Shortly after the 1979 Iranian Revolution toppled the shah of Iran, Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam visited Tehran and presented Iran’s new foreign minister, Ebrahim Yazdi, with a pistol. Startled by the gift — and perhaps by the Ba’athist mindset it revealed — Yazdi placed it in a cupboard and forgot about it.
Years later, when Yazdi was a leading dissident, security police found the gun while searching his house and Yazdi was charged with illegal possession of a weapon. The story, which he told during a meeting in Tehran, exemplifies his abhorrence of the brutal side of politics.
Obituaries on Yazdi, who died in August at 85, were polarised between those portraying a man of great principle, almost an Iranian Nelson Mandela, and those disparaging him as a naïve dupe who became a close ally of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during his exile and supported the revolution in the name of democracy only to become one of its victims.
Perhaps both these views have some truth or rather are two sides of the same coin. It seems scarcely credible that an intelligent person could not have realised that Khomeini’s intention was to implement his theory of velayat-e faqih and being about direct clerical rule, even if its form might change over time.
As an activist outside Iran for 20 years before the revolution, Yazdi knew leading Iranian opposition figures such as philosopher Ali Shariati and Mostafa Chamran, later defence minister, before he became spokesman for Khomeini when he left Iraq in 1978 for a new base in Neauphle-le-Château, just outside Paris. When the army refused to quell demonstrations in Iran and the shah fled, Yazdi returned home with Khomeini but would last less than a year as revolutionary Iran’s first foreign minister.
In November 1979, when militant students in Tehran stormed the US Embassy, Yazdi went to Qom to seek advice from Khomeini, who told him to remove them. However, when Yazdi had completed the three-hour drive to Tehran, he heard on the radio that Khomeini had come out in support of the students. For Khomeini to call the embassy a “lair of espionage” was a turning point for the revolution and for Yazdi, who resigned alongside Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan.
Yazdi regarded the United States as flawed, not evil. He had joined the Freedom Movement of Iran, formed in 1961 by Bazargan to continue the politics of Mohammed Mossadegh, the prime minister ousted in 1953 by a US- and British-backed military coup after he nationalised Iran’s oil.
Like Mossadegh, Yazdi regarded Washington’s role in 1953 as a departure from the principles on which the United States was founded. Yazdi had emigrated to America in 1960, became a US citizen and for much of the 1970s was a medical doctor in Houston. His approach was far more nuanced than slogans such as “Death to America” and he looked forward to a day when Tehran and Washington could enjoy relations based on respect.
Likewise, his efforts to find a politics inspired but not dominated by religious beliefs reflect a challenge far wider than Iran. Whether Yazdi was a secularist depends on how the term is defined but, while a devout Muslim, he opposed velayet-e faqih and had the courage to do so in Tehran, rather than choose exile, as a leading figure in a loyal opposition.
The Freedom Movement, which Yazdi led after Bazargan’s death in 1995, retained a quasi-legal status but Yazdi was arrested several times, and, in 2011 at the age of 80, was sentenced to eight years in prison, although he was soon released on health grounds.
During his last illness, he was denied a US visa to receive cancer treatment, despite the efforts of Gary Sick, professor of international affairs at Columbia University and the principal White House aide on Iran during the revolution and hostage crisis.
In 2004, Yazdi explained his views thus: “The Iranian people are 97% Muslim and this must be reflected in any democratic constitution. The first draft constitution [in 1979] did not contain the idea of velayet-e faqih and no one said it was un-Islamic. Ayatollah Khomeini was of a far higher calibre than his successor [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and yet, after Imam Khomeini’s death, the leader was given greater power.”
Just after Yazdi’s death, Sick recalled him as a man “who never backed away from his ideas and his ideals.” The US refusal of a visa was “unfortunate,” Sick told the IranWire website. “[But] given the history, that is not something that should particularly surprise us. Iran’s actions towards the US, the hostage crisis, even though Yazdi opposed it — those things have left scars and he was a victim of that politics, both in Iran and in the US.”
Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.