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If the Ayatollah Khomeini was an enemy of the United States ruling elite, why did he adopt the CIA's security service?

Historical and Investigative Research - 23 Feb 2006
by Francisco Gil-White

In June of 1980, the New York Times reported that the new leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, was complaining loudly that many people who had served under the Shah had not been purged from the government bureaucracies. “He singled out the Foreign Ministry for criticism, saying that in this department and in other ministries there were ‘the same emblems and the same corruption’ as before.”[0] It is curious that he should not have singled out SAVAK -- especially SAVAK.

SAVAK had been the Iranian Shah (King) Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's feared security service, which routinely tortured and assassinated dissidents, and spied on everybody. It had been created by the CIA after the CIA installed the shah in power in a 1953 coup d'état.[1]  As a dissident leader prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had been denouncing SAVAK. So why so much noise now about other ministries being full of Shah agents and nothing in particular about SAVAK?

Earlier the same month, the Washington Post had published an interesting article with the title: “Khomeini Is Reported to Have a SAVAK of His Own.”[1a] And what was Khomeini’s own SAVAK like? It was none other than SAVAK itself. Here is what the Washington Post writes (emphases are mine):

“Though it came to power denouncing the shah’s dreaded SAVAK secret service, the government of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has created a new internal security and intelligence operation, apparently with a similar organizational structure and some of the same faces as its predecessor.

The new organization is called SAVAMA. It is run, according to U.S. sources and Iranian exile sources here and in Paris, by Gen. Hossein Fardoust, who was deputy chief of SAVAK under the former shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and a friend from boyhood of the deposed monarch.

...‘SAVAK is alive and kicking’ in the form of SAVAMA, claims Ali Tabatabai, former press counselor at the Iranian Embassy in Washington under the shah... now president of the Iran Freedom Foundation in Bethesda [Maryland, near Washington D.C.]… ‘There are large numbers of former SAVAK people’ in the new organization, he says. ‘In fact, with the exception of the bureau chiefs [who ran the individual sections of SAVAK] the whole organization seems to be intact.’

In Paris, a French lawyer who specializes in representing Iranian exiles told Washington Post correspondent Ronald Koven that ‘SAVAMA is SAVAK without any change in structure. They just replaced some of the chiefs...

...Tabatabai, who claims he has good sources on the situation in Tehran, says that SAVAMA’s organization ‘is almost a carbon copy’ of SAVAK’s, with nine bureaus. These, he said, cover personnel, collection of foreign intelligence, collection of domestic intelligence, surveillance of its own agents and security of its own agents and security of government buildings, communications, finances, analysis of collected intelligence, counterintelligence, and recruitment and training.”

What Tabatabai is describing above is the security apparatus of a totalitarian police state: the nine bureaus of SAVAK/SAVAMA were spying on ordinary Iranians and even on SAVAK/SAVAMA itself. They were also torturing and murdering ordinary Iranians, as they judged it necessary: “SAVAK used torture systematically as a tool of internal repression.” The Ayatollah Khomeini, of course, installed a totalitarian police state, so from this point of view swallowing SAVAK -- which had a great deal of experience running the shah’s totalitarian police state -- was convenient. But it was still a perfectly absurd thing for Khomeini to do if he was really an enemy of the US ruling elite, because it was this ruling elite’s CIA that had installed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in power and created SAVAK for him, and therefore only an ally of the US ruling elite would welcome the “very close ties that SAVAK, under the shah, [had] maintained with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.”

Of course, US officials were very busy telling everybody that the Ayatollah Khomeini (whom they would soon start arming to the teeth, in secret, for the entire duration of the Iran-Iraq war[1b]) was supposedly their enemy, so they rushed to deny that there was really that much SAVAK in SAVAMA. As reported in the same article:

“In Washington, however, U.S. government analysts offer a more subdued assessment.

‘It may be tempting to look at SAVAMA as SAVAK reborn,’ one source said, ‘but that is too fanciful for the facts.’ …U.S. sources say that some vestiges of the previous system could be useful [to new regime]. So, some former SAVAK functionaries -- described as ‘lower level’ -- who were able to function for the shah without being tainted now work for Khomeini.”

