Iran Minister of Foreign Affairs Sadegh Ghotbzadeh (R) gives a press conference, on February 16, 1980 at the embassy of Iran, in Paris. (Photo by René JEAN / AFP) (Photo by RENE JEAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Inside the Iranian diaspora

How the US government and the FBI dealt with Sadeq Qotbzadeh and other opponents of Tehran in the time of the Shah

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The US government thought there might be a danger in the Iranian diaspora: communist infiltrators. It was November 1962, a US-backed monarch ran Iran, and Iranian students abroad were organising against him. Working on tips from the Iranian embassy and informants in the community, the FBI gathered a massive dossier on Iran’s exiled “subversives”.

After becoming aware of how thorough the surveillance was, Iranian Students Association treasurer Sadeq Qotbzadeh called the FBI, offering to clear up any issues they might have with him. In the interrogation room, he explained that there was no way he could support Communistic atheism as a good Muslim boy. Qotbzadeh described his vision for Iran as a “Jeffersonian democracy”. Other informants (including his ex-girlfriend) told the FBI that Qotbzadeh was an unserious person, certainly not capable of any violence. The U.S. government seemed to agree.

In 1979, Qotbzadeh flew back to Iran at the right hand of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. First as Khomeini’s translator, then as foreign minister, Qotbzadeh became the international face of a revolution that chanted “death to America” and held US diplomats hostage. Then, less than three years into the revolution, Qotbzadeh was tortured and executed. He stood accused of plotting a coup d’état that would involve blowing Khomeini up with a rocket launcher.

Soviet intelligence helped bring about Qotbzadeh’s downfall, by forging documents that tied the foreign minister to CIA conspiracies. KGB defector Vladimir Kuzichkin later claimed that Qotbzadeh had worked as a Communist agent while in the US, before a bitter falling-out with his handlers. Just as likely, Qotbzadeh was a hardheaded nationalist whom neither the US nor the Soviet Union knew how to deal with.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, I’ve requested the FBI files of several Middle Eastern leaders who studied in America. The bureau has sent back over a thousand pages on anti-Shah protests, including a dossier on Qotbzadeh several hundred pages long. The files shed new light on how the US government interacted with Iranian dissident circles.

Some aspects of that moment resonate today: US policymakers struggle to understand Iranian society; diaspora activists viciously snitch on and smear each other; and conservative nationalists try to win over their American colleagues with liberal or left-wing appeals. Qotbzadeh himself is a cautionary tale, an exile who tried to take advantage of a revolution in his home country, only to be swept away by forces he thought he could control.

But there are important differences, too. Iran today is an enemy state. American politicians and media welcome its dissidents. Iran in the 1960s was a US ally, so the Iranian dissidents of that era were met with indifference by American society, and threats of deportation by the US government.

The documents also prove false the idea that US intelligence services are either omniscient or blind. In reality, US national security bureaucracy is incredibly efficient at whatever task it is told to do, without regard for context, like a steamroller without a driver. While it succeeded at thoroughly penetrating the Iranian activist scenes, and detecting any hint of communist influence, the US government missed several important Iranian-American figures within its own ranks who would later play key roles in the revolution.

Ebrahim Yazdi, a medical researcher affiliated with the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs, took over the Iranian foreign ministry immediately after the revolution. He resigned in protest over the holding of American hostages, and died in 2017 as a liberal-Islamist opposition figure. Yazdi is only mentioned in a few post-revolution FBI documents, mostly covering the security of his family in Texas.

Mostafa Chamran, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, served as the Islamic Republic’s first defence minister. He was killed in 1981 by friendly fire during the Iraqi invasion. The FBI’s archivists told me they could not find a file on Chamran.

The documents that the FBI did release were heavily censored, and some pages were redacted entirely, due to laws protecting personal privacy and police secrets. However, the outline of Qotbzadeh’s biography is already public knowledge, thanks to news coverage during the revolution and a documentary broadcast by the BBC’s Persian service in 2020.

Born in 1936 to a merchant fami- ly, Qotbzadeh had his political awakening as a teenage supporter of Mohammad Mossadegh, the nationalist prime minister who tried to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. MI6 and the CIA helped Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi launch an internal coup d’état against Mossadegh in 1953. The post-coup government detained Qotbzadeh twice, pushing the young activist to seek opportunities abroad.

In 1959, he was accepted to Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, a posh academy in Washington for future civil servants. The Washington Post later described the young Qotbzadeh as a womaniser who always “found the time to pray five times a day to Mecca”. His ex-girlfriends included the Canadian foreign correspondent, Carole Jerome.

Qotbzadeh set out to make as much of a nuisance as possible for the local Iranian embassy. When the Iranian ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi tried to establish a puppet association for Iranian-American students, Qotbzadeh helped lead a hostile takeover of the organisation. He disrupted two embassy-sponsored galas with pro-Mossadegh chants, and organised a sit-in at the embassy in 1961, after Zahedi revoked several dissident students’ Iranian passports.

Zahedi decided to up the ante, telling the US government that Qotbzadeh and 19 other Iranian expats were Communist subversives. That was the sort of accusation that got Washington paying attention. The accusation also made it clear — if it wasn’t already — that Qotbzadeh and his comrades were headed straight to a dungeon should they ever return to Iran. The old Iranian monarchy, like the Islamic Republic that followed, was known for jailing and torturing political prisoners.

Meanwhile, the Shah was gearing up to visit several American cities in April 1962, and US security services were watching closely for any potential violence by Iranian exiles. Several informants told the FBI that they had heard Qotbzadeh vowing to assassinate the Iranian monarch, although one of the informants claimed that Qotbzadeh was just making a “big joke” and “trying to impress his listeners regarding the extent of his dislike for the Shah”, according to the declassified documents.

Taken in for questioning, Qotbzadeh denied ever threatening the Shah’s life, “even in jest”, and claimed that his Iranian Students’ Association was “opposed to using force to bring about reforms in the Iranian government”. He claimed that he had “no personal hatred of the Shah but he dislikes things the Shah does or permits to be done in his name”. His specific grievance was the Shah misusing oil revenues and foreign loans that “should be used to improve the living conditions of the masses”.

The Shah finished his trip unscathed, despite a few small protests. The FBI investigation into Communist subversion continued. In July 1962, an FBI official noted that Qotbzadeh “does not work and receives money for his schooling from [an] unidentified individual”. Therefore, the official wrote, the FBI would investigate whether Qotbzadeh “may have [an] obligation to register” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which regulates foreign-funded political activities on U.S. soil.

An informant attended a wedding with Qotbzadeh, where he heard someone brag about meeting Che Guevara and receiving a hat from the Cuban revolutionary leader. Based on that, the informant concluded “that the unknown man furnishing funds to [Qotbzadeh] might be a communist”. Another informant said that he was not aware of Qotbzadeh conducting any “communist activities” in America but that Qotbzadeh had appeared at a communist rally in Iran during the Mossadegh era, when the communists were Mossadegh’s coalition partners.

The answer to Qotbzadeh’s funding was much simpler than communist intrigue. He had inherited a hefty sum from his father. The Washington Post later reported that Qotbzadeh ran a small Muslim student centre paid for by the office of the Ayatollah Hossein Borujerdi, a fact that the FBI did not pick up on. Not that it would have mattered — Borujerdi was opposed to all political involvement, let alone Communism.

Eventually Qotbzadeh caught wind of the second investigation into him. After a woman told him she had been interrogated “regarding his being active in some subversive organisation”, he called the FBI and offered to “furnish any information desired”.

In the interrogation room, Qotbzadeh said that he was “strongly nationalistic and wanted to see a ‘Jeffersonian Democracy’ set up in Iran where the rights of the people were guaranteed by law”. In fact, Qotbzadeh insisted, his family was “strongly religious, being followers of the Islamic religion”, which “does not permit belief in communism”. Again, he stated that his demand was that the Iranian national treasury “be spent wisely and not to increase the wealth of the Shah”.

Today, such criticism wouldn’t be out of place in an anti-Islamist speech

Today, such criticism wouldn’t be out of place in an anti-Islamist speech. In 2019, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thundered that Iran’s revolutionary leadership refused “to boost the economic fortunes of a struggling people” but instead “spent its newfound treasure … lining the pockets of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”.

That line is timeless because it is seductively simple. If the country’s treasure has all been siphoned into one man or clique’s pocket, then removing the leech will automatically return to citizens the wealth they are owed. There’s no need to talk about the trade-offs, difficult choices, and sacrifices that a revolution would force on the country.

