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Interview

Twenty eight years later
Conversations with my father: Nosratollah Amini

 

Fariba Amini
February 27, 2007
iranian.com

In January 1979 the Shah left the country. It was not until the last few weeks before his flight that Washington understood how serious the situation was. But now the United States was being made to pay for neglecting to contact any of the opposition groups, especially the Shiite Muslim forces which in the end established a government. Their rule, which was no less dictatorial than the toppled reign of the Shah had been, was under the spiritual leadership of Khomeini, who banished and defamed the Shah. From one moment to the next, the United States had to redefine its entire Mideast strategy and secure new bases of support. -- Helmut Schmidt, Men and Powers, 1989

My father was born in June 1915 in the town of Arak, in west-central Iran, into a middle class family. He was named Nosratollah (God’s Victory). The story goes that when he was a baby, the Russian army invaded Iran -- this was the time of World War I -- and a band of Russian soldiers had come to their house. Anticipating their arrival, everyone, including his parents, had left out of fear, and in the chaos little Nosratollah was left on top of the korsi, the traditional charcoal stove that was used to heat Iranian homes, with all the household money and jewelry stashed underneath. When the soldiers saw the little baby, they left, without touching or taking anything.

Nosratollah’s mother and father, who were distant cousins, divorced when he was quite young. A smart young man, he went to school under difficult circumstances and ended up at Dar’ol Fonun, the institute of higher learning in Tehran that had been founded in the mid-nineteenth century, where many of his friends and later colleagues were educated as well. There he studied literature and the French language. Later on he moved to the newly established University of Tehran where he graduated from the Law School in 1938. While still at school, he worked for the Ministry of Justice as the first librarian of its library. Later on he became an inspector for the same ministry.

In that capacity, he visited several towns and cities.  In the small town of Khomein, not far from Arak, which he visited often, he became acquainted with Dr.Atai who was the head of the medical clinic there.

It was there that he met Nahideh, one of Dr. Atai’s daughters. He soon asked for her hand in marriage. In 1945 Nahid and Nosratollah were wed in the city of Khomein by no other than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. [Dr. Atai lived in Khomeini’s father’s house in Khomein and Nosratollah met Ruhollah Khomeini and his brother Pasandideh in that house.]

Nosratollah took his bride to Tehran, where he accepted other positions before becoming the head of the social services office while keeping his own private practice, which he had established by then.  He soon made a name as an honest and trustworthy lawyer; in every position he filled, the interest of others prevailed over his own. Soon, after resolving a dispute at Alborz College and handling it with great professionalism, he was noticed by the Prime minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh. Amini was not only appointed mayor of Tehran under Mossadegh’s premiership, he also became a judge and later his personal attorney and confidant until the Prime Minister’s death in 1967.

Amini was imprisoned six times during the Shah’s s reign, sharing a cell at Qasr prison with many National Front leaders, including Bakthiar, Sadiqi, Bazargan, and Ayatollah Taleqani.  He did not accept any positions or held any public office after the1953 coup, though many times the Shah indirectly offered him the position of Minister of Justice. Unhappy with the political atmosphere in Iran, Amini in 1970 took his family, his wife, four sons and daughter, and moved to the suburbs of Washington DC.

Once on a visit to Iran, SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police interrogated him and took all his belongings at Mehrabad airport, the main reason being that his eldest son had become a staunch anti-Shah activist. He remained in the US until a short while before the revolution. At this time, like many, he visited Khomeini in Neauphle-le-Château just before Ayatollah Khomeini had moved there from Najaf, in Iraq. Shortly thereafter, provisional Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan appointed him to the governorship of Fars province; One month later, he became the first governor who took his resignation to Khomeini in Qom. He left Iran shortly thereafter, always returning and always hoping that the country would take a different turn for the better. It has been 28 years, and today Iran faces new challenges both internally and from outside.

In 1983 the late Zia Sedqi interviewed Nosratollah Amini for the Oral History project of Harvard University, headed by Dr. Habib Lajevardi. His memoirs, totaling some 300 pages, are in the process of being edited. Even at the age of 91, he has an incredible memory. Mossadegh once told him, “Mr. Amini you should write the “Who’s Who” of Iran since you know everyone and remember everything.” Amazingly, though illness and advanced arthritis have made him incapable of walking, his mind works astonishingly well, to the point of correcting historical events and dates during our conversations.  I wanted to ask my father, especially on the occasion of yet another anniversary of the 1979 revolution, about the past as well as his take on the events currently unfolding in Iran.  I wanted his honest assessment and opinion. At times, the wise words of our elderly make more sense than all the analyses of the “specialists.” My father is also known for his sense of humor, something that he has not lost even in old age.