Uh-huh. But as you can see from one of the quotes above, the one thing that both US and Iranian exile sources were definitely agreeing on was that “SAVAMA…is run…by Gen. Hossein Fardoust, who was deputy chief of SAVAK under the former shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi...”

Not only that:

“Fardoust...[was] a longtime friend, classmate and confidant of the shah. Fardoust, Tabatabai says, was also head of a special SAVAK bureau that summarized all intelligence information. Fardoust delivered it personally to the shah daily.”

This Fardoust was not exactly “lower level,” was he? Nor was he merely “tainted”: Fardoust had been running Iran for the shah. It also turns out that “Fardoust’s deputy at SAVAMA is said to be Gen. Ali Mohammed Kaveh, formerly the head of the SAVAK bureau dealing with analysis of collected intelligence.” This Kaveh was not exactly “lower level” either. Finally, “In three former bureaus dealing with personnel organization and summation of intelligence, Tabatabai claims, every member who worked for Fardoust when he was deputy chief of SAVAK still works for him as chief of SAVAMA.”

The US ruling elite did not support Ali Tabatabai’s Iran Freedom Foundation, which wanted to topple Khomeini,[2] and it was awkward for the US ruling elite that Ali Tabatabai was explaining out loud how the Ayatollah was running Iran with the CIA’s SAVAK, just like the shah had before him. It is possible that Tabatabai's assassination in his Bethesda, Maryland home, shortly after he made the above statements to the press, was unrelated to the CIA.[3] However, it does seem significant that,

“Only Tabatabai was willing to let his name be attached publicly to the foundation. Only Tabatabai was eager to go before television cameras and radio microphones to discuss the positions of the foundation. In the end, said one of the original 10 [founders] who asked that his name not be used, their fears for the safety of their families and themselves were borne out by what happened to Tabatabai. ...‘Our object was primarily to expose the true nature of Khomeini,’ he said.

...Tabatabai was president of the foundation as well as its spokesman. Because of his prominent public profile, the Iran Freedom FOUNDATION (IFF) became in turn the most widely known of nine anti-Khomeini groups in the United States.

...In all cases, it was Tabatabai who took the public stage. ... He appeared on talk shows, both radio and television, locally, nationally and in Canada. He helped organize a major anti-Khomeini demonstration in Los Angeles earlier this month, designed to bring together the different anti-Khomeini groups.”[4]

In other words, Tabatai had a big mouth, and he was the only person that needed shutting up -- everybody else had already gotten the message. With Tabatabai out of the picture, problem solved. And indeed, I was unable to find mention of the SAVAK/SAVAMA identity in newspaper articles since. On the contrary: the next year, The New York Times 'informed' the public in a headline that “[SAVAMA] Isn’t Like Savak Under Sha,” stating in the body of the text that “Savak [was] disbanded after the 1979 revolution.”[5] An article in The Christian Science Monitor, the same year, did say that “Savama [was] the name given [to] the reconstituted Savak secret police organization, so long a weapon of terror and torture in the late Shah’s hands,” but it rushed to assure its readers that the reason “many Savak members gladly serve in Savama” was “to save their own skins.”[6] This, however, does not answer the obvious question: Why would Khomeini trust them? For SAVAK to become SAVAMA it is not enough that SAVAK members want to survive and thrive; it is also necessary that Khomeini have no problem making people trained by ‘Great Satan,’ and until very recently working for ‘Great Satan,’ the very basis of his own power.

