Diplomat Alleges Vote-Rigging, Pressure to Spy on Son
By Margaret Coker
March 19, 2010
Mohammed Reza Heydari, an ex-senior diplomat at the Iranian Embassy in Oslo, said he witnessed Iran’s effort to crush protests and skew the vote in last year’s elections. He and his family have received asylum in Norway. Marie Sjovold for The Wall Street Journal
OSLO—Mohammed Reza Heydari always considered himself a loyal official of the Islamic Republic of Iran: He clocked long hours at work as a senior diplomat here in Norway, spent quiet nights at home with his family and observed Iranian national holidays.
That all changed, Mr. Heydari says an interview, when he witnessed up close Iran’s effort to crush protests and skew the vote in last year’s controversial re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In January, Mr. Heydari, a slight and balding veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, resigned as chief consular official at the Iranian Embassy in Oslo and requested political asylum, citing threats against him and his family.
Mr. Heydari’s account of Iran’s crackdown, as he saw it unfold from his diplomatic perch in Scandinavia, is one of the first to come from a named Iranian official. Some aspects of his account couldn’t be independently confirmed.
In the interview, he alleged that his superiors pressured him to help falsify vote totals in last June’s disputed election. He also said he was asked to inform on expatriate Iranians who supported the opposition—including his own 17-year-old son.
“My conscience couldn’t stand it any longer. I couldn’t serve a government turning its guns not on its enemies but on its own people,” Mr. Heydari said.
He is creating a sensation. He has been offered speaking engagements across Europe, and recently met with Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shireen Ebadi. In Iran, Mr. Heydari has become the public face of a quiet protest movement that, he said, is playing out at other Iranian missions around the world.
He said at least 27 other diplomats abroad and inside Iran have resigned their posts to protest the vote and its violent aftermath. In the past six months, three other Iranian diplomats have requested political asylum: two from Iranian consulates in Germany and one from the embassy in London, according to Mr. Heydari.
Those figures couldn’t be verified. Mr. Heydari said diplomats who have resigned are unwilling to publicly acknowledge their moves. Officials in Germany and Britain, citing privacy laws, declined to comment.
Jamshid Parvisi, a spokesman for Iran’s embassy in Oslo, said there is no evidence that diplomats are resigning or seeking asylum. Regarding Mr. Heydari’s other statements, he said: “I reject his accusations 100%. We view Heydari as an opportunist. He decided to claim asylum for family reasons, not for political ones.”
Mr. Heydari said he isn’t surprised that embassy officials say he is lying. “They still work for the government, so that’s what I expect them to say.”
Mr. Heydari’s defection comes as Iran’s opposition movement has been struggling to maintain momentum. After organizing protests for eight months against last June’s election, the opposition faced a setback in early February, when an attempt to stage a large demonstration was thwarted. Since then, protest leaders have appeared unable to move forward amid a harsh crackdown.
This week, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi released a video slamming the government’s stewardship of the economy, in an apparent effort to broaden his base of support among Iranians suffering hardship.
For Tehran, the defection has been an international embarrassment triggering a tit-for-tat diplomatic row with Oslo. After Mr. Heydari’s move, Iran last month expelled a Norwegian diplomat from Tehran. Oslo responded in kind. A spokesman for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry said Oslo hopes to rebuild relations with Tehran and expressed concern about a “worrisome” deterioration in Iran’s human-rights record.
In his Oslo home, he said, ‘I couldn’t serve a government turning its guns not on its enemies but on its own people.’
In last June’s election, one of Mr. Heydari’s jobs was to certify the absentee votes of Iranian expatriates here. Those ballots showed Mr. Ahmadinejad’s chief opponent, Mr. Mousavi, winning in Norway, according to the embassy and Mr. Heydari.
Mr. Heydari said Iranian intelligence agents threatened him with discipline for certifying results favoring the opposition candidate. They then asked him to be an informant on Iranian expatriates including his son, he said, because he had marched in antigovernment protests.
Frode Farfang, deputy director of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, the government agency that handles asylum requests, said Mr. Heydari presented “credible evidence” that he and his family would face persecution if they returned to Iran. He declined to describe the evidence, citing privacy.
Of 499 Iranians who sought asylum in Norway last year, 168 applications were accepted, an indication of Norway’s strict standards. For Mr. Heydari, however, “we didn’t have to sit on [his] case for long,” Mr. Farfang said.
The Iranian spokesman confirmed that Mr. Heydari supervised voting but denied there was pressure to change the results. He said he didn’t know whether Mr. Heydari’s son took part in demonstrations and denied that Mr. Heydari was asked to identify protesters.
Mr. Heydari, who spent much of his career stamping legal documents and issuing passports, has found stepping into the limelight as a political dissident to be an awkward transformation. Along with his new prominence, there is emotional upheaval.
The Oslo police provide a round-the-clock escort for his family and accompany his two sons to school. The detail started after Mr. Heydari said he received phone calls threatening his children.
In Iran, two of Mr. Heydari’s four brothers have been questioned by local police, he says. His mother-in-law, who lives outside the city of Isfahan, had her house vandalized by men the family believes belong to the proregime Basij militia. The Iranian official said he isn’t aware of any incidents against Mr. Heydari’s relatives in Iran.