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INTERVIEW

Fariba Amini: Did you ever meet the Shah and what was he like?

Nosratollah Amini:  Once, during an audience, while I was mayor of Tehran, the Shah told me, “I have heard you have done some good work for the city.” I responded by asking him if he wished to see it firsthand. He nodded yes. So, I went to the palace to pick up Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi for an outing in the south of the city, where many people lived in destitution. He told me to leave my car, and to go with his, and he himself took place behind the wheel. We talked extensively while driving. He asked me many questions. He wanted to know what could be done to ameliorate the conditions of the people living in that part of the city. The first thing I said to him was: can I call you something other than “your Majesty” He said, call me whatever pleases you. He was informal with me. In this context he also told me that he would have liked to be closer to his people but that the attempt on his life [in 1949] had made him reluctant to do so. At the end of the drive, the Shah told me, “I wish everyday were like this; I enjoyed your company tremendously today, and am indebted to you for taking me on a drive through the poor neighborhoods, discovering things about ordinary citizens which I had no idea about.” Before leaving the car, the Shah insisted that we do this again. But that was the last encounter I had with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

What was the main point of argument between the Shah and Mossadegh while the latter was Prime Minister?

The basic problem was that the Shah wanted to interfere in all government appointments and decisions. He meddled in everything that was the business of the Parliament, whereas Mossadegh believed that the Monarch should reign and not rule. They did not agree on this very basic notion from the beginning.

What do you remember of the days leading up to the 1953 coup?

Shortly before the coup, we were in Meygun, outside of Tehran. We always went there for yeylaq, summer retreat. My little boy was sick, and we wanted to go back to Tehran; friends, however, told me not to go to our house but go into hiding instead. I refused. Some people had told us that the security forces wanted to come to our house to confiscate things, but the people in our street -- we lived on Hedayat Street, not too far from the late Foruhars’ house -- stopped them. My wife had hidden all our books and photos.  Among them was a picture of Mossadegh. In a rush, she gave the photos to the butcher down the street, a National Front sympathizer. In the old days, before refrigeration, the meat would be hung in a cold place surrounded by ice, and blood from the meat ended up dripping on one of the photos of Mossadegh. The original copy of this photo is still in my possession.

A few months before the coup, Ayatollah Kashani’s wife had died and there were several funeral services for her. Some individuals, whom I had fired during my time as mayor for being involved in massive corruption, had planned to make a scene and stab me at the funeral. Mr. Atigheh-chi, the owner of a shoe store I knew had overheard people talking about this. He came to my office and told me to watch out. I was reluctant to go, but when Dr. Mossadegh told me that I should attend the funeral, I did. Fortunately, the plot had been discovered.

After the coup, I left the municipality and ended up working for the organization of national insurance (Sazman-e Bimeha-ye Ejtema’i). I was the head of this organization but I resigned from the position some time after the coup.

How did you become acquainted with Ayatollah Khomeini and what was he like?

I met Mr. Khomeini and his family through Keshavarz Sadr who was my colleague and Pasandideh’s son in law. Mr. Ebneyusef and other clergy members would get together in the Sepahasalar Mosque, and I used to go there as well. I sort of became an akhundbaz (someone who hangs out with the clergy) even though my family was not religious. Khomeini was a young clergyman at the time. In 1943, I had gone on a mission to Khuzestan. When I came to the office of the local Ministry of Justice, in Khorramshahr, Mr. Khomeini was there as well. I asked him what he was doing there. He said that he and his entourage had just come from Najaf and didn’t have a place to stay. I told him to come and stay with me in a room I had there. Being fond of poetry -- he knew Rumi’s Mathnavi by heart -- and knowing how much I liked it as well, he asked me what was new in poetry. I told him that Malekoshoa’rah Bahar (a renowned anti-dictatorship poet under Reza Shah) had composed a new poem titled “Peyk-e janan bi khabar.” He asked me to write it down for him. I said I had to go meet some prisoners whose case I was handling, and that I would write it down for him later.

In Tehran, my house was always open to people. In fact, Bazargan met Khomeini at my house. Sometimes, when he was in Tehran, Mr. Khomeini would stay at my house.