Footnotes and Further Reading

[0] “QUOTATION OF THE DAY: KHOMEINI DEMANDS GOVERNMENT PURGE”; New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Jun 28, 1980. pg. 1.5

[1] "HOW THE UNITED STATES DESTROYED DEMOCRACY IN IRAN IN 1953: Re-print of 16 April 2000 New York Times article"; with an introduction by Francisco Gil-White; Historical and Investigative Research, 5 January 2006;

[1a] Khomeini Is Reported to Have a SAVAK of His Own; Khomeini Reported to Have Own SAVAK-Style Agency, The Washington Post, June 7, 1980, Saturday, Final Edition, First Section; A1, 1706 words, By Michael Getler, Washington Post Staff Writer

[1b] "Why Bush Sr.'s 1991 Gulf War? To Protect Iranian Islamism: Like father, like son: this is also the purpose of Bush Jr.'s war"; Historical and Investigative Research; 20 December 2005; by Francisco Gil-White

NOTE: The Iran-Iraq war is covered in the section titled: "The suspicious prelude to the 1991 Gulf War: Khomeini, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Iran-Contra affair.

[2] Exiles plan assault on Iran, Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA), June 19, 1980, Thursday, Midwestern Edition, The News Briefly; Pg. 2, 206 words, WITH ANALYSIS FROM MONITOR CORRESPONDENTS AROUND THE WORLD, EDITED BY DEBRA K. PIOT, Washington

Iranian emigre sources here say exiled Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar has reached agreement with former generals of the dethroned Shah for a counterrevolution and military moves, based in Iraq, against the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime, Monitor correspondent John Cooley reports.

After several visits to Iraq and a meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Mr. Bakhtiar met Tuesday in Paris, where he lives in exile, with Gen. Gholam Ali Oveissi and Gen. Ahmed Palizban, both of whom have been gathering forces and arms in Iraq for an Iraqi-supported strike against the Ayatollah, the emigres said.

"We know there are military units inside Iran which will support any serious move to restore order. The goal of such a movement would be to establish a military government for two to three years, followed by a popular referendum on the country's constitutional future," Ali Akhbar Tabatabai, spokesman for the Iran Freedom Foundation, which supports Mr. Bakhtiar's cause in the United States, told the Monitor.

The US State Department has shied away from backing Mr. Bakhtiar or the Iran Freedom Foundation...

[3] “Terrorism came to Washington once again yesterday. The chaos and violence of world events crystallized in an instant in a Bethesda home as a gunman pumped bullets into the stomach of Ali Akbar Tabatabai.”

SOURCE: New Case of International Terrorism; Reminder of Vulnerability, The Washington Post, July 23, 1980, Wednesday, Final Edition, First Section; A14, 917 words, By Phil McCombs, Washington Post Staff Writer

[4] Victim Led in Forming Anti-Khomeini Group, The Washington Post, July 23, 1980, Wednesday, Final Edition, First Section; A12, 654 words, By Donnel Nunes, Washington Post Staff Writer

[5] AROUND THE WORLD; Iranian Says Secret Agency Isn't Like Savak Under Shah, The New York Times, June 1, 1981, Monday, Late City Final Edition, Section A; Page 5, Column 2; Foreign Desk, 183 words, Reuters, TEHERAN, Iran, May 31


“A senior Iranian official said today that Iran has a new intelligence agency but that it is not like the Shah's hated Savak secret police since it is run along Islamic lines.

Asked at a news conference to confirm the existence of a secret agency called Savama, a Government spokesman, Behzad Nabavi, said, ‘Yes, we have an intelligence organization.’

Revolutionary Iran needs an intelligence agency, Mr. Nabavi said, adding: ‘But of course it does not have the same methods as the C.I.A. or K.G.B. or Savak. It must have Islamic methods and not stray from religious precepts.’

Savak, disbanded after the 1979 revolution, was believed responsible for torturing and killing thousands of suspected political opponents of the Shah. Savak agents ‘were all robbers, drinkers of alcohol, knife-wielders and degenerates,’ Mr. Nabavi said. He did not directly confirm the name Savama, which is believed to stand for the Iranian National Information and Security Organization, or say how long it had existed.”

[6] War between mullahs, leftists staggers Iran, Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA), August 14, 1981, Friday, Midwestern Edition, Pg. 3, 848 words, By Geoffrey Godsell, Staff correspodent of The Christian Science Monitor

HiR series to
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<  General Intro

<  The US, the PLO,
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Khomeini. (1979)

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