Indeed, Qotbzadeh was a bit of an ideological chameleon. To the FBI, he portrayed himself as a solidly bourgeois religious nationalist. But in left-wing campus circles, his Iranian Students’ Association spoke the language of international working-class revolution.

One of the handbills distributed by the Iranian Students’ Association in 1962 included a statement by “the Arab students in support of the Iranian people’s struggles”. Dripping with Marxist-Leninist and Third Worldist phrases, the statement denounced the Shah as an imperialist stooge. It cited Iranian territorial disputes with Iraq, and the Shah’s claim to Bahrain, as evidence of the monarchy’s “ulterior motives”.

Within a year of the Islamic revolution, the new Iranian republic would end up at war with Iraq over those same territorial disputes. Since then, the Iranian government has taken on many of the same nationalist lines as the last one, including sabre-rattling directed at Bahrain.

The Communists … found themselves quickly outmaneuvered

The Communists who joined Iran’s revolution found themselves quickly outmaneuvered and sidelined after 1979. The CIA reportedly helped, passing Kuzichkin’s list of Communist agents from MI6 to the Islamists in 1983. The Islamic Republic finally wiped out the Iranian left with a series of mass executions in 1988, after the left-wing Mojahedin-e-Khalq launched an uprising in support of invading Iraqi forces.

Back in 1962, one of the FBI’s sources portrayed the young Qotbzadeh as an immature charlatan pushing an incoherent ideology. A Georgetown classmate, Shahin Maleki-Copeland, told agents that Qotbzadeh “was very anti-Shah and promoted slogans regarding ‘Jeffersonian Democracy’ but did not understand ‘Jeffersonian Democracy’ nor would he ever understand that many years are needed before Iran is ready for democracy”.

She speculated that Qotbzadeh’s “hatred” of the Shah came from having to pay a heavy inheritance tax, and added that she could not take him “seriously in his views regarding Iran because he could not materially plan anything”.

Maleki-Copeland was a committed Iranian monarchist — and one of Qotbzadeh’s ex-girlfriends — her son Cyrus Copeland later wrote in his 2015 memoir, Off the Radar. She even claimed to have interceded with the Jesuit priests who ran Georgetown when they wanted to expel Qotbzadeh for poor marks.

The FBI concluded that Qotbzadeh and the Iranian Students’ Association were not communists, but US officials did want to scare them straight.

According to an FBI memo, Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner Raymond Farrell personally warned Qotbzadeh and a colleague against “activities troublesome and embarrassing to the United States Government in the conduct of its relations with a friendly power”, such as the “harassment and insulting of visiting Iranian royalty and Government dignitaries”.

Iran’s “government, whose sovereignty we recognized, had withdrawn [Qotbzadeh’s] travel documentation so he was here by sufferance and if he wished to stay it was expected he occupy himself in bona fide studies and not political activities”, the memo paraphrased Farrell as saying in late 1963. Qotbzadeh thanked the commissioner for his warning and promised to rein in the students’ activities. Either Qotbzadeh or one of his colleagues — the name is redacted — emphasized that he was “as much opposed to communism as the Iranian regime”.

Some powerful figures stepped in on the Iranian students’ behalf. Supreme Court judge William Douglas told the State Department that “the shah was making up lists for the firing squad” but “not a bloody one of those kids is a communist”. Senator Harrison Williams proposed a bill allowing Qotbzadeh to stay despite his invalidated passport, according to the Washington Post.

Williams withdrew the bill after receiving information about Qotbzadeh’s academic record and run-ins with police. Qotbzadeh’s friends believed the information came from the US State Department and the Iranian embassy. The declassified FBI files do not conclusively confirm or refute that account.

The documents do hint that U.S. officials tried to weaponise the FBI’s intelligence against Iranian dissidents on other occasions. In 1972, when Qotbzadeh was believed to be applying for a British visa, the legal attaché at the US embassy in London cabled Washington to ask whether “the information developed to date by the FBI regarding [Qotbzadeh] could be made public”. And in 1975, the CIA asked the FBI for information about a “secret anti-Shah meeting in St. Louis on February 15 and February 16”. The FBI agents were unable to provide any.

