Rafeeuddin Ahmed, F56, discusses some of his 21 years as Under Secretary General of the UN
February 3, 2011
As Fletcher students returned recently from discussing careers with alumni at the United Nations in New York, retired Under-Secretary General of the UN, Rafeeuddin Ahmed, F56, recounts his involvement in the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980, more recent UN activities, as well as his Fletcher connections through the years in an interview with his grand-nephew, Imaduddin Ahmed, F11.
Imaduddin Ahmed: Amongst your several Under-Secretary roles spanning 21 years, you were Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, Trusteeship and Decolonization. You served as Special Envoy of the Secretary-General to Secure the Release of the Crew of the Russian Place Forced Landed in Kandahar by the Taliban Regime. You were the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the Laos-Thailand Conflict, for East Timor, for Cambodia, for Myanmar, the Convener of the Secretary-General’s Task Force on the Falkland Islands. You were also Principal Aide to the Secretary-General for the Iran Hostage Crisis. It obviously wasn’t one of your successful endeavors, but could you talk about that experience?
Rafeeuddin Ahmed: When the hostage crisis took place, it appeared that it might lead to an open conflict. The US wanted the release of its diplomats. The Iranians felt that the embassy was a nest of spies. They wanted an apology for the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, the extradition of the Shah and the return of the assets illegally taken out of the country by him. They also wanted more understanding for the gross violations of human rights and the atrocities committed by his secret agency, the SAVAK.
Dr Kurt Waldheim, Secretary-General of the UN, used the language of Article 99 of the UN Charter to convene the Security Council to take action. On 4th December 1979, the Security Council asked the Secretary-General to use his good offices and to take all appropriate measures to resolve the crisis.
The Iranian ambassador to the UN was not a part of the inner circle of the Iranian government and so was not an interlocutor who we could negotiate with. We had already been talking directly by telephone with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, but were not getting a clear response on whether or not the Secretary-General could meet Ayatollah Khomeini, if he decided to go to Tehran. Eventually we decided we had to take a chance otherwise we may lose an opportunity for direct contact with the Iranian authorities. So we left New York on the 31st December, 1979. It was the Secretary-General, myself as his principal aide, his special assistant, and a press spokesman.
Ghotbzadeh welcomed us. There were also lots of young people with blow-up posters of a photