Conspiracy at Desert One
By Bernace Charles
January 12, 1979
Tehran's noon hour gripped a day that was cold. The city was a chilled,
purplish-green pearl lying against the lower slopes of Iran's snow topped
Alborz Mountains. Within its hayats (courtyards) and kooches (alleys),
the city was awake for its second call to prayer. But its current government
denied an awakening to historical change. The pearl rested in a Persian
slingshot, held back, waiting to lose its energy upon the forehead of Pahlavi
rule. It pointed at a regime supported by SAVAK's pillars of repression,
torture, and murder. The Peacock Throne sat on a scared foundation.
Karim Sa'edi, a young man with the code name Mashhad, exited an apartment
in Shemiran, one of Tehran's affluent, northern suburbs. Karim stood at
medium height and weight, but with muscular definition and strength. His
dark hair lay straight back with its cut reaching to the collar of his
coat. Deep, dark eyes stared through the morning. Karim presented a handsome
face. His mind was intent, determined, and he played a most dangerous game.
He purposely stayed off the street through the morning hours.
Now, and presenting a staged intensity for past days, Karim unveiled
a rehearsed, hidden anguish. It was an anguish taking control away
to witness its rebirth by fire and political madness. Karim walked through
the cold wearing the street garb of a waist-length, leather coat, shirt,
jeans, and street shoes. The left coat pocket held a ski mask. Sunglasses
filtered the cold sun that filled the day. He entered a ten-year-old, faded-blue
Volkswagen, and the biting cold reminded him of Washington D.C. After slipping
into the car, starting it, and getting a cranky transmission into gear,
he turned to drive in the direction of central Tehran and Tehran University.
Up until three months past, Karim had been teaching at Iranzamin High
School located in Shahrakeh Gharb in northwest Tehran. But Karim's teaching
of history classes had given way to street fighting. Karim moved within
those close to Abbas Abdi, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, and Mohsen Mirdamadi. Three
years earlier, Karim completed his degree in Political Science from Columbia
University. His return to Tehran was by having a CIA control officer and
the U.S. Immigration Service deporting him as a student radical for his
writing printed in "Resistance" the paper put out by Iranian
expatriates living in America.
Fifteen minutes later and on Shah Reza Avenue, he met Habib Hosseini,
Pavel Ferlinghetti, and Khosrow Ehsan. They met on the sidewalk at the
avenue's, white, striped, pedestrian crossing marks before Tehran University.
Karim asked, "Has anyone driven passed?"
Habib, a stout, young man, with a thick neck, and bear like strength,
ate salted melon seeds and peanuts. He answered, "Those we suspect
as SAVAK did. They'll be back, but they're beginning to know fear. You
can see it in their eyes." Habib's waist-length, leather coat was
a size too large. His dark eyes studied the distant street. He added, "We're
living in chaos." He handed Karim a half handful of salted melon seeds
taken from a coat pocket. An army green truck stopped a block to the east.
Karim cracked several melon seeds between his teeth, spit the shells
out, and insisted, "Better chaos than fear. SAVAK agents will soon
Khosrow Ehsan watched as troops piled out of the truck. Khosrow, an
engineering student added, "There's rumor of a replacement cabinet
and marshal law."
Just as Karim had driven into the heart of central Tehran, the day had
been forcing its way further out of a deadly past. The Volkswagen's heater
hadn't functioned and the day's temperature made a difference in Karim's
comfort. Tehran's day would remain cold. Many would carry on in a distorted
normalcy while the city woke to ongoing anarchy, and the expected, further
clash between the Iranian Army and pro-Khomeini forces. A street war was
the city's reality; the day a chorus of dissent sparking the overthrow
of a repressive past. The Communist, Leftist, Nationalist, Clerics, and
the Mojahedin moved through the streets toward the university. The past
month, troops loyal to the shah, killed students taking up the cause of
an Islamic Republic. Now, hard line clerics stood beside pro-democracy
youth. Who was using who depended on one's perception. It was the end of
being watchful as expectation swelled the hope for change. The central
enemies were the shah and America, The Great Satan. Those holding to hope
of the birth of Iranian democracy included student revolutionaries of Tehran
As he now studied the avenue, Karim saw hundreds of students advancing
to join the day's demonstration. He answered, "We need to plan further
ahead than today. We need action that will shock the Americans into understanding
this country is no longer part of their imperial agenda."
Habib asked, "Karim, what can we do? We have no army to fight the
Americans. The Mojahedin and their People's Army don't have the strength
to do it." Habib was close to the central figures in the student movement.
As, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, Abbas Abdi, and Mohsen Mirdamadi, he knew the
Americans wouldn't easily give in to losing Iran's alignment with them.
Karim answered, "We need to hold to the Americans' belt as the
V.C. did. We need to take the American Embassy. The time will come."
Others knew that those leading the students listened to Karim. Karim
wasn't suspect for studying in America. Habid asked, "Karim, you can't
be serious? Take the American Embassy? The Americans would never stand
for it. Not now . . . not ever."
A look of contempt for America formed on Karim's face. "Do you
think they will start a war over their embassy? No, they'll sit and wait
for the release of their people while they strangle life from us. Their
embassy will become a nest of CIA operations to reinstate the shah after
he flees. They tear gassed our people in America because we demonstrated
against his repression and terror. Carter is a fool. The Americans have
no sense of history. Carter didn't learn from those before him. He hasn't
Habib's words were insistent. He asked, "Have you talked with Abdi,
or Mirdamadi? Do you think they'll agree to it?"
Karim had known that he faced grave risks as his midday's route had
delivered him to Roosevelt Avenue. As he had driven passed a wall of the
American Embassy Compound he had read the words, "My army brother,
why do you kill your brother?" The words were in Persian and in red
paint. The words spoke to the changes taking place in Tehran. Even with
Khomeini not yet returned from France, the Monarchy was falling. It was
crucial for the Americans that Karim infiltrate the student movement and
the Mojahedin. He had been part of the January 9th. demonstration near
24 Esfand. During the demonstration, Karim had carried a large poster of
Ayatollah Khomeini. Karim was also present the day Army troops gunned down
students on "Black Friday" December 11, 1978. He had been in
Laleh Park on May 5th when Islamic militants fought a pro-democracy rally.
The People's Army wasn't well armed but dedicated. Karim knew the Americans
learned, during their war in Southeast Asia, that student political movements
played heavy in shifting American Foreign Policy. Student unrest would
also change Iran. He said to his friends, "We take the embassy for
only a few hours and give it back. The American people will realize our
When he had turned toward Shah Reza Avenue in his drive, Karim first
saw the crowd that gathered strength before the iron gates and concrete
vaulted entrance to Tehran University. Staying secure within a classroom
was anathema to the revolutionary spirit. Yet, he felt sadness for Iran.
One minute later Karim had turned north, drove one block, parked the
Volkswagen, exited, and walked back to the south. He had walked at a quick
pace with puffs of warmed breath condensing into clouds of vapor. The broad
avenue was where students clashed with troops on November 20th. On that
day, the air wasn't as cold.
Along with the day's cold there was the question of whether troops or
SAVAK agents would show to fire on the crowd. It hung in the morning and
solidifying the students' fears. Would the army leave further martyrs with
their blood soaking the street? Would there be blood for the demonstrators
to wash their hands in and holdup to the world while exposing the shah's
government for being in bed with the Great Satan? Both questions hung over
an expectant and growing crowd. After turning onto Shah Reza Avenue Karim
walked to a group of students emerging from noon cold shadows. They were
a large part of the thousands again attending classes following the government
reopening Tehran University after closing it because of student unrest.
It was like the American universities after Kent State. It was as though
the shah took all sense of precedence from the Americans. Karim saw his
friends Habib Hosseini and Pavel Ferlinghetti. As he did, he wondered if
each of them would end in a morgue or Tehran's Behesht-e Zahra cemetery.
Graves were already dug and waiting for further victims of the shah's repression.
Now, and as an organizer of the day's demonstration, Karim wondered
how many SAVAK agents were mixed among it. They would be there as a volatile
part of a cocktail made up of Marxists, nationalists, clerics, and the
Mojahedin with its mix of Marxism and Islam. The avenue before the university
was a bowling lane. The blue-green marble would roll down it and crush
Habib said, "But taking their embassy? It's sovereign ground of
Karim's answer was solid, "No, Habib, no part of Iran belongs to
America. This country's oil no longer belongs to either the Americans or
the British. No more oil goes to Israel."
Habib's question was one of dismay, "We sell oil to Israel?"
Karim recognized how little the Iranian people knew of what went on
in their country. The shah needed foreign currency. Israel paid dollars
for oil. "If we take the embassy, it will tell Israel their American
puppet no longer protects or brokers deals for them. If we take it . .
. we don't release the Americans until the shah is returned to stand trail."
"But he hasn't left Iran."