How did you find Ayatollah Khomeini after seeing him in Neauphle le-Château?

When I went to see him; the first thing he said was, “how is Nahid Khanom?”  He asked me when I had arrived and where I was staying. He insisted that I stay at his residence. I thanked him but said I am staying with Mr. Salamatian in Paris. While I was there, National Front leader Karim Sanjabi had also arrived in Paris. Friction was developing between Dr. Sanjabi and Dr. Bakhtiar. (Their differences were nothing new)  Shapur Bakhtiar, who had just been appointed prime minister called him from Tehran and asked him why he had not gone to the Socialist Convention in Canada, which he was supposed to attend.  What was he doing in Paris, he asked him? He was annoyed by Sanjabi’s sudden change of plans. Mr. Sanjabi was hoping to become the new prime minister. But after Khomeini dismissed Bakthiar, he chose Mehdi Bazargan; Khomeini told Ayatollah Montazeri to ask Sanjabi to become foreign minister.  Dr. Sanjabi lasted only a few months at the foreign ministry.

Shortly thereafter, Mehdi Bazargan’s provisional government was formed; I was appointed to the governorship of Fars Province. Soon after being appointed, I saw that matters were deteriorating. The air was becoming oppressive; so I went to see Mr. Khomeini. Unlike other times, this time around he did not display his usual friendliness; he did not get up or hug me. Tea was brought in, but only one glass. Initially He put it in front of me but then he took it and drank it himself. Later that day, when I saw Mr. Pasandideh, I told him your brother has changed. He asked how? I told him the story about the tea. During that meeting, I presented Mr. Khomeini with my resignation; I told him that the Pasdars (revolutionary guards) should be under my command and that I would only go back if he agreed to that. I said that I would wait until noon that same day and if I did not hear from him by then, I would not go back to Shiraz; He said, “Are you snubbing me?” Hala ba man ghahr mikonid?   He then said, “If I had snubbed people, the revolution would not have happened!” He took the letter from me and put it under his mattress.

I never heard back from Mr. Khomeini.

What did you say to Shapour Bakthiar when you telephoned him after he had become Prime Minister? Weren’t you still in the US at the time?

I called and talked to his secretary, Mrs. Kalantari. I said, tell him Dar khabar ast (it was a joke between us in prison). Bakhtiar realized who was on the line and told his secretary, ‘let me speak to Mr. Amini.’ We chatted a little; a few days later,  Shapur called me back. He said “I got rid of him;” I said who? He said, “The Shah.” I said that is not enough. You should declare a Republic; otherwise the Mullahs will take over. He thought that they (the army) would kill him if he did that. He said, I want to declare a republic and bring the Shah back as a figurehead. But I am concerned what the reaction might be.

What did you do the first day you entered Shiraz and were appointed as the governor?

When I arrived at the airport, the taxi driver asked me where I was heading. I said I was going to the governor’s mansion that I am the new governor! I had not told anyone to come to greet me.

The first day I was there, I dissolved the komites of Imam Khomeini in all of Fars province.   Ayatollah Rabbani Shirazi, the grand cleric of Shiraz, had declared the selling of foreign cigarettes illegal. The vendors ended up having a terrible time selling their cigarettes. Prices had increased sharply and they were in a desperate situation.  I called and asked for the reason behind this. There was no good answer. Early on the following morning, I declared the sale of dokhaniat (tobacco) free. Prices dropped, and vendors could sell foreign cigarettes at a low price. A few days later, I went to the Bazaar to investigate things for myself. I asked a vendor, how much are you cigarettes? He quoted me a very low price. I said how come? He told me, we now have a new governor who has got real balls. I looked down and I said I don’t see much!!! The vendor suddenly realized who I was!!

In another, well known incident, the infamous hanging judge Khalkhali and his thugs announced they were coming to destroy Takhte Jamshid (Persepolis). In response I gave a radio speech in which I declared that such a treacherous act would only take place over my dead body. I ordered the troops to be ready in case they arrived in Shiraz. As it happened, they were ordered to return to Tehran before embarking on their unholy mission.

Did Dr. Mossadegh express any regrets about his approach and dealings with the US and the British during the time you visited him in Ahmad Abad?

He said he never regretted anything. He thought that he had defended the Iranian people’s rights vis-à-vis the British. He knew that no matter what he would do, the British would still have attempted to destroy him.[1] He knew all along. But he thought the US administration would stand by him. We know that, unfortunately, they did not.

