Q&A: A Conversation with Reza Kahlili

by Uriel Epshtein

On March 30th, Reza Kahlili came to Yale to speak about his experiences as a former Iranian Revolutionary Guardsman and double agent for the CIA. Kahlili has a unique and inside perspective on a country mired in controversy. Uriel Epshtein spoke to him about his experiences and the future of Iran.

Q: Could you please talk a bit about your background?

A: I was born in Tehran but was sent to the U.S. to study at the University of Southern California. After my return, in 1979, my friend in the Revolutionary Guard convinced me that my education in computer science and my background in communications would make me a perfect candidate to join them. Inspired by the values of the revolution and hoping to serve my country, I didn’t hesitate, but a few months down the road I became disillusioned. I saw the regime commit terrible atrocities. Women were forced to wear the hijab, men and women couldn’t be seen together, many who voiced the slightest bit of political dissent were taken to Evin Prison, and there they were tortured, the women were raped, and many were eventually executed. I saw my childhood friend be executed…This, of course, isn’t even to mention that political parties were banned and the U.S. embassy was taken hostage… Soon, I had seen enough and by the fall of 1981sought to return to the U.S. under the pretense of having to take care of an ailing relative. My friend in the Revolutionary Guard helped me with my papers, and I was able to make the trip. In the U.S., I first got in touch with the FBI—the CIA wasn’t listed in the Yellow pages—and they, in turn, forwarded me to Langley. The CIA agent who I’d gotten in touch with proposed that I return to Iran as a spy for the U.S. He said I could oppose the atrocities of the regime by providing information about the Revolutionary Guard. I agreed, was trained in Europe, and shortly became a CIA double agent in the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard.

Q: What years were you involved with the CIA?

A: Early ‘80s through late ‘80s in Iran, late ‘80s through early ‘90s in Europe, mid ‘90s in America.

Q: What did you think of your involvement with the CIA?

A: Despite what many movies will tell you, they were great. They were concerned with my safety, told me that I wouldn’t have to do anything that made me uncomfortable, trained me well, and then listened to my concerns throughout the process. When, after many years, I wanted to get out, they didn’t resist and even helped with transportation to the U.S.

Q: What did you hope to achieve?

A: I was hoping that they would understand that this regime would have to go, and I hoped to provide the right analysis to the U.S. administration so that they would help the Iranian people. This, unfortunately, didn’t happen.

Q: Do you think Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon?

A: Absolutely. I have no doubt that a nuclear device is their end-goal and, unfortunately, I think they’ll be able to get it because we haven’t taken enough actions to stop them.

Q: Some people will argue that even if Iran gets a nuclear weapon it will never use it. Do you think that’s true?

A: Absolutely not. The Iranian leaders who are ruling the country right now are truly messianic, and they believe that it is mandated that they destroy Israel to bring about the End of Times and the return of the last Imam. It is essential for the West to realize this. Nukes in the hands of the radicals in Iran would at the very least destabilize the world, affect the economy by raising the price of oil, and expand terrorist activities [by removing terrorists’ fear] about a reaction from the U.S. Once they have a nuke, they can take the world hostage. I think that mutually assured destruction does not apply to the Iranian regime and that they will seek to destroy Israel and create the circumstances necessary to fulfill the centuries-old Hadith that states that once chaos takes over the world and one-third of the world population dies, Imam Mahdi will return.

Q: Do you believe that the Iranian Regime cares for its self-preservation?

A: No, their mentality does not allow them to. This may seem crazy to many, but they have a different lens through which they see the world. They see martyrdom as the highest calling. Mutually assured destruction wouldn’t give them pause. At best, even if they did care about their own preservation, then the nuclear bomb would give them much more freedom to support terrorism around the world.

Q: Taking into account China’s and Russia’s recalcitrance in supporting crippling sanctions against Iran, what do you think the United States can realistically do in the next few months or years to ensure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon? Is there anything we can do?

A: Russia and China aren’t abiding by the current sanctions in place. Many Chinese companies, with permission from the U.S., are still working in Iran, and many other corporations are secretly doing business in Iran. A Chinese ship was recently confiscated by Malaysian police in Malaysia en route to Iran; the ship was holding nuclear material. India, Germany, Venezuela, and others work with Iran. The U.S. had the best opportunity in the summer of 2009 when Iranians came out en masse to oppose the regime. The U.S. didn’t support the protesters and so now we’re left with only two options: First, minimize diplomatic connections with Iran; kick out most Iranian diplomats from Europe and let the Iranian people know that the West supports their aspirations to freedom and democracy and that we will help them overcome the regime. Otherwise, we’ll eventually have to go to war. In this scenario, we would have to fight the Revolutionary Guard and tell the Iranian people they have Western support. If they know this, they’ll do the rest.

Due to security concerns, Khalili conceals his face behind sunglasses, a hat, and a mask. The name “Reza Khalili” is a pseudonym that he uses to protect the identities of his family and friends. (Courtesy Reza Khalili)

Q: So you believe that the Iranian people, as a whole, oppose the regime?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you believe that they will come out again as they did in the summer of 2009?

A: Only if they have assurances that the West will support them.

Q: Were the people of Iran who came out in 2009 supporters of Mousavi?

A: No, they’ve never had a chance for a free election so they took this opportunity to come out and show their resentment towards the regime. They weren’t coming out to support Mousavi, but rather to oppose the regime.

Q: What should the West do to demonstrate support for the people of Iran who oppose the regime?

A: They should provide support to prosecute the Iranian leaders through legal channels for crimes against humanity: for rape, for torturing and murdering Iranian citizens, for genocide against religious minorities, for involvement in international terrorism, and for killing American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. should help establish direct channels of communication with the Iranian people to provide information to the masses and to promote freedom. [It can also] ask our allies within the European Union to cut diplomatic ties to a minimum and to refuse airspace to Iran Air and ports to ships to and from Iran.

Q: Yale Professor Hillary Leverett argues that the United States should engage more with Iran and seek a realignment similar to the one Nixon sought with China. What do you think of this proposal?

A: Frankly, that’s ridiculous. For over 30 years, U.S. administrations have gone through back channels with serious negotiations and serious sanctions to come to better relations, and nothing has worked. This proposal is destructive because the regime has shown utter contempt for its own people, the U.S., and the world. Not understanding this ideology and the philosophy is exactly why every approach has failed. Until we do understand them, we will fail in future approaches…. No matter how many incentives we offer, the Iranian regime will not change their behavior.

Khalili chronicled his experiences in the 2010 book, “A Time to Betray.” Visit www.atimetobetray.com for more information.

Uriel Epshtein ’14 is in Trumbull College. Contact him at uriel.epshtein@yale.edu.