The tactics used against Iranian students in the 1960s were deployed against other politically inconvenient diasporas as well. In the 1980s, the FBI launched aggressive foreign-agent and counterterrorism investigations into CISPES, a group organizing on US soil against El Salvador’s military regime. All the while, President Ronald Reagan was making the rights of Soviet and Cuban refugees a signature foreign-policy issue.

One Cuban refugee was Luis Posada Carriles, an anticommunist militant who was also wanted in Venezuela for blowing up an airliner. US courts refused to extradite him in the early 2000s, citing the possibility of torture in Venezuelan prisons. But in 2015, the US stripped an elderly Palestinian exile, Rasmea Odeh, of her American citizenship, based on a terrorism confession that Israeli authorities had reportedly extracted under torture.

The famous American willingness to shelter the oppressed is much more conditional than many would like to admit. US authorities even help foreign regimes extend their repression inside America when it is politically convenient.

Qotbzadeh eventually had to leave the country over passport issues. After being sheltered by several Arab nations, he obtained a Syrian passport under the name “Sadegh Asfahani”, and returned to the US to finish his studies. The authorities caught on to the ruse and refused to extend his visa. The FBI archive includes a 1967 immigration appeal from a lawyer insisting that “Sadegh Asfahani” is the “true and correct name” of his client, “a bona fide non-immigrant … intending to return to Syria”.

Qotbzadeh crossed paths with his ex-girlfriend Shahin Maleki-Copeland 12 years later, this time inside Iran. The monarchy had fallen, and Maleki-Copeland’s husband, Max Copeland, was now accused of espionage by the Islamist revolutionaries. Maleki-Copeland showed up at the foreign ministry, which Qotbzadeh now ran, to plead for the life of her husband, a fellow Georgetown alumnus.

According to her son Cyrus’s memoir, Off the Radar, the elder Copeland was officially working for the Iranian branch of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, but likely involved in CIA circles. Off the Radar describes a series of strange, increasingly tense meetings in the winter of 1979-1980. While Maleki-Copeland appealed to their old friendship, Qotbzadeh insisted that his hands were tied. Khomeini had torpedoed a plan by the foreign ministry to trade back American hostages, leaving Qotbzadeh in a vulnerable political position.

At the same time, FBI agents were being asked to chase down information about Iran’s foreign minister, including a rumour that Qotbzadeh had been arrested in Washington for child molestation. That rumour was false; it was probably a slander spread by Qotbzadeh’s political rivals.

During a March 1980 meeting, Qotbzadeh suddenly produced a letter allowing Copeland to leave house arrest and board a flight to London. Maleki-Copeland rushed to bring her husband the news, dragging him to the airport on the eve of the Nowruz holidays with only his toothbrush and credit card. Copeland was saved and his Iranian family joined him in exile.

Their old Georgetown classmate was not so lucky. Qotbzadeh lasted a few more months in office, then spent the next two years in and out of jail, before his execution in September 1982. He was shot in the legs and left for hours to die.

Georgetown University is again a hotbed of Iranian diaspora politics, this time opposed to the regime that Qotbzadeh helped bring to power. In January 2023, a committee of the most prominent exiled opposition activists — including the late Shah’s son Reza Pahlavi — met at Georgetown to announce the “Charter of Solidarity and Alliance for Freedom”. It promised to unite Iranian freedom-fighters under the flag of secular pluralist democracy.

Within two months, the coalition fell apart. Hardcore monarchists tried to muscle out the other factions, which ranged from liberals to Kurdish nationalists. It’s become fashionable in Iranian-American circles for partisans of each faction to tag the FBI in long posts accusing rivals of espionage. Barely hidden beneath the surface is a competition over foreign patronage. Saudi Arabia suddenly cut its funding for Iranian diaspora media in March 2023, and Pahlavi just as suddenly announced that he would tour Israel, hosted by the Israeli minister of intelligence.

While Iran’s future is uncertain, a couple of things are easy to predict. First, no Iranian-American is likely to face a foreign-agent investigation over Saudi or Israeli funding. Second, the exiles will have a harder time taking advantage of the next revolution in Iran than they expect. Qotbzadeh’s fate — and Tehran’s ever-changing relationship with Washington — drive home the magnitude of the stakes that they face. 

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