The first moderate
Shapour Bakhtiar: We cannot move from the dictatorship of the boot to the dictatorship of slippers
By Fariba Amini
January 8, 2003
When chants of "Bakhtiar Nokar-e Bee-ekhtiar" (Bakhtiar the powerless servant) were heard in the streets of Tehran, we were not dismayed or even a bit troubled as we were all fiery in the fervor of the revolution. We thought at the time that Shapour Bakhtiar had no guts or that he succumbed too easily to the demands of the Shah.
How wrong we were.
How ignorant we were.
The first Prime Minister during the revolution who understood the real nature of the regime taking power in the post-revolution period was a man of wisdom and true to his words. When I heard of his ruthless stabbing at the hands of the henchmen of the Islamic regime, I cried like many other Iranians. I thought, we lost a great man, a first class politician who was not only secular but also a protector of law and a disciple of the late Mossadegh.
Following Bakhtiar's appointment as Prime Minister, he freed all political prisoners and dismantled the infamous SAVAK, allowed a free press and advocated a government by the people. Alas, his time in office was cut short as those seizing power acted swiftly. He knew the beastly nature of the beast and warned all Iranians of the disaster that was coming.
How naive and deaf we were to hear his voice of truth. His famous words were, "In principle I will neither compromise with the Shah or Khomeini... In life there comes a time when one must stand firm and say no... The Ayatollah, upon his return [from exile], has lost his epic-making figure. I have never seen a book about an Islamic Republic, neither has anyone else for that matter... Some of the people surrounding the Ayatollah are like violent vultures... the clergy should go to Qom and build a wall around themselves and create their own Vatican..."
Shapour Bakhtiar who came from the famous nomadic Bakhtiari tribe, spent a great deal of his life in prison. As a member of the National Front, he bravely spoke of his ideals for a secular and democratic Iran.
Despite several attempts by his cousin Soraya Esfandiari, the Shah's second wife, and Teymour Bakhtiar, to intervene for his release from prison, he stood firm by his beliefs and did not budge. Until the end of his life, he remained faithful and as the daring man that he was, gave up his life for the dream of seeing a Western-style democracy in Iran.
I spoke recently with an old friend and a close associate of Dr. Bakhtiar who wishes to remain nameless. Here are some of his recollections of Dr. Bakhtiar.
My uncle was very close to Bakhtiar's father. My uncle didn't have any kids. I was like a son to him. He used to read history and knew much by heart.
Shapour Bakhtiar had just arrived from Europe when I first saw him. I was about 14 or 15. He was in his early thirties. He was a distinguished looking young man, quite attractive with light hair and greenish eyes. He dressed nicely.
The first time I met him, he asked if I knew poetry. My uncle had told him that I liked literature and poetry. He asked me about Malek-ol-Shoaray-e Bahar. He asked me to recite one of his poems. I recited the famous "Damavand" poem. Then he asked if I knew any poems from Vosough-ol-Doleh. I knew his poetry by heart so I recited one from the time he had been exiled from Iran.
Bakhtiar was quite impressed and told my uncle to bring me along whenever he went to visit him. That was our first encounter. I found out later that Bakhtiar's father was a close friend of Bahar. That is one of the reasons he had loved poetry. They said Shapour knew ten thousand verses. Apparently, he loved horseback riding so his father would make him memorize one verse for every ride on the horse!
His father, Mohammad Reza Khan Sardar Fateh was a grand man who was very educated. He commanded the Arabic and English languages. He loved to read and when traveling in those times, a number of mules carried his books from one place to another. He was the head of the Bakhtiari tribe and commander in chief in Yazd. My uncle used to work in his entourage.
When Shapour Bakhtiar had just arrived from Europe, he was looking for a job. He had studied philosophy and law in France. He went to the University of Tehran for a position. Dr. Sanjabi was the head of the law school there. Although, he was above many other candidates, Bakhtiar was denied the position he wanted. He didn't want to work in the Foreign Ministry either as he would be closely associated with the court and the Shah.
With the help of a family friend, Ghobad Zafar, who had arranged a meeting with the Shah, Shapour went to see the monarch. The Shah was quite impressed by the young man. But Bakhtiar could not see himself working so close to the system. He then went to the Labor Ministry where Nafissi helped him find his first job.
He was quite good at his job. He would take the side of the workers. The head of the petroleum company was a British man named Drake, who had fired many of the oil workers. Bakhtiar had taken their side. He was adamantly anti-British.
In different companies and factories where he worked, he always kept the highest ethical standards and managed the places with utmost professionalism.
He had a special aura about him. While being a serious person, he had a very sarcastic side as well. If you met him for the first time, you would get the impression that he was a self-centered man. But quite the contrary, he was very down to earth and had a special humorous side to him.
He always sided with the dispossessed. He considered De Gaulle as his idol. Among the French writers, he loved the work of Anatole France. In the opinion of Gaillard, the then prime Minster of France, Bakthiar spoke French better than a Frenchman.
When he was a youngster he had been sent to Beirut to study mathematics. But he didn't like the subject. He studied German instead. It was there that he began despising the fanatic side of religion, any religion. I believe that is one of the many reasons he stayed secular his whole life. Then for his higher education, Bakhtiar went to France, where he mastered the fields of law, philosophy and economics.
