By Arash Azizi
February 5, 2019
She must have known she had it coming. As the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution of 1979 nears, Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, posted a triumphant tweet. As part of her celebration of the revolution, Ebtekar poured scorn at the monarchs of Iran in the 20th century “who came to power with foreign support, stood against their people, spread tyranny and ended up dying abroad.” She contrasted these kings to Ayatollah Khomeini who, she claimed, “spread democracy and stood against autocracy and world domination.”
The revolution’s legacy divides Iranians, but an ever-increasing large number of them share contempt for their rulers, ie men and women like Ebtekar who founded the Islamic Republic in the aftermath of the revolution. Ebtekar often receives especially bold responses due to her prominent role as a spokesperson for the group of young revolutionaries who raided the US embassy in November 1979 and took American diplomats hostage, thereby changing the course of the revolution — and of Iranian history.
But reactions to her recent tweet were swift, and has so far attracted more than 1,000 responses — almost all negative. One person named Baran tweeted bitterly: “Religious police patrols, censorship, prisons, torture, medieval confessions… sounds like democracy to me.”
Another pointed to the fact that Ebtekar’s son has been studying in the US, just as she herself and her father had done before: “You were enriched and sent your kids to the country whose house [embassy] you used to raid.”
After seeing these reactions from Iranians, I wondered how Ambassador John W. Limbert — one of the 53 American diplomats taken hostage in 1979 — would react to Ebtekar’s tweet. In a phone conversation on the morning of February 3, I asked him what he felt about it.
“I was a little bit sad,” Ambassador Limbert says. “Back in 1979, she was young and idealistic. A lot of young people do stupid things like she and her colleagues did. Now, 40 years later, I would think she would have grown up … But one of the hardest things to do is to come out and say what you did before was wrong and you screwed up.”
“The Only Way They’ll Give up is by Dying”
Limbert’s ties to Iran run deep. He speaks Persian fluently and elegantly and during our conversation, we switched between the two languages. He first went to Iran in 1962 to visit his parents, who were there working for USAID, two of the thousands of Americans in the country helping the Shah achieve his modernization plans. He came back in 1964 as a Peace Corps volunteer and later in the decade as an English instructor at Shiraz’s much-lauded Pahlavi University, which was being built up in partnership with the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. Ironically, one of the students who would get his degree from the university was Ebtekar’s father, leading her to partially grow up in suburban Pennsylvania, evident in her smooth English — which gave her a role in and made her the face of hostage-takers to the world. In 1979, Limbert had been in the country for only a couple of months when Ebtekar and her comrades launched their hostage-taking operation.
I asked the ambassador, who had a high-ranking position during the Obama administration, about his reflections on the legacy of the revolution for Iran.
“A great majority of the Iranian population now doesn’t remember the revolution and a lot of people weren’t even alive then,” Limbert says. “I haven’t been back to Iran for 38 years or so but everyone tells me the population is young, creative, savvy, well-educated and yet the power is still in the hands of essentially same people who got it 40 years ago. They don’t want to give up. The only way they give it up is by dying.”
Ebtekar’s tweet was accompanied with a photograph of Ayatollah Khomieni, and so our conversation took a turn to discuss him.
Limbert, who holds a PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, knows his Iranian history. In 1968, years before he was a diplomat, he published an article on the Kurds in pre-Islamic Iran in the flagship journal Iranian Studies. Since then he has published books not only on the familiar topic of US-Iran relations but on the city of Shiraz in the medieval age and its fabled mystical poet, Hafez.
“If you read history,” Limbert tells me. “you’d know Khomeini started off as a far-right politician. He was preaching against the White Revolution in 1962 and his positions were on the extreme of the religious spectrum. Not a lot of people paid attention before he shifted to a much more nationalist point of view. But people like Niloofar should have known better!”
Limbert humorously uses the birth name of Masoumeh Ebtekar before she swapped the Persian name Niloofar for the more religious-sounding Masoumeh, the name of a 9th-century relative of Shia Imams buried in the holy city of Qom in central Iran.
Limbert expresses shock not only toward Ebtekar — who the US media has often referred to as “Sister Mary” — but also by some of the people responding to her on Twitter. Common in responses are conspiracy theories that connect the Iranian Revolution to the US administration of President Jimmy Carter. For example, one person wrote: “It was US that wanted the Shah to leave and Khomeini to come. The revolution won within 10 days with support of the US and pre-planned coordinations.” Another said: “Khomeini was just another king; he came to Iran with the support of Carter, not Iranian people.”
“How can people still have this idea after 40 years that the revolution was caused by the foreigners or America?” Limbert asks me. “They can’t even take responsibility for it. You would think people would have more understanding after 40 years.”
Hope For the Future?
As with many conversations about Iran, we end up talking about the future.
“I am always optimistic,” Limbert tells me. “You have to be. On an emotional level, I feel like my friends and my family members should have it better than this. Everybody, whether Iranian, Russian or Zimbabwean, deserves a government that treats you decently, not one that jails journalists, human rights activists, women rights activists, professors, filmmakers and lawyers.”
His optimism is also rooted in a long view of Iranian history: “To give them credit, Iranians have been fighting for such a government. You can go back 100 years to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1907 and you can see Iranians fought for it and they [have been] fighting for it ever since. 1978-79 was also part of that struggle but it went seriously wrong.”
He remembers Ayatollah Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, pretty well from his days as a hostage in the embassy. Then a young revolutionary cleric, Khamenei held talks with Limbert in Persian inside the compound.
I ask Limbert to imagine what Khamenei now thinks about his revolution, 40 years later.
“For him personally, he’s done very well,” Limbert says. “Most people, when asked to evaluate a situation, look at themselves and their close associates. If you ask him, he might say ‘I am doing fine and so are my family and my friends. So what’s the problem?’”
It seems clear, then, that holding absolute power seems to come with a lack of self-reflection — and revolutionaries-cum-rulers like Ebtekar are no exception.