One of the pivotal moments of the Iranian Revolution was the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Tehran on February 1, 1979. Millions gathered in the streets to cheer the Shiite cleric’s arrival after 14 years in exile. Sitting beside the Ayatollah on that historic Air France flight was a key supporter, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who went on to become foreign minister.
Three-and-a-half years later, Ghotbzadeh was executed. This came after he confessed to plotting to overthrow the regime.
On Saturday (November 4) evening, the STAND Festival will explore Ghotbzadeh’s Canadian connections in a live podcast, Tracking Ayatollah’s Spokesman in Canada, at the Scotiabank Dance Centre in Vancouver.
Ghotbzadeh spoke excellent English, which he honed through years as a student in the United States and Canada. After graduating in 1969 from the now-defunct Notre Dame University College in Nelson, B.C., he moved to Paris, where he introduced the international media to the Ayatollah.
The former foreign minister’s story has captivated Mahmoud Azimaee, a Toronto-based health-data quality expert who immigrated to Canada in 2004. Azimaee was unaware of any Canadian connection until he read The Man in the Mirror: A True Story of Love, Revolution and Treachery in Iran, a 1987 book by former Ghotbzadeh girlfriend and ex-CBC journalist Carol Jerome.
“Eventually, I was able to find her,” Azimaee tells Pancouver by phone. “Then, I decided to do more research, just as a personal interest… I thought, maybe, it could just be an amateur documentary that I can post on my YouTube channel.”
BBC Persian expresses interest in Ghotbzadeh
He started by conducting phone interviews with people who knew Ghotbzadeh, who was a vehement critic of the Shah of Iran. Azimaee reached out to journalists and former Iranian politicians, but in the early days, it was hard to persuade some of them to speak.
“I thought maybe I need to create something just to prove I am seriously researching about this,” Azimaee says. “So, I started to put together a very short trailer for the future documentary that I was planning to do.:
This trailer included archival information and some phone interviews.
Much to his surprise, it caught the interest of BBC Persian, which was impressed by his research. Azimaee told the network that he didn’t have a producer. As a result, BBC provided one, Farshad Bayan, who became co-producer and writer.
They replicated Azimaee’s phone interviews on-camera, and even visited former Iranian president Abolhassan Banisadr at his home in France, where he had sought asylum. According to Azimaee, Banisadr’s house was protected by French police because the former president had been targeted for assassination.
Azimaee and Bayan ended up creating a three-part series, Son of the Revolution, which aired in Farsi on BBC Persian in 2020. Earlier this year, it was posted on YouTube with English subtitles for the narration and non-English interviews. Moreover, Azimaee’s Radio Dastneveshteha website includes various podcasts about Iran’s modern history as well as a “deep dive into the political and personal life of Sadegh Ghotbzadeh”.
Watch Part 1 of Son of the Revolution.
Devoted to Khomeini
“I’m expanding this story in my podcast,” Azimaee says. “The Vancouver event is the first time I’m doing this podcast in English.”
He hopes to convert his research into a book.
Ghotbzadeh was, in many ways, a study in contradictions. A suave and sophisticated ladies’ man, he was also a Muslim who avoided alcohol when he and fellow revolutionaries gathered at La Closerie restaurant in Paris’s Montparnasse neighbourhood.
“He has a footprint on pretty much every event related to the revolution,” Azimaee says.
In particular, Ghotbzadeh, along with another future Iranian foreign minister, Ebrahim Yazdi, played key roles in connecting western journalists with the Ayatollah. For example, Ghotbzadeh brought one reporter from Le Monde to see the religious leader in Najaf, Iraq, where he had been living in exile before moving to Paris.
“Ghotbzadeh was very devoted to Khomeini,” Azimaee says. “He had a kind of father-and-son relation.”
Ghotbzadeh realized Khomeini’s true nature only after becoming foreign minister of Iran, according to Azimaee.
Ghotbzadeh spoke openly of regime change
Many people believe that Ghotbzadeh wasn’t plotting a coup and only confessed to this after being tortured. But Azimaee maintains that this wasn’t simply an empty accusation by the mullahs.
In fact, several of Azimaee’s interview subjects told him that Ghotbzadeh spoke openly about his hope to overthrow the regime. And some of them asked Ghotbzadeh why he was telling them this.
In the early days of the Islamic regime, Ghotbzadeh often appeared on ABC News to speak on behalf of the government. These interviews caught the attention of those from the Nelson area who remembered him, including former NDP MP Lyle Kristiansen and former B.C. NDP housing minister Lorne Nicolson.
Azimaee interviewed both of them before they deaths in 2015 and 2021, respectively. They told the podcaster that Ghotbzadeh had campaigned for the NDP in the 1960s.
Nicolson even shared a story about Ghotbzadeh hitting on his wife.
“You will hear about that in the podcast, too,” Azimaee says.
The STAND Festival presents Mahmoud Azimaee’s podcast, Tracking Ayatollah’s Spokesman in Canada, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (November 4) at Scotiabank Dance Centre. For more information and tickets, visit the festival website. The STAND festival continues until November 12.