In the National Front, which I also had the privilege of being a young sympathizer, he was closest to Dr. Sadighi. He could not understand or be close to the religious elements, although he always argued in a respectable manner. He was in the secular faction within the Front.
It was after the August 1953 coup when Bakhtiar's cousin Soraya -- with the help of Amir Hossein Khan Zafar, who was a senator -- encouraged him to accept a post in the Zahedi government. Bakhtiar sent a message saying,"go tell your boss that I worked in Mossadegh's government. I am not a piece of clothing to be dragged everywhere. I will not work for a coup d'etat government."
Before 1979, Bakhtiar worked solely in the private sector while still holding on to his ideas. I remember a most haunting and sad incident. It was during the turbulent time of the revolution when there was talk of Dr. Sadighi taking over as the prime minister. There was also a rumor that the position might be filled by Bakhtiar.
I asked to see him in his home. He told me to come for lunch. He took me to his study where there was a small basin surrounded by books, Hafez poetry (his favorite Iranian poet) in calligraphy and a huge picture of Mossadegh. We sat and I said very arrogantly: "Aren't you ashamed of your father's bloodstained shirt (he had kept in his trunk the bloodied shirt of his father who was executed by Reza Shah) to want to work with his son now?"
Bakhtiar innocently looked at me, bewildered. But with a firm voice he said: "This isn't the time for revenge. It isn't about me anymore. It is about the country." Then tears rolled down his cheeks and he sobbed.
With a voice that I could never forget, he said: "You don't understand. The country is on the verge of collapse. How can I speak now of something that happened 40 years ago? This isn't the time to take revenge for my father's blood. If the religious elements (akhunds) take over the affairs of this country, no one will remain, neither me, nor you, the Shah or this country; all of us will be destroyed."
I still tremble when I think of Bakhtiar's somber face as he said those words on that historical day. I said to him again, "Don't you care about your reputation?" He responded again, "Why should I care about my reputation at this important and decisive time in our history? Do I need to take my reputation to the grave?"
When I left that day to go to Sanjabi's house, Alahyar Saleh and Dr. Azar were present. They said, "Forget about this Shapour. He is good for nothing."
I remember one evening during the revolution when cries of "Allah O Akbar" (God is Great) and prayers were being heard on the rooftops in Shiraz as in Tehran. I called Bakhtiar with great enthusiasm. I expected his positive response, but instead he said, "Listen... We are after freedom and democracy. We cannot move from the dictatorship of the 'boot' to the dictatorship of 'na'layn' (clerics' slippers). We must advocate freedom. We have no right to be taking the people to a darker horizon."
At that time, I didn't really understand his logic and was a bit annoyed at his response. As we know, the rest is history. Amidst the blood and fire in the capital in the afternoon of the February 11 1979, Shapour Bakhtiar left his lunch untouched and got out of the his office for an unknown destination. The new revolutionary leaders and most of the newspapers in the capital started foul mouthing Bakhtiar. Only a few journalists and respectful politicians discretely agreed with his assessment of the future events.
Dr. Bakhtiar was determined to do away with the monarchy and declare a republic but he was concerned about the army's reaction in attempting to organize a coup. He was worried of unnecessary bloodshed. He wanted to move things slowly and smoothly so that army can be neutralized.
Bakhtiar was a courageous man but sometimes maybe too careless. A no-nonsense man who was not always diplomatic. He trusted people without hesitation. I think that is the reason why and he died. He trusted his killer (Boyer Ahmadi), even though people had warned him that his brother was in the revolutionary guards.
Unlike many others, he was not a two- faced politician. He was a fidele, honorable, true to his word. But he took things lightly at times. And that in a most horrid way brought him to his untimely death. Nevertheless until the day he died, he was a man of honor, of exceptional intelligence and quite optimistic about the future.
In a way, the Islamic regime knew of the strength of Dr. Bakhtiar, and how he was a real challenge to their existence. That is precisely the reason they got rid of him. He was ahead of his time. Only when time passes, will we all appreciate the true legacy of this man. His unconditional love for Iran and Iranians, and his loathing of the theocratic regime. One day, history will judge him accordingly.
Bakhtiar said in an interview in the book, Thirty- seven days after 37 years, "I am sorry to repeat this once again but it must be done for the sake of history: If during these 25 years, the Shah had allowed moderate political parties -- and not even those having Marxist or social democratic tendencies -- to exist, simple-minded people would not have followed the likes of Khomeini and believe his ideas.
Mohammad Heykal, the renowned Egyptian journalist wrote, "When the Shah finally decided to to form another cabinet in January 1978, he chose this Mossadegh disciple and stubborn man, who believed that simply by having spent years in prison and enduring pain and suffering he would be received by the majority of the people. That's why he accepted the nomination.
If he had been elected in any other third world country, Bakhtiar would have been an exemplary leader. He was a freedom-loving intellectual who was against fascism and tyranny.
No one knows what were the exact contents of talks between Mohammad Reza Shah and Bakhtiar at the time of his taking office. But sources close to the Shah told me in Cairo that the Shah was apologetic for his maltreatment of Mossadegh's followers and he had reiterated it to him.
Unfortunately, it was a little too late... See poem for Bakhtiar
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