army for 2-3 months, until the beginning of April, no more, than I can assure you Mr. Khomeini would have had to go to Qom and say his prayers.
It is said that you overestimated the loyalty of the army and the political resources at your disposal. You attempted a democratic transition, but by your mistakes you discredited a secular and democratic solution in Iran.
That is completely unfair. All I tried to do was to implement a Mossadeqist policy. I was formed in the school of social democracy. The army’s decision to be neutral was made only under the pressure of the Americans, through Huyser’s influence on traitors like Fardust and Qarabaghi. There is no doubt about it. That decision was not my fault: The army’s task is to maintain order and it did not do so. I have made mistakes, but I assure you that I have made fewer mistakes than anyone else. If an idiot like Bani-Sadr can become president after sitting here in France for fourteen years, then something has gone very seriously wrong.
Let us come to your present role in the opposition. It is alleged by many that you are politically discredited by your association with the Pahlavi court in exile, and by your links to the Iraqis. You have recently supported the Azadegan group, among whom the royalist faction of Princess Azadeh, daughter of Ashraf, is prominent.
I support Azadegan for the same reason I support anyone — they are fighting the regime in Iran. There is no contact between Ariana, who leads Azadegan, and Princess Ashraf. I told Ariana: It is popular sovereignty which must decide these things. A free Iran must decide.
But you are opening the door for the return of the Pahlavis by supporting the continued existence of the monarchy.
No, I am not. I support a constitutional regime with a monarchy, not the Pahlavis. A nonarchical regime on the Swedish, Belgian or British line would be less dangerous than a Madani-style presidential republic. None of these other opposition people has suffered from the Pahlavis all have, and if I now favor a constitutional monarch it is for two reasons. First, the people must decide: I am not like Khomeini who tells people what to think. Secondly, the Iranians may want such a system, for geopolitical reasons.
The other problem is your association with Baghdad. You have received a lot of money from them, and they blame you for not delivering what you promised inside Iran. You are, in the eyes of many Iranians, tied to Saddam Hussein.
Yes. I prefer Saddam to Khomeini. Saddam at least has done something for his people. In politics all positions entail certain problems. Khomeini and his clique have been insulting me for two 14 years as pro-American, yet they found nothing against me when they seized the documents in the US embassy. If there had been any proof, they should have found it then. So they did not wait for the Iraqi attack to start attacking me. When the Iraqis contacted me, I said I would fight Khomeini with or without them, until the end. Khomeini began the war with the Iraqis — he is the great criminal who declared the 1975 agreement null and void. The 1975 agreement, whoever signed it, was a logical one. I told the Iraqis that once Khomeini had been gotten rid of we would live in peace with neighboring countries. If I go back to Iran, I want the best relations with all our neighbors, and I will concern myself with the problems of my people. I will also not stir up the Kurds. Khomeini denounced the 1975 agreement and sent money to foment trouble between Sunnis and Shi‘a. Saddam then made the mistake of attacking Iran. The Iraqis say that you encouraged them by promising to organize mutinies inside the Iranian armed forces. I can assure you on my honor that I never knew of their plan. I never encouraged them. No Iranian could do such a thing. From the start of the war, I said that it was a disaster, lt has mobilized Iranian nationalism around the regime and this has been terrible for everyone, for the Iraqis and for us. I have made four statements formally condemning what Iraq has done. I knew they would crack their skulls in Iran — the war has resulted in many deaths, though not as many as Khomeini has caused at home.
This is not true. Yhe war has killed many tens of thousands in Iran, more than Khomeini’s executions. Saddam has also killed more of his own people than Khomeini has of his.
That I don’t know. What I have always known is that the military potential of Iraq could not compare even with that of a weakened Iran.
Even if you reject involvement in the war, you are linked to Baghdad. You have a radio there, they give you money.
The radio is only used to attack Khomeini and propagate a forthright nationalism. It is not like the BBC. What lies it tells! The BBC won’t interview me in Persian.
But the BBC was here to interview you last week.
The first time in one and a half years. The BBC has done more for Khomeini than it has for me.
This is a typical Iranian way of arguing — blaming your problems on foreigners.
I am an Iranian! People accuse me of being too European, so I am proud to be called an Iranian by you. I do not back Saddam. All I said is give me a radio. I have sent messages to the other states of the region. I sent three in one month to that fool Qaboos in Oman. I told him that we lost the lives of 850 officers and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help him during the Shah’s time. The US and the British pushed us to do this. But people forget these things quickly enough — the Omanis and the Kuwaitis are just valets of the British. The only person in the Arab world with guts is Sadat. He has the courage of his convictions — even to go to Tel Aviv. I have knocked on every door, and if your BBC gave me facilities tomorrow that would solve the problem. I have just two men there in Baghdad and an office, which handles these matters. It is like de Gaulle. The British bombed the French base at Mers el-Kabir and killed hundreds of French sailors. But de Gaulle saw that the struggle against the Germans was more important: he suffered, but he continued the fight against the main enemy.