When the Iranian revolution succeeded in seizing power in 1979, young people like Reza Kahlili heralded it as a triumph of freedom and liberty over the oppressive monarchy of the Shah. Instead, it began a nightmare journey for a nation and for three friends, Reza, Kazem, and Naser, which would drive wedges between them and send them to three very different destinies. Kazem would become a true believer in the ruling Islamist mullahs, Naser would oppose the new tyranny — and Reza would lead a double life doing both, working as an inside man for the CIA as a member of the Revolutionary Guard. Reza Kahlili tells the story of his espionage and his eventual flight from Iran in A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, which has just hit bookstores.
Written as a memoir, Kahlili (not his real name) describes the pre-revolutionary days in honest terms, reliving the relatively petty tyrannies of the monarchy. Without that basis, the revolution itself and the joy with which the Iranians received it can’t be fully understood. Reza also writes about his first escape to America in the years prior to the revolution and the start of his life-long love affair with the US, initially as a college student. He returned home to Iran believing that the freedom and liberty he had experienced as a student at USC would soon dawn in his native land. He joined the Revolutionary Guard in its infancy and watched in horror as he became a part of a far greater tyranny than the one he had known as a child. That horror forced Reza to do what he could to get the truth out to the West and attempt to stop the mullahs from enslaving his country.
The book subtitle promises an “astonishing” double life, but it’s most remarkable when it comes to the mundane. How does a man keep his betrayal a secret from the most intimate people in his life — his wife, his best friend, the mother who despised his affiliation with the regime? Kahlili pays a heavy price for his double life, all while running the risk of endangering these same people to the twisted torture of the Iranian government. Most readers will connect most deeply with Kahlili’s personal journey.
However, the critical lessons of A Time to Betray are those that expose the true nature of the Iranian regime. Kahlili writes with a passionate hatred of its atrocities, describing them in horrid detail and the difficulty of maintaining the facade of approval while secretly passing the information to the CIA. Kahlili also writes of his disappointment with the US government in its repeated and futile attempts to achieve a rapprochement with the mullahs in Tehran. He explains how the mullahs honestly believe that they will bring the conflagration that their messianic cult of Islamists claim will bring their Twelfth Imam into the world to spread Islam across the globe. They have no desire to have normal relations with the West, and especially not the US and Israel, both of whom they want destroyed.
These days, I don’t get to read too many books due to the demands of my work. I took A Time to Betray with me to the SRLC in case I had some time to kill, but actually didn’t get the chance to start reading it until my flight home. Only my work schedule forced me to put the book down for a while, and as soon as I had the chance, I finished it. It’s a compelling read, one that not only talks about the true nature of the Iranian regime but also of the Iranian people, who have now twice tried to free themselves from the yoke of lunatic mullahs trying to destroy the entire world for their dreams of eternal power. Kahlili may have betrayed the regime, but only because of his desire to be loyal to the Iranian people.
I interviewed Reza Kahlili last week, before I had read the book. We talked about the nature of the regime more than the book itself, but Kahlili gives some good background for the book as well.