He was unhappy and sad during the time he was in Ahmad Abad, mostly because he was a prisoner in his own house and the Shah did not allow him to receive any visitors other than his immediate family. I was the only exception, because I had to see him as his lawyer. Thus when Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, came to Iran, he had gone to see the Karaj dam which had just been built. He made a request with the authorities to see Mossadegh. They said he was sick and could not have any visitors. They had lied of course.

I am reminded of an interesting story. One day in August, during the days of the anniversary of the coup, the radio was on and the soldiers who were guarding the residence in Ahmad Abad were listening. I arrived and saw Dr. Mossadegh sitting next to them, listening as well. I said to him, “Dr., do not listen to this propaganda and the lies. It will upset you.” He responded, “on the contrary, it makes me happy to think that at least once every year, people still remember me.”

Two months after the revolution, the day a million Iranians, on foot and on buses, went to Ahmad Abad, to visit his grave site, proved that he was never forgotten.

In your opinion, what was Bazargan’s mistake in the first weeks of his provisional government?

Mehdi Bazargan was an exceedingly honest man as well as a very religious person. Even in prison when we were all together, he was a bit of a fanatic. In my opinion, he should have resigned when they began to execute the generals and other officials of the Shah’s regime, without due process of law or any proper trials. He was too weak vis-à-vis the Imam. He did object to the executions but his words were not taken seriously. Part of the problem was that he was the Imam’s moghalled, which means, he had to follow his religious decrees, even if he disagreed with him. I believe Bazargan should have been a stronger politician, but then again, things were moving fast and no one was really in control of the situation. Yet, if he had taken a stronger position, the clerics would not have acted so swiftly in forming their own entourage.

An interesting story comes to my mind about this moghalled business. Before the coup, Mr. Khomeini was at my house and he wanted to talk to Dr. Haeri Yazdi; Dr. Haeri whose father was the founder of Houzeh Elmiyeh Ghom (religious seminary in Ghom) as well as Khomini’s teacher, said that he wanted to see him. I handed the phone to Mr. Khomeini. He said he couldn’t talk to him now, adding that he would tell me the reason later. A few minutes later, Khomeini told me that he did not talk on phone since the phone company had just been nationalized by Seifollah Moazzami, who was the minister of telephone and telegraph in Mossadegh’s government, and that the new owners might not allow him to use the phone without their permission! He then told me that it was okay for me to talk, since I was not his moghalled. 

What do you think of today’s events, the US approach to Iran, the nuclear issue?

If the US attacks Iran, the people will resist and will stand behind this government; it would be a grave mistake on America’s part.  If they really and truly want to help the Iranian people they should find other means. But the US government has made many mistakes in its policy towards Iran, beginning with the1953 Coup. It drove Iran into what we are witnessing today.  Even Mrs. Albright admitted that the US should not have interfered in Iran’s internal politics, and apologized to the Iranian people.   Iran has the right to nuclear power, but this government must prove to the world that it has no intention other than peaceful means. People don’t believe their intentions anymore; they have not proven to be very truthful in the last 28 years.

What do you hope for Iran and the US- Iranian relations? 

To see a mutually respected relationship based on fair trade, economic, political and cultural relations. There should be a people to people dialogue. People on both sides want an amicable and respectful relationship. This is also what the National Front always wished for and envisioned and the different US administrations refused in their dealings with Iran, during Mossadegh’s premiership and even now. The US government must respect the sovereignty of the Iranian nation under all circumstances.  Any kind of interference is doomed to fail. The Iranian people have not forgiven the US for the CIA coup against its democratically elected government, and if the US takes any measures, they will see it as intervention in their internal affairs. It is a real dilemma to find a viable solution at this time, but with wise decisions from sane people, a solution must be found.

For the sake of both nations, it is time for the broken bridges to be mended.

I hope to see an Iran which will flourish; I believe in my heart that it will, because this nation has been through a lot of turmoil in its long history and it has survived. That is my last wish before I leave this world. I hope a new generation of leaders will emerge and show the world that we are a civilized nation in every sense of the word.

As a man of politics, who do you think is suitable to run Iran?

