In the basement banquet room of the Paris Hilton, guests were suddenly ordered to show their identification before being allowed to approach the watery blanquette de veau. Bodyguards lurked among the plastic palms with all the discretion of weight lifters in drag, and organizers visibly panicked at the sight of an unfamiliar photographer raising his Nikon inches from a small, genteel figure with a grey moustache who held court at the far end of the room. On the opposite side of the lens, after all, was Shahpur Bakhtiar, the former Iranian prime minister, who was rallying support as a contender for the leadership of the exiled Iranian opposition.
Despite international shrugs and his
own brief 39-day brush with power, Bakhtiar is still considered enough of a threat in Tehran that, last month, Iran’s execution-happy Islamic judge Sadegh Khalkhali boasted of having dispatched a death squad to Paris.
If the general edginess of the occasion served as a reminder of that contract, it didn’t, however, discourage the 65-yearold Sorbonne-educated lawyer from raising his dapper profile once more into the glare of the French Foreign Press Association’s flashbulbs to remind them that he was ready to return to Tehran as soon as the occasion arose.
Indeed, last week as the shah’s health faltered in Cairo, where he underwent emergency surgery to remove fluid from his left lung, and the ayatollah’s revolution plunged deeper into the vortex of paralysing power struggles and economic chaos, the Iranian refugee community centred in France sprang into a flurry of heartened action. While Bakhtiar wooed the Paris press, across the city in a chic oak-panelled townhouse, the shah’s 29-year-old niece, Princess Azzadeh Shafik, was preparing to fly off to Egypt to confer with her ailing uncle and his twin sister, her mother, Princess Ashraf, about her own counter-revolutionary movement, Iran Azad (Free Iran).
Until two weeks ago, that groupfounded after Khomeini’s enforcers gunned down her 34-year-old brother on a Paris street last December—had attracted a star-spangled coalition of the country’s exiled cabinet ministers and generals around the shadowy figure of General Gholam Ali Oveissi, a former commander of the imperial guard. But now they have had second thoughts
about what they refer to as the general’s “past.” As military governor, Oveissi became better known as the “Butcher of Tehran” for opening fire on rioters in the revolution’s Black Friday of September, 1978. He is also cordially detested by the Kurds, who seem to carry equally vivid memories of him.
Oveissi, however, has the unqualified support of Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein, whose Baath regime did not look kindly upon Khomeini’s efforts to stir up the Iraqi Shiite masses. Last weekend he flew off to Baghdad, reportedly to meet the hundreds of Persian officers training commando units not far from the Iranian border, in preparation for a coup which some of his associates predict could be only a “matter of weeks” away.
In his absence, the princess and company are promoting a candidate—74-
year-old General Bahram Ali Aryana, a onetime commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed forces—who is reportedly beloved by the Kurds (he was military governor of Kurdistan in the days when the shah was backing them against Iraq) and who showed up two weeks ago brandishing his cigarette holder and heralded by a biography hailing him as the “Napoleon of Iran.”
All this activity, however, hasn’t done anything to stop the feuds that splinter the opposition. Bakhtiar misses no occasion to denounce the Pahlavi clan and to dissociate himself from Oveissi; the princess accuses Bakhtiar of having once been on the payroll of the shah’s Pahlavi Foundation, while Oveissi’s supporters discredit him as representing only the marginal fringe of the exiled intelligentsia—an accusation that appears well grounded. Everybody in turn rushes to dissociate himself from the dying shah, including his niece who calls him “the sage” but spares no criticism of his regime.
It is one of the few points the three factions have in common. Another is
the fact that they have all borrowed from their common enemy, Khomeini. Each has set up shop in Paris, once more under the detached benevolence of the French state, launching cassette diatribes beamed into the Iranian airwaves. Until two weeks ago, Iranians could tune in their radios daily at 6 p.m. and pick up the silky blandishments of Bakhtiar over “Radio Iran,” the folk-
lorie justifications and exhortations of the Princess Azzadeh’s “Radio Free Iran”—both beamed from inside the Iraqi border—and the powerful “Patriotic Radio” propaganda, broadcast from Egypt and, according to a New York Times report that was vigorously denied, financed by the CIA. Iraq has now balked at transmitting the princess’s political line and this week, in Cairo, she is trying to set up a new station.
The irony is marked. As the social fabric of the revolution crumbles daily and discontent festers against the excesses and repression of the mullahcracy, the frail and ailing figure of the ayatollah has shut the universities and busied the civil service with cutting the shah’s letterheads off government stationery. As Bakhtiar said last week when asked how much support he could muster: “My best agent in Iran is Mr. Khomeini.” Marci McDonald
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.