Iranian diplomat Mohammed Reza Heydari defected in protest against the brutality of the regime in 2010. I travelled to Oslo to interview him for Sydsvenskan. The resulting reportage is still one of the most meaningful things I have done as a journalist.
It circulated quite a lot in Swedish-Iranian circles, and volunteers ended up translating and republishing my text at Iranian Election News for it to reach more people. Since it’s not available there anymore, I’ll post the translation by Anusche Noring below.
Iran’s defected consul speaks out
In January, Mohammed Reza Heydari resigned from his job as Iran’s consul in Oslo in protest. Since then, he and his family have been subjected to heavy pressure from the regime. Nevertheless, he says that 27 of his colleagues around the world are currently thinking of doing the same thing.
OSLO. Money and a comfortable life silenced diplomat Mohammed Reza Heydari’s conscience for twenty years. But after the bloodbath in Tehran in late December, he could not put up with it any longer.
“People just went out and asked where their votes had gone. For that they were killed in the streets. My conscience did not allow me to continue”, says 43-year-old Mohammed Reza Heydari, while parking his silver beige Mercedes outside a three-storey block of flats in Oslo’s embassy district.
He turns off the car stereo with Akbar Golpayegani’s melancholic song, while his conscience comes walking through the entrance. His conscience wears fixed braces, sagging jeans and a green silk scarf thrown over his shoulder. They exchange a few words as they meet, stand close and look each other in the eyes.
The diplomat’s conscience is 17 years old and his name is Javad. In mid-June of last year, when the regime brutally suppressed the protests against the alleged fraud in the presidential election, Javad asked his father:
“How can you work for Iran, when they jail people like me?”
“That is just Western propaganda”, Mohammed Reza Heydari answered.
“My friends ask me why you work for them. They are killing people in the streets.”
“It is not the government that kills.”
But when he was alone, Mohammed Reza Heydari sat down and watched video clips and browsed Iranian and foreign websites. One day, over the plastic lunch boxes in the embassy lunch room, he asked out of the blue:
“What is it that we are doing in Iran?”
His colleagues went silent. Yes, indeed, they had also been doing some thinking.
“Should we not condemn the killing?”
“Are you sure that it is true?”
Mohammed Reza Heydari was summoned to his chargé d’affaires, the second highest ranked diplomat at the embassy, who said:
“You already had one problem. We know that you advised your friends to vote for Mousavi. Now you have two.”
He beckoned Mohammed Reza Heydari to join him behind the desk and pointed at his computer screen. A surveillance film shot on the slope below the embassy showed a group of protesters shouting “death to the dictator”. Right in the middle of them stood Javad.
“For twenty years, I had had a good and well-paid job, a beautiful home, a nice car. I was not rich, but I lived a good life. I was afraid of losing everything and ending up with a lot of problems.”
The first time his own conscience made itself felt was when he returned to Iran after his previous post abroad in Germany. The current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had taken office in 2005, following Mohammad Khatami, who had been working to gradually reform Iranian society and lead it in a more democratic direction.
Mohammed Reza Heydari was assigned a position at the airport, questioning those who were travelling abroad. It struck him how many young, educated citizens were leaving the country.
“Iran is a rich country, we should not have to lose our people. But the young people want to get out. They have no freedom, and it is difficult for them to get a job. You need to have contacts.”
Heydari himself was born without privileges. His father was a baker who supported the family by baking the thin traditional loaves known as taftoon and lavash. His mother was a housewife and took care of the nine children.
None of his brothers and sisters wanted to get an education, so his father wanted at least his youngest son, Mohammed Reza, to go to university. After graduating from law school, the obvious choice was to take the admission exam for the Iranian foreign service’s trainee programme. The aim was to obtain a secure government position which would guarantee a high salary and offer opportunities to see the world.
However, before getting there, he had to complete his military service. He returned from the Iraq front with shrapnel injuries in his left arm and leg.
“What I learned from the war? Nothing. To kill the enemy.”
At that time, he was not much older than his son is now. To his superior at the embassy, Mohammed Reza Heydari had replied: “What Javad does is not my problem. He has grown up, what can I do?”
But at home, he could not get away that easily. Javad showed him the YouTube clip of the young woman who was shot in the chest and died in a pool of blood on a street in Tehran.
He said: “You killed Neda.”
“I could not look my child in the eyes.”
Mohammed Reza Heydari negotiated with himself. Things could still take a different turn. He could wait and see. Finally he made up his mind: If the Islamic regime killed people during Ashura, the mourning ceremony during the holy month of Muharram when no violence must occur – in that case, he would say enough is enough.
Ashura arrived. A week later, Mohammed Reza Heydari announced his defection on the Norwegian television channel NRK. On the 7th of January, he submitted his resignation. The embassy denied his defection, and claimed that his term of service had simply expired.
A former colleague called him and told him that two officials from the foreign ministry had come from Iran to see him. Mohammed Reza Heydari did not allow them inside his home. He met them standing in the cold downstairs in the entrance, where the police officers guarding him could see them.
“They wanted me to say that my defection had been made up by Western journalists. I was to be received at the airport in Tehran and take part in a TV reportage in which I would deny everything. If I did so, I could keep my job, and if I needed money or anything else, I could have it.”
Now, his bank account is frozen. He considers his house in Iran to be lost. His brothers and sisters are constantly being called in for questioning and are being told that their brother is a betrayer. One of his brothers has been dismissed from his job at a government agency.
But one of his sisters has told him that people keep stopping her in the street to tell her they are proud of what her brother is doing for Iran. And in Oslo, he can hardly go out without people approaching to thank him and pay him their respects.
“I have lost much, but I have gained a lot too. It is important that the world knows. I am happy that I have done something good for others.”
His wife is having a harder time.
“She is depressed. Before, we would always socialise with friends from the embassy. But nobody comes over any more,” he says, pointing to the empty seats in the red velvet corner couch.
The flat is rented by the embassy, and the family must move out by the end of the month. If they are granted asylum in Norway, they intend to learn Norwegian – unlike the two sons, the parents have hardly learned anything of the language in the two years they have spent there – and to work. To begin with, Heydari plans to write a book about his twenty years in the Islamic Republic’s service and to start a counselling centre for exiled Iranians.
So far, everyone is after him: human rights organisations, journalists, political parties and associations. Today, he has an appointment at the Norwegian foreign ministry.
“I will tell them to press for human rights instead of focusing exclusively on nuclear weapons. It means a lot to the people of Iran to see that the world has not forgotten them.”
He does not believe in sanctions and boycotts, since they cause poverty and unemployment and will give the regime an external enemy to blame all the hardships on. Targeted sanctions against the leaders, however, can be effective, he says and suggests freezing bank accounts, confiscating property abroad, cancelling visas and stopping all invitations to international meetings for the leaders and their families.
“Prevent their children from studying abroad. If the Iranian education system is so great, they might as well study there. And close down the mosques where they spread their lies. Why should Iran be allowed to run mosques in Europe while European organisations are not allowed to operate in Iran?”
Even though Mohammed Reza Heydari is a devout Muslim, he advocates a secular form government.
“We have tried mixing religion and politics for three decades. It does not work.”
As soon as the regime falls, he intends to go back. He believes that the Islamic Republic has one or two years left at the most.
He has been contacted by 27 diplomats in Europe and Asia who are currently considering following his example. He jots down the number 27 on the piece of paper lying before him, with a dot before and another one after and two lines underneath.
“They are just like I was – they work for the system and the system gives them everything. But our children grow up and ask us who we are, and we must answer them.”