Helsinki, April 1 – Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution whose regime was formally inauguarated30 years ago today, was a committed Russophile, according to the retired KGB officer who served as that organization’s resident in Tehran before and during that time.
In an interview published in this week’s “Voenno-promyshlenniy kur’yer,” Leonid Shebarshin, who retired from the Soviet intelligence service as a much-decorated lieutenant general and who now heads his own company, talks about his years of service in Iran, 1979-1983 (www.vpk-news.ru/article.asp?pr_sign=archive.2009.278.articles.conception_01).
Shebarshin, 74, says that the KGB’s first chief directorate in which he served had regularly predicted the fall of the shah, unlike the Americans and the Chinese who, the retired KGB officer recalls, were impressed until nearly the end by the outward trappings of the shah’s regime. “We did not make this mistake.”
In May 1979, just before he departed for Tehran, Shebarshin says that he was told by KGB chief and future CPSU leader Yury Andropov that “left progressive forces [in Iran] had no chance of coming to power and that many years would be required for Iranians to become disappointed in the theocracy.”
The former resident also describes the very different ways in which the Iranians treated the US and Soviet embassies, invading both in the course of November 1979 but not seizing any of the Soviet diplomats, and about the way in which specialists on the USSR who were working in the shah’s intelligence service survived while those working on other questions did not.
Moreover, he discusses the extremely negative impact of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 on Iranian attitudes and also the adverse consequences for Moscow of Iraqi use of Soviet airplanes and weapon systems during Baghdad’s attack on Iran at the behest of the Americans.
And Shebarshin describes what he says were the “intelligent and pragmatic” qualities of the Iranian leaders who maintained their economic relations with the Soviet Union and did not force out most Soviet workers in the country, although Tehran did force all Americans and most Europeans to do so.
But perhaps the most important comments in the current context are Shebarshin’s description of the pro-Russian attitudes of Ayatalloh Khomeini. Although the former KGB officer acknowledges that he “unfortunately” did not have direct personal ties with the leader of the revolution, he provides a remarkable vignette into the thinking of the Islamic leader.
At the end of December 1979, after Moscow had sent its forces into Afghanistan, the Soviet ambassador in Tehran travelled to Khomeini’s residence in Qum to explain why Moscow had taken the decision to intervene and to discuss the possible consequences of that action for Soviet-Iranian relations.
“The imam attentively listened to [the Soviet diplomat] and then said: ‘You are making a big error!’ And in general, [the Iranian leader] turned out to be right,” Shebarshin acknowledges. But then the former KGB officer makes the following declaration: “Imam Khomeini was a Russophile, however strange this may seem” to those who do not know the history of Iran.
Of course, the ayatollah was “an opponent of godless socialism, but [he was also] a man who had great respect for northern neighbor and belonged to an [Iranian] Russophile family. “At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century,” Shebarshin explains, “Iranian society was approximately equally divided between Anglophiles and Russophiles.”
And it turned out that “already his upbringing in childhood and youth led Ruholla al-Musavi al-Khomini to relate to Russia with respect,” a background Moscow and its KGB clearly recognized, valued, and exploited but one that many people elsewhere not only did not know but considered absolutely impossible.