Gary Sick speaks on the passing of Ebrahim Yazdi, former foreign minister of Iran
Throughout his political life, Ebrahim Yazdi, the Iranian Islamist liberal politician who passed away on Sunday, August 27 in Izmir, Turkey, had many contacts with American officials. Some of those connections are shrouded in mystery and will doubtless be talked about by conspiracy aficionados for decades. But few American officials knew Yazdi as long and as constantly as Gary Sick, the analyst who served on the National Security Council and was the White House’s principal Iran expert when the1979 Islamic Revolution broke out in Iran.
Sick, now a professor of International affairs at Columbia University in New York, spoke on the phone to IranWire just after news emerged of Yazdi’s passing. He shared his memories and his thoughts on the man with whom he had many disagreements but whom he always respected.
You knew Ebrahim Yazdi for decades. What do you see as his legacy? How would you characterize his work as a diplomat and politician?
The thing that strikes me most about [Yazdi] was that he was a man of real integrity. I disagreed with him on many occasions but he believed in what he did and was willing to stand up for his principles.
I have a number of memories with him. The first time I met him was at the United Nations building [in New York] right after the Iranian revolution. I had known him and had had indirect contacts with him but had never seen him in person before. He was at the UN just after the Iranian revolution to meet with Cyrus Vance, then US secretary of state. I was in the room for that meeting. One of the things that strike me is that he opened the meeting with saying: “The last time I was here in the UN, I was part of a protest group, protesting US activities toward Iran.” That was how he set the meeting off.
When the hostage crisis took place, he was one of the individuals in the government, as foreign minister, who said that this is not right, we shouldn’t be making prisoners of people who are diplomatically accredited to our country. He resigned or was fired by Khomeini who was in favor of the hostage crisis.
Yazdi believed in the Iranian revolution and supported it from the start. He is what would be called a radical. As a young man, he organized for the Freedom Movement of Iran [a liberal, religiously-oriented political party]. He was also a talented and accomplished medical doctor. He came to Rice University and was very active as a doctor. People remembered him in Houston as having been a very dedicated physician. He left after Khomeini moved to Paris and he also moved to Paris and joined Khomeini. There, he was the voice of the Iranian revolution and that voice was talking about freedom, democracy and women’s rights. This was something he truly believed in and he was proven to be wrong because that’s not what the revolution turned out to be. It became a killing machine after the takeover. He protested vigorously against the judicial killings of people who had been close to Shah and that got him into trouble with people around Khomeini. He ended up resigning over the hostage crisis, not because he loved the US by any means but because he couldn't stand up and defend that as foreign minister.
Later on, after [Mehdi] Bazargan [Iran’s first post-revolutionary prime minister] died, he basically became the inheritor of the Freedom Movement of Iran which was a very well-known and highly principled group that supported the revolution and Khomeini but which insisted that Iran should behave according to its own principles. Because of this, he was arrested multiple times, thrown in jail, treated very badly. He was always in and out of jail but he never backed away from his ideas and his ideals.
The government told him that he should resign from his position as the head of the Freedom Movement and he did, because he was in jail and couldn’t continue with his activities. But the Freedom Movement refused to accept his resignation and he remained its head right to the end.
He came back and forth to the US and I met him a lot of times. I debated with him on stage at Columbia University when he was taking one position in regards to the Islamic Revolution and I, another. But it was a very cordial debate, where there was nothing nasty and nothing personal. I also invited him at one point to be a speaker at a university seminar that I ran at Columbia and he did and came to speak to a group of Middle East specialists for 2 or 3 hours. He was very open and willing to take questions, willing to recognize the validity of other people’s opinions. He also stuck to his principles. He really believed in the revolution, he believed the revolution should behave in a particular way. I had great respect for the man. I think he was one of the great participants in the Iranian revolution. He was there from the beginning and he became the conscience of the revolution as it was led astray.
Much has been made of the role he took in Iran-US negotiations over the hostage crisis and his meeting with Warren Zimmerman [a political counsellor with the US embassy in France]. What do you make of his role there?
He met with Zimmerman. Zimmerman delivered a message from the Americans. Yazdi delivered a message from Ayatollah Khomeini. He was an accurate and fair transmitter between the two sides but I don’t think he was actually representing his personal views during that time. He was delivering the message that Americans had sent to Khomeini and he was accurate. The reality is that nothing came out of that. It was an exchange of views and it didn’t change anything, least the Iranian point of view.
What would have happened if people like Yazdi had come to power and won the battle for power in the early days of the revolution?
I think Iran would be quite a different place. I think that Yazdi believed deeply in the revolutionary idea, the idea that monarchy should go, and that it should be replaced by a revolution of people who believed in freedom and democracy and religion. He was a pious man, he was a man who believed in the religion. He had no problem with the fact that Iran was going be a religious country. But the idea that Iran would be governed by a theocratic elite, made up of clerics, was not something he approved of. He was a pious Muslim but not a cleric and not in favor of religious rule of the country.
If Yazdi and Bazargan had become heads of state, if they had been able to really govern and not just watch events, Iran would have been a different place and, from my point of view, that would have been a very good thing. I think that clerical rule hasn’t been a good thing for Iran and I think Yazdi was very courageous in saying that repeatedly. He ended up in jail for it, which affected his health and I am very sorry that this ended in his death.
Last year, Yazdi was refused a visa to come to the US for a medical operation. What do you think of that?
I did whatever little I could to try to persuade the US government and the State Department to give him a visa. I thought he deserved a visa. He was a former green card holder, he was a physician and had a reputation as a good doctor. Whatever you think about the Iranian revolution, he represented a part of that which was very different from where the revolution ended up. He should have been allowed back in the US. I was personally disappointed that he wasn’t.
The problem is that the politics between US and Iran have become very fought over and everything that happens is regarded as a symbol. The idea of giving a visa to a man who was the former foreign minister of Iran was something that was politically, if not unthinkable, really dangerous and the US government wasn’t willing to do it. To me, it’s unfortunate. On the other hand, given the history, that is not something that should particularly surprise us. Iran’s actions toward the US, the hostage crisis, even though Yazdi opposed it — those things have left scars and he was a victim of that politics, both in Iran and in the US. He suffered from both sides.