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Iran's future foreign minister offered the FBI information, declassified docs show
Young revolutionaries Sadeq Qotbzadeh and Ebrahim Yazdi had some surprising interactions with American society while studying abroad.
The recent uprising in Iran has come with many accusations of working for intelligence agencies. The government frequently accuses its critics of working for sinister foreign powers, even executing a former official on those charges. As tends to happen in revolutionary movements, the opposition figures have also launched wide-ranging hunts for infiltrators in their midst.
Now is as good a time as any to share this article, which I drafted a couple years ago but never got published. It’s based on FBI files for Sadeq Qotbzadeh (also spelled Sadegh Ghotbzadeh) and Ebrahim Yazdi, key figures in the 1979 revolution that put the current Islamic Republic of Iran in power. I had obtained these files via public records requests while looking into Middle Eastern political figures who had studied in the United States.
The files cast light on how intelligence agencies worked during a past Iranian uprising. Some figures are central targets of surveillance, others are active informants or assets, and many more are side characters in larger intrigue. The most important individuals may not even be on intelligence agencies’ radar before their rise to power.
Iran’s foreign minister during the 1979 hostage crisis had been extensively monitored by the FBI when he was a young student in America, and even offered information to the FBI to clear up his case, declassified documents reveal.
FBI files also show that Harrel Tillman, a movie star and the first black judge in Texas, served as a representative of the “Ayatollah Khomeini people” in America before the 1979 revolution.
Sadeq Qotbzadeh is one of the most controversial figures of Iran’s 1979 revolution. The American-educated leftist was a close confidant of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and became one of the faces of the revolution for Western audiences. But Qotbzadeh soon fell out of favor with the Ayatollah, and was executed on charges of treason after torture and a show trial in 1982.
U.S. security services investigated a young Qotbzadeh on similar charges, back when he was a student and Iran was a U.S.-backed monarchy. The FBI built an extensive file on Qotbzadeh from the early 1960s onwards, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
A series of memos from 1962 suggest that Qotbzadeh may have been a source of information for the FBI. Agents had been investigating Qotbzadeh for several months, and a woman told Qotbzadeh that she had been interrogated “regarding his being active in some subversive organization,” according to the memo.
At the time, the Iranian foreign ministry was pushing the U.S. government to deport Iranian diaspora activists.
Qotbzadeh called the FBI on October 23 and offered to “furnish any information desired.” A memo from November 2 shows that agents in Washington planned to “immediately arrange to interview [Qotbzadeh] in order to bring this case to a logical conclusion.”
It is unclear what happened with Qotbzadeh’s offer. The full FBI file on Qotbzadeh is 234 pages long, but the Bureau has only released 64 heavily-censored pages.
Another memo from 1972 stated that Qotbzadeh had also been “interviewed” in April 1962, several months before the phone call. Most of the document was censored, so it is unclear whether the “interview” was with local police, the FBI, or some other institution.
The Freedom of Information Act allows any member of the public to request files from the archive of any U.S. government agency, simply by writing a letter. Officials can redact or withhold documents, but have to explain the reasons why.
The FBI invoked several reasons for withholding pages of Qotbzadeh’s file: respecting personal privacy, concealing the identity of informants, protecting “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions,” consulting with other agencies responsible for the files, and complying with unspecified federal laws outside the Freedom of Information Act.
Interestingly, the privacy protections in public records law usually do not apply to people who have died, which suggests that someone in Qotbzadeh’s file is still alive, and was mentioned in enough detail that the FBI had to redact entire pages.
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Several other prominent Iranian revolutionaries, including Qotbzadeh’s future colleagues Ebrahim Yazdi and Mostafa Chamran, were also studying in America around the same time.
Yazdi served as an Iranian government minister in 1980, but later formed an opposition party and spent the rest of his life at odds with authorities. His file is much shorter. The FBI released 24 pages, withheld 18 pages, and claimed that it needed to consult with other agencies on another 15 pages.
Most of the redactions in Yazdi’s files were made to protect law enforcement techniques, or because of unspecified other federal laws.
Some of the released documents were newspaper clippings about Yazdi’s rise to power. Others were memos about an extortion threat against Yazdi’s American family, which authorities chalked up to “prank calls.” Tillman, the lawyer for Yazdi’s family during the extortion case, presented himself to agents as representative of “the Ayatollah Khomeini 'people' in Houston.”
Tillman later showed up as a minor character in the October Surprise scandal, the allegation that Iran had plotted with the Republican Party to delay the release of American hostages during the 1980 election.
