A leader of exiled Iranian former diplomats has made it to the United States and is speaking out against the regime.
Abolfazl Eslami, a senior foreign service officer at the America Desk at the Iranian foreign ministry, defected to Japan in 2006 and is now speaking out in Washington. He leads the Green Embassy Campaign of diplomats who have broken with the Islamic Republic of Iran and seek democratic reform.
For the first time since his defection he visited Washington, for the purpose of addressing the Iran Democratic Transition Conference in January.
Eslami spoke with IranChannel.org about his concerns for Iran and his hopes for the future.
IranChannel: One of the biggest international concerns about the Iranian regime is its support for terrorism and extremism. Did you see evidence of this while you were a diplomat?
Abolfazl Eslami: Yes, I did. In addition to work done out of embassies, Cultural Houses of the Islamic Republic organize cultural activities in host countries and scout out the most hard-line Muslims or people with strongest hatred against the West. As soon as the foreign ministry became computerized, in the late 1980s, the first software installed was a database system on hardline Muslims around the world. Every embassy opened a file on local students who had received scholarships to study theology at Qom. The software stored information on the students’ families, to know their backgrounds, to assess the students for suitability for recruitment and so forth.
The regime does not merely sponsor attacks on the United States and its friends and allies. Thailand recalled its ambassadors to Iran several times because of the regime’s support for insurgency in the south, and even in places like Myanmar and Laos. No place is too remote or off-limits for the regime.
IC: Why did you wait so long before defecting?
AE: I hoped during President Rafsanjani that reform would take place, so I waited. Then when Khatami succeeded him, promising reforms, I witnessed more criminal activity within the government. I wanted to defect even then, but was persuaded that if I did so, I would undermine Khatami’s reforms. Then Ahmadinejad came to power. I had no choice but to break. So I was able to take my family to Japan, where I had been assigned and had connections, and the Japanese government granted us political asylum.
IC: What finally triggered your decision to defect?
AE: When nuclear negotiation Sayeed Jalili became vice foreign minister for America and Europe, I worked in the America division. During his first briefing with us, some of us told him that, now that the United Nations has imposed sanctions on our country, we should change our attitude about our nuclear plant. Jalili said, “no, we have an order from the office of the Supreme Leader that we should continue our offensive policy against the West. A strict offensive policy against the West.”
Jalili said, “We are against the defensive policy of former President Khatami, as he made a mistake when he temporarily closed the nuclear facility. We are going to re-start it. We are not going to compromise.” He added that Supreme Leader Khamenei said that we had a “duty” to negotiate with the West, and “keep them busy while we continue our job of building the nuclear plant.” The object was to string out the rest of the world through endless negotiations.
IC: So that was the final straw?
AE: Yes. I told my wife that we could not wait any more. She agreed that we should escape from Iran.
IC: Why Japan?
AE: I feared going to the European embassies in Tehran because they are watched. And of course there is no American embassy there. I still had relations with the Japanese embassy because I had worked in Japan until 2004. So I asked the Japanese embassy for a tourist visa for my wife, my children and myself.
IC: Just like that? It was that easy?
AE: Yes, they said, “Please send us your passports.” At the time I heard news that one of our friends in Tokyo had died, and so I was justified in going to his funeral.
IC: What did you do when you arrived in Tokyo?
AE: “I went to the American embassy and gave a full report of my defection in writing. The Americans politely listened but did nothing. Then I went to the Canadian embassy, with the same result. I explained why I escaped to Japan, saying that I wanted to go to America or Canada or Europe to reveal what the regime was doing to deceive the world about its nuclear program and more.
AE: The Americans weren’t interested in Iranian defectors. I went to the Canadian embassy to ask for help so I could explain to the world what the regime was doing. Canada told me instead to go to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees in Japan, and the UNHCR said that Japan is a safe country so I should stay there.
IC: What did the Islamic Republic regime do?
AE: Well, the Japanese were fearful that the regime would put pressure on them, because Iran sells Japan a great deal of oil. The Japanese government pleaded with me to return quietly to Iran with my family and not make waves.
IC: Did the Iranian government intervene?
AE: The Iranian ambassador to Tokyo, whom I knew from the foreign service, wanted me to come by the embassy to talk to him. He assured me of my safety, saying he had to tell me something. He met me in person, hugged me, and asked me not to burn my bridges. “If you stay in Tokyo, be sure they will come to you,” he warned me. He pleaded with me to go back to Iran. I told him that if I went back, the regime surely would have me killed.
IC: What did the Iranian ambassador say about that?
AE: He told me, “If you don’t go back to Iran, be sure that they will come to you.”
IC: He threatened to have you killed?
AE: He wasn’t threatening me. He said it more matter-of-factly, as if he knew that’s what the regime leadership would do. He was under a great deal of political pressure to return me to Iran quietly.
IC: Was that the end of it?
AE: After two or three weeks, a delegation from Tehran arrived in Tokyo to visit me. I said I would have nothing to do with them, and said that if they wanted to kill me, then they should just come and kill me right now. So I didn’t go. The delegation stayed in Japan for several days and the Iranian ambassador asked me to speak to them, but I refused. However, I had the distinct impression that they threatened the Japanese government with problems if I received asylum.
IC: What evidence do you have of that?
AE: First, I know how the Iranian foreign ministry works. They usually apply pressure underscored by subtle threats. After six months my Japanese visa expired and the government would not extend it. I remained in Japan another six months with no response from the authorities. At that time my money was depleted and my wife and children were depressed at our situation. The Japanese government wanted me to not be a diplomatic problem and signaled that I should return to Iran quietly. In response I asked my hosts to capture me and deport me back to Iran, so that the world would know that Japan had deported a diplomat back to certain death.
IC: Not something Tokyo would like to be stuck with. . .
AE: Correct. Japan gave my family and me a three-year asylum visa. They allowed us to renew it when it expired because they recognized that “we were under the threat of the Iranian government.”
IC: What did you do in Japan?
AE: There was nothing we could to do help Iran politically for our first four years until the emergence of the Green Movement. My wife and I worked while the kids went to school, learned Japanese, and the elder boys got jobs of their own.
IE: What difference did the Green Movement do for you in Japan?
AE: The Green Movement caused a number of my former colleagues in the foreign ministry to make the breaks they’d been contemplating. First, Mr. Heydar took asylum in Norway. There was now media interest in my defection, now that a second diplomat had turned against the regime. Then an Iranian diplomat in Finland, and another in Belgium. Then one who had served in North America, and another who sought asylum in Denmark. That’s when we got together online and established the Green Embassy Campaign.
IC: What is the Green Embassy Campaign doing?
AE: We are supporting the Green Movement – some of us are for reforming the current system, and others like me seek a total change in regime, toward a secular and democratic government – but we’re all working together to encourage other Iranian diplomats to join us.
IC: Why haven’t more Iranian diplomats defected?
AE: More would if they felt the West would welcome them. Even though I was happy to be given asylum in Japan, my lesson was a bad one; the other diplomats said they knew that Japan is not like North America or Europe in terms of influencing events in Iran. Nobody believed I stayed voluntarily in Japan. They saw the US and its allies had no policy of supporting Iranian defectors.
My plan is to arrange for other Iranians still working for the regime to know that Iranian-Americans and others will welcome them if they join the Green Embassy Campaign. I assure you that if America starts welcome Iranian defectors, more will follow.