I believe that on the basis of fair and equitable elections, Iranians should decide their future leader.  They should decide, not anyone else for them: a breakthrough out of the impasse should neither come from above by way of a hokm-e hokumati (governmental decree) nor from outside by way of external intervention. I also think that this nation should be governed by a secular leader. Religion must be separated from politics, the way Mossadegh believed and wanted it, the way Thomas Jefferson insisted some 200 years ago for the American nation.  I am and have always been a deeply religious man but when it comes to legal and political affairs, I keep religion to the side; it is wrong to mix the two.

What do you think of Ahmadi Nejad and his popularity? Why do you think he said what he said about the Holocaust?

The world knows about this tragedy; what we have read and seen. It is a scar on history. It is ludicrous to deny it. Ahmadi Nejad said it to manipulate the real issues facing the Iranian public.  It is a too familiar practice on the part of the Islamic Republic.

Mr. Ahmadi Nejad has proven to be shallow. He is a good preacher but where is the practice? He was the mayor of Tehran. What did he do for the city of Tehran? If he couldn’t do much as a mayor of the capital, he won’t do anything as a President of a country like Iran.

His economic plans for the country have been a total failure. Populism and catchy rhetoric are not enough to run a country.

You must be able to put forward economic and social plans and have capable people to execute them.

Who has been your role model in life?

Mossadegh will forever remain my hero, until the day I die. To me he represented everything I have ever believed in my own life-honesty, integrity, service to people and country and above all holding on to and defending the truth.  But there are two other people as well. One is Mirza Taher Tonkaboni [2], a philosopher and my teacher who was also involved in the Constitutional Revolution and imprisoned.  Finally, Ali Akbar Dehkhoda, a man of letters from the same era who edited the famous (Loghatnameh-ye Dehkhoda) encyclopedia, is another person whom I admired all my life. I loved this man, not only as a scholar, but as a freedom lover. I have a photo with him and Dr. Mossadegh, signed by both.

The following story illustrates what kind of a man Allameh Dehkhoda was. After the coup, my family and I were not in good financial shape.  We had to sell a lot of our belongings, including some of the silver that had been our wedding present. We also had two sick people we were taking care of at home. Dehkhoda had heard about this from someone. He and I met for lunch. Afterwards, he told me that he had left something for me, a package. It was money. He said that he had this extra money for which he had no use, even though he was not rich himself. I thanked him but told him I didn’t need it; that we had sold a few things and we had money now. I took the paper that he had signed and kept that; I have kept it to his date. He was truly a grand and noble man. Iran has had a few honorable men but one like him is quite rare.

I thanked my father at this point; he was getting physically tired. Whenever one visits him, he always has something to say or recites a verse of the many poems he still knows by heart.  I hope that he will remain with us to continue telling many anecdotes from his long and interesting life. Comment

Thanks to Rudi Matthee for helping me edit this piece.

NOTES
[1] In an article on Mirza Taher Tonkaboni (1280- 1320), written some 60 years ago and reprinted in Rahnamah-ye Ketab in 1974, Nosratollah Amini writes: “the last days that Mirza (Tonkaboni) was in Najmieh Hospital, he told me to come and see him early in the morning. I went to the hospital.   He told me, “I have been here nearly twenty days and I am leaving in 5 days, but I don’t want to leave without having paid my dues.  You know that I have nothing in my name except the books in my library. [He had a vast library of precious books] Go and take some books and sell them to the Majlis library so that I can pay for the hospital bill and leave.” Later, I managed to have the bill paid.   I went to see Arsalan Kahlatbari that day and told him of my talk with Mirza Taher and that he wanted to sell his book to pay his bills. Visibly upset, he called and set up a meeting with Dr. Sadigh A’lam, who at that point was minister of education, and told him the whole story. That afternoon, Dr. A’lam went to see Mirza. He told him:  “I have come to see you and tell you that the Ministry of Education owes you some money.” Mirza said, “No they don’t owe me anything.” In response, Dr. Sadigh said, “you should have been paid while you taught in schools and tutored at home.” Mirza said, “But I did get paid for the time I taught at Sepahsalar School and when I taught at home I did it for the love of God, and out of my love for teaching.” Mirza Taher refused to receive any payment.”

[2] “The British, determined to undermine Mossadeq from the day he was elected premier, refused to negotiate seriously with him. For instance, Professor Lambton, serving As a Foreign Office consultant, advised as early as November 1951 that the British government should persevere in ‘undermining’ Mossadeq, refuse to reach agreement with him, and reject American attempts to find a compromise solution. ‘The Americans,’ She insisted, ‘do not have the experience or the psychological insight to understand Persia.’” (Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic, 1993)

 

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