After it was revealed that Tillman had moved $3 million for a well-connected Iranian banker, the lawyer told the press that he was a friend of Republican politician George H.W. Bush and a “consultant” to the Iranian government.
Tillman, who passed away in 1998, was quite a colorful character. He served as the first black judge in Texas, ministered at a church, and acted in several movies.
A request to the FBI for Tillman’s file turned up three pages, but the FBI did not release the documents, claiming that they are the responsibility of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Chamran worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before helping found the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He was killed in 1981 during the Iraqi invasion of Iran. The FBI claims it found no files on Chamran in its archives.
Other present-day Iranian political figures have also studied in the United States, but the U.S. government usually does not release files on individuals who are still alive, due to privacy laws.
Qotbzadeh had a foot in multiple worlds. The Washington Post wrote in a 1979 profile that he had been a womanizer in his university years but always “found the time to pray five times a day to Mecca.”
A former classmate also told the FBI in 1979 that Qotbzadeh had “one weakness, a real liking of the Western lifestyle, but was also very much anti-American.”
The Iranian revolutionary arrived at Georgetown University in 1959 and soon became a nuisance for Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi, who was trying to keep a lid on the Iranian student population abroad.
At a February 1961 gala hosted by the Iranian Embassy, Qotbzadeh sparked a riot by taking the microphone and praising jailed anti-monarchist leader Mohammad Mossadegh.
The next month, Qotbzadeh shouted “down with the Iranian government, there is no freedom in Iran” at a Persian New Years gala. He was fined $10 for “disorderly conduct” by Washington, DC police.
A few months later, Qotbzadeh led twelve Iranian students in a sit-in hunger strike at the Iranian Embassy. They were warned by an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice that they were “visitors in the U.S. and should behave or risk losing their visas.”
Zahedi, who passed away in 2021, was known for building influence in Washington through extravagant parties held at the embassy. Public protests by dissidents was the last thing he needed.
The Iranian Embassy tried to have Qotbzadeh and nineteen other Iranians studying abroad deported, alleging that the students were Communist agitators. The U.S. Department of State asked the FBI to investigate, and the Kennedy administration concluded that the students were harmless.
“I told [U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk] that meant the shah was making up lists for the firing squad,” said Supreme Court justice William Douglas, according to Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “The FBI report is in, and not a bloody one of these kids is a communist, so I just told Rusk to go chase himself.”
Shah is the Persian word for king. The Iranian monarchy had a secret police service, whose reputation for brutality was growing in the years leading up to the revolution.
In addition to the Iranian government, Qotbzadeh faced “students on campus at that time connected with the Royal Family, as well as other students who were pro-Shah,” according to an FBI memo from 1979.
Qotbzadeh was eventually deported in 1963, because the Iranian embassy refused to renew his passport. He traveled around the Middle East, meeting the exiled Khomeini in Iraq and the activist cleric Ayatollah Musa Sadr in Lebanon. Qotbzadeh began using a Syrian passport under the name “Sadegh Asfahani” and obtained a U.S. tourist visa in 1966.
The FBI caught wind of Qotbzadeh’s return to America from an informant, and asked the State Department whether it had issued him a visa. Immigration papers showed that Qotbzadeh had left again in August 1969.
In 1972, the U.S. legal attaché in London began asking for information about a man named “Seif Ghotbzadeh,” which the FBI concluded was another one of Qotbzadeh’s aliases. Interestingly, the attaché asked in a follow-up letter “if the information developed to date by the FBI regarding [Qotbzadeh] could be made public.”
In 1975, the FBI tried to find out if Qotbzadeh had somehow made his way to St. Louis, but the search turned up no information.
And then a revolution broke out in Iran. The Shah fled the country in January 1979. Khomeini returned from exile to take the reins. Qotbzadeh sat next to the Ayatollah on the plane, and translated as Khomeini famously told reporters that he felt “nothing” about his return to Iran.
On November 4, 1979, revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Then-foreign minister Yazdi resigned in protest. So did Yazdi’s replacement, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. Qotbzadeh took over the foreign ministry.
The FBI was by then engaged in a frantic search for information on the American-educated face of Iran’s revolution.
One former classmate told agents in December 1979 that he was “concerned” that Qotbzadeh had “a significant position of leadership.” The classmate thought that “there may have been some room for negotiation with Foreign Minister BANI-SADR, but does not believe this will be the case with GHOTBZADEH.”
For all the scrutiny from different governments and intelligence agencies before the revolution, nobody predicted Qotbzadeh’s life coming to that end. Perhaps it should not be so surprising in hindsight.
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