"He will. The ministers tremble with fear while proclaiming strength.
There are those encouraging the appointment of Bakhtiar as Prime Minister.
Maybe he might make sense to all things done in the name of Allah. Khomeini's
call for strikes has the country at a near standstill. How many of us can
the Imperial Guard shoot?"
"And what if Ayatollah Beheshti, or the revolutionary committee,
don't go along with the appointment? Then what?"
"There are some who believe the shah will flee the country within
the week. There's a rumor he has cancer. If it's true, the Americans will
allow him into the U.S. as a compassionate show of not abandoning their
servants. Mohsen will agree. We need to take the embassy twice. The first
time will be to find out if the Americans ask for assistance from SAVAK
or the Imperial Guard. If neither come to protect the embassy compound,
we know we can again take it and stay until the Americans return the shah
to stand trial.
"Karim, you're crazy. The American's will never stand for it."
"No one is going to send troops. Who is going to let them into
the country? We don't do it tomorrow, but before the year ends."
Habib asked, "What about Khomeini?"
"He'll soon return. He isn't a fool. He'll need to solidify his
power. The Marxists and opposition clerics need defeated. Khomeini will
allow the embassy takeover. He needs the rhetoric of the left."
"But those not Marxists will think you work for the Soviets. The
nationalists will brand you as a communist."
"Screw them. Mohsen went to Cambridge. How many from Cambridge
spied for the Soviets. Mohsen will think twice before making accusations."
Habib said, "But others will suspect you. They'll say you usurp
their leadership. Not all are so brave or stupid."
Karim grinned at Habib and Khosrow before again spitting melon shells
out of his mouth and lighting an American brand cigarette. He added, "I'll
make it their idea. Let them believe what they want. The first takeover
will happen after the shah flees. Count on it."
Habib Hosseini turned his attention to the growing body of those spilling
into the avenue off from side streets as their voices warmed to, "God,
Qoran, Khomeini! God, Qoran, Khomeini! God, Qoran, Khomeini!" and
"Become martyrs in the path of righteousness! An Islamic Republic,
Khomeini says must be formed! An Islamic Republic, Khomeini says must be
formed!" The chorus filled the cold air and pushed down the avenue.
Being a part of the voices demanding change, Karim Sa'edi believed it
was a sad day for his country. He believed it was a sad day for America
and its president. Carter needed defeated in the coming presidential election.
There would be a year to get through before the election might change the
presidential administration. Habib didn't know his friend worked for the
American Central Intelligence Agency. No one in Tehran did. Neither the
American Ambassador, nor the CIA Station Chief knew it. Karim pulled his
ski mask from his coat pocket, glanced at it, and threw it into the street.
The game was over. It no longer mattered if SAVAK agents knew his face.
He also knew he planted a seed in Habib's mind. It would spread to others.
The students would take the American Embassy before the year ended.
"God, Qoran, Khomeini! God, Qoran, Khomeini! God, Qoran, Khomeini!"
and "Become martyrs in the path of righteousness! An Islamic Republic,
Khomeini says must be formed! An Islamic Republic, Khomeini says must be
A slogan held up by the energy of outrage, rose into the air, rattled
around in the cold sky, then descended to bring a feeling of doom. It did
so of its own will and permeated the cold sky as a brittle eggshell waiting
for further fracture. Karim, Habib, Pavel, and others led the chant that
elevated its purpose in a resounding demand and expectation.
Two hours later and from the joined voices of more than ten thousand
students, a member of the Iranian Workers Communist Party lit a Molotov
cocktail and threw it. It landed on the payment, shattering, and spraying
burning petrol. A soldier didn't escape its reach. He burst into a living
torch. Iranian soldiers lifted their rifles and fired into the crowd. Pavel
fell to the street. He died before he hit the pavement.
Karim and Habib reached out as the soldiers rushed the demonstration
with batons and rifle butts. With Karim kneeling over Pavel, he didn't
see the truncheon that swung hard down upon him. He fell to the street.
Before the day ended more than a dozen demonstrators were dead and more
than three hundred seriously injured. That night, a cold wind pushed off
the Alborz Mountains and chilled both body and blood.
Karim gained consciousness and found he was in the bedroom of the apartment
of his fiancée, Maryam Dormanesh. The apartment was several blocks
from Tehran's Iranzamin High School. A young Iranian woman sat on the side
of the bed and holding Karim's right hand. As her dark eyes held to Karim's
face, Maryam feared what the night would bring. She feared the agents of
SAVAK would show at the door and arrest them.
