[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 8/7/02 ]
Iranian exile pays dearly for political choice
BITA HONARVAR / StaffNader Rastegar of Atlanta once supported Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini but eventually decided the regime was tantamount to a crime against humanity.
Area: 1.02 million square miles.
Population (2001 estimate): 66,128,965.
Type: Islamic republic.
Executive branch: Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei; President Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani.
Legislative branch: Unicameral Islamic Consultative Assembly.
Gross domestic product (2000 estimate): $413 billion.
Gross domestic product per capita (2000 estimate): $6,300.
Source: CIA World Factbook
The country was in revolutionary ferment, and Rastegar, a member of a wealthy family, had picked his side: the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic troops, over the elite that had ruled under the Shah.
As he looks back from the comfort of his rebuilt life in Atlanta, Rastegar regrets the decision but not the motivation. His commitment to "liberty, equality and justice" remains strong, he says, despite his alienation by some members of the Iranian community in the metro area.
"I have an aunt in Atlanta who doesn't talk to me anymore," says Rastegar. "She said, 'You made us miserable; now you are here living a good life.'"
Longtime friend Nasrolah Farokhi sums up some of the feelings among Iranians in Atlanta toward a man who helped Georgia State University launch its Persian Studies Program with a $250,000 contribution and has also paid for a building at the Lovett School in Buckhead.
"He has a social and political consciousness in his own right," Farokhi says. "He's very opinionated, he's very open, and he doesn't sugarcoat [anything]."
Rastegar was raised in one of the wealthiest families in Iran. His father, Morteza, known as "the father of mining in Iran," brought the family to prominence.
"We saw my father very occasionally," Rastegar says. In his absence, "my mother set up the image of a deity."
Rastegar grew up trying to emulate his father, even majoring in mining engineering in college in the United States. In 1976, he returned to Iran to complete his mandatory military service.
Soon, he began to attend nightly religious sessions with young men who he says are now the Islamists in power in Iran. He also joined the street protests against the Shah.
Within the confines of his home, Rastegar often railed against Iran's wealthy elite and the corruption of the Shah's regime. His father took the comments personally, a result Rastegar didn't intend.
"Many of us wanted a better future for Iran," he says. "We wanted liberty, equality and justice, and we thought he [Khomeini] would deliver."
Rastegar's awakening came soon after, once Khomeini and his fellow mullahs took up the reins of power from the departed Shah. Rastegar began seeing signs that he had been misled about the revolution.
"They said that rights of ownership and property were inviolable. After the revolution [in 1979], it went out the door. It was a Communist revolution with the label 'Islamic revolution.'
"The last straw was when I learned they [were] executing 12-year-old girls. I said, 'This is no longer the Islam I believe in. Any support to this regime is tantamount to a crime against humanity.' "
By 1981, the Rastegar family had lost its fortune, and many of its members had fled the country. Rastegar stayed behind in Tehran but sent his wife, Soheila, and their infant daughter to Britain. One day in November that year, troops from the Revolutionary Guards knocked on Rastegar's door and accused him of dealing heroin.
"They said, 'We have to take you to the committee of the Ayatollah Khalkhali' -- who was executing hundreds of people without a trial." Rastegar's gardener and neighbors came to his aid and scared away the guards. They left but vowed to come back the next morning.
"I realized that it was a matter of hours that I had left," Rastegar says. "Immediately I left home. I took only a few clothes."
He went into hiding for two weeks, sleeping in a different place each night, and put out the word that he was looking for someone to smuggle him into Turkey. Finally he succeeded.
Smugglers covered Rastegar and a few others with a blanket in the back of a jeep and drove them to northwestern Iran, which was controlled by Kurdish guerrillas. For the next three days, he and the rest of the group traveled by mule for up to 18 hours a day until they crossed the Turkish border.
Once in Turkey, he went to the British Consulate, where his family had cleared the way to obtain a visa to England.
"From there on," he says, "I started living life."
Rastegar and his younger brother Farzad legally entered the United States in 1982, and the onetime Islamic revolutionary managed to obtain financial backing for several business ventures he started with his brother.
Rastegar and Soheila moved around for two years, from Texas to California, and settled in Atlanta in 1984. By then they had two daughters; another was born in 1990. Rastegar got involved in construction and development projects before becoming a private equities investor.
Rastegar wishes the Islamic revolution had turned out differently and now says he was "young and stupid" for blindly believing in the promise of change. Still, he says, "I don't regret that I had ideals. The ideals which I had then I still have, and I am very proud of them."
The current state of poverty, injustice and despair in Iran troubles Rastegar as much as it did during the Shah's rule, but he now calls himself a pacifist.
And he managed to patch up relations with his father. "I was angry that I spent all my life trying to please him, and he was never happy," Rastegar says. "Toward the end, he was a much better father. In the last five years of his life our relationship had flowered -- that's why I'm still grieving three years after his death."
©Copyright 2002, Atlanta Journal-Constitution