When antigovernment protests took place outside Iran’s embassy last year, Mr. Heydari said he was asked to help identify the demonstrators.
Mr. Heydari’s wife says she is battling depression in Oslo. “We don’t ski. We don’t speak Norwegian,” says Mr. Heydari. “I belong to Iran. But there is no road back there for now.”
A son of a bread baker, Mr. Heydari grew up in a suburb in southern Tehran. He served as an infantry scout in the Iran-Iraq war. Wounded in action, he won a discharge and later a coveted slot at a diplomatic training institute of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is the only one of his nine siblings to have worked for the government.
“Every one of my brothers went into business for themselves. They never could understand why I would choose government over business. But for a long time I felt proud of my work. I was helping others, not only myself and my family,” he said.
Mr. Heydari served as consul general at the Iranian Embassy in Tblisi, Georgia, and at the Frankfurt consulate before arriving in Norway in 2007. His main job: helping Iranian citizens abroad navigate the bureaucracy of expat life—registering births, notarizing divorce papers, issuing passports. Iranian expatriates in Oslo say he had a reputation for being diligent and helpful.
Mr. Heydari’s job expanded last year, he said, as the June election approached. With a team of four colleagues, he ran expatriate polls in Oslo and counted the ballots. Of 650 votes cast at his embassy, 540 backed the main challenger, Mr. Mousavi, he said. Diplomatic cable traffic reported similar results at other embassies, he said.
“The will of the people was clear,” he said. “I signed my name to the report saying it.”
Mr. Heydari alleges that he came under pressure from his superiors to record a result favorable to Mr. Ahmadinejad instead of Mr. Mousavi. And as protests outside Iran escalated last year, the acting head of the embassy in Oslo told him to identify Iranian expats protesting in front of the embassy, Mr. Heydari said. Intelligence agents filmed the protesters, he said, and asked him to identify faces in the crowd. Mr. Heydari said he refused to cooperate.
The Iranian embassy spokesman denied that demonstrators were videotaped or that there was an effort to identify individuals. Describing the protests as small groups of activists, he said, “There is no need to record them. We already know who they are.”
In mid-July, Mr. Heydari said, an official at the embassy called him in to show him another filmed protest. The official pointed out Mr. Heydari’s 17-year-old son in the crowd. He says he was given an ultimatum: Keep your son at home, or face disciplinary action from Tehran.
Mr. Heydari said he told his boss that he supported his son’s actions, and expected to be fired. By December, that hadn’t happened. But going to work was becoming intolerable, partly because of the growing political activism of his eldest son.
“At dinner we’d talk and he’d tell me … [that] his friends saw me as the face of a repressive government,” Mr. Heydari said. “I didn’t want to accept his logic. But, finally I understood that my son was right.”
At the end of December, after Iran’s crackdown on protesters during the Ashura holy days there, Mr. Heydari said he resigned and was told he would have to return to Tehran. He and his wife started packing on the understanding that his career was over but relieved the decision had been made.
Before he could leave, his resignation became public. A Norwegian TV reporter got wind of the resignation letter, and on Jan. 5, Norway’s public broadcaster ran a piece on what the journalist who broke the story called “the dissenting diplomat.”
Two days later, Mr. Heydari said, a four-man delegation from Tehran arrived in Oslo to talk to him. He said the men told him that his only chance to return home safely was to fly back with them and give an interview to Iranian state TV recanting his resignation.
The Iranian embassy spokesman, Mr. Parvisi, disputed Mr. Heydari’s version of events, saying that Mr. Heydari had been presented with a letter telling him his posting was completed, but “he wanted to find a way to stay in Norway.” The Iranian spokesman said, “If he went home [to Iran] tomorrow, nothing would happen to him.” Mr. Heydari acknowledges that he was approaching the end of his posting and denies trying to stay in Norway for personal reasons.
Mr. Heydari said colleagues in Tehran warned him against returning to Iran. He said he was told that three diplomats who had returned home from embassies in Asia had lost their jobs for alleged sympathies with the opposition.
The visitors from Tehran triggered an emotional debate in the Heydari household around the dining-room table. Mrs. Heydari told her husband to tone down his actions, for fear he would endanger their relatives back in Iran. He told her that it was too late to turn back.
On Jan. 12, Mr. Heydari says he approached the Norwegian government and requested asylum. The Heydaris’ lives have been confined to the few blocks between their two-bedroom apartment in Oslo’s diplomatic district, the local grocery store and their sons’ school.
Mr. Heydari is waiting for Norway to issue him temporary travel documents and worries about how he’s going to support his family in a country where he doesn’t speak the language. He says his assets inside Iran, including a vacation home on the Caspian Sea and an apartment in Tehran, have been frozen.
“I tell myself that if I went home quietly, then the government would be free to keep their crackdown going,” he says. “At least now, I have the option to talk, and talk loudly, to make sure everyone knows what is happening.”
—Alistair MacDonald in London and David Crawford in Berlin contributed to this report.