Karim lay with his forehead cut and beginning to turn a purple and dark
blue bruise. Khosrow Ehsan and Habib Hosseini had picked him up to carry
Karim to his car. Khosrow deliver him to the house. Khosrow had been on
the right of Karim and Habib as soldiers fired on the demonstration. He
and Habib had risked being shot as they picked Karim up and carried him
to safety. The demonstration became another bloody killing field.
Karim opened his eyes. He looked on Maryam, tried to smile and feeling
the pain in his forehead. He said, "Hi. I guess someone rescued me."
Maryam wore a heavy, wool sweater, slacks, and her dark hair was held
back by hair clips. Dark eyes were frightened. She said, "Khosrow
"Did he say how many were killed?"
Maryam didn't want to answer the question. She said, "The TV news
says thirty. It has to stop, Karim. I can't live like this . . . wondering
if I'll see you again after some demonstration that turns violent. The
high school students are shouting for an Islamic Republic. What is it that
people want? We will lose all freedom."
Karim knew Maryam wasn't in favor of the madness sweeping through their
country. "I'm sorry, Khosrow shouldn't have brought me here. Damn,
my heard hurts. Do you have any aspirin?"
"Yes. Stay still. I'll be right back." Maryam stood to walk
to the kitchen. She quickly returned with a glass of water and a bottle
Karim pushed up to sit on the side of the bed. He knew he was lucky
to be alive. The soldier firing on Pavel swept his fire from right to left
to leave Pavel dead but himself only suffering from a headache.
Maryam handed the glass of water to Karim along with three Excedrin.
"What are you going to do, Karim?"
After swallowing, Karim answered, "I don't know. I don't know if
they'll go to the apartment."
"And if they do?"
"SAVAK agents will arrest me." Karim reached for Maryam's
right hand and she sat beside him. "How was your morning?"
"They canceled classes. The administration is frightened of losing
control. The girls carry their enthusiasm for this madness. The clerics
will demand that all women and female students wear the hijab. The women
of this country are fools if they believe they will gain freedom from this
revolution. They won't. After the clerics gain power, the women will lose
all freedom." Maryam was educated in America and a graduate of the
University of California. She taught English at Iranzamin High School.
She presented an energetic personality. She pressed the girls she taught
to exercise control and decide their future.
Karim answered, "No they won't."
"Why don't we leave before it's too late?"
"I can't. I'm needed here."
Maryam knew Karim was part of the madness of Tehran. She didn't understand
why while knowing he was also educated in America.
With her sitting beside him, Karim put an arm around Maryam. He said,
"I have to be here. I have no choice."
"But why? I can't stay in this country any longer. It isn't home
now with all the madness. I came back to teach because I thought I had
something to offer. This country is isolating itself from the remainder
of the world. It makes no sense. Even my parents are preparing to leave.
They've been transferring money to banks in America." Tears formed
in Maryam's eyes.
Karim turned Maryam's face to his to kiss her. He knew Islamic law forbid
that they be together without marriage. Karim broke the kiss and said,
"I want you out. I want you out this week. If I can, I'll follow later.
Once things settle . . . we can be together."
Maryam pleaded, "But why? Why can't you go now? The Americans aren't
going to give visas to those demonstrating against them."
"I know. I'll manage. I promise. Did you get your visa?"
"Yes. I left the school early. The demonstration stayed away from
the American Embassy. It's the only good news for the day. There weren't
many demonstrators on the street there."
"What about the school?"
"I'll finish the week. I told them that my sister in America is
ill, and I need to visit her. My parents have said the same. I want to
be with you." Karim knew he wouldn't follow Maryam to America. Men
needed him in Tehran. Pulling Maryam to him, Karim kissed her, and she
and Karim leaned back on the bed.
"Karim, I'm afraid that I won't see you again. Do you promise you
will join me?"
"Yes, I promise."
"Will you stay with me tonight?
"Yes." Maryam held to Karim and he felt her tremble in fear.
He said, "It'll be alright. I promise. I will join you."
Their lips met and they held to each other.
Maryam added, "I'm scared, Karim. I am scared for you. Promise
you will join me in California. I'll stay with my sister. You have her
address and telephone number. Promise me, Karim. Promise me that you will
come to America."
Karim held Maryam tight and answered, "I promise I'll join you."
Maryam buried her head in Karim's chest and held tightly to him. As
she did, Karim knew he wouldn't again see Maryam after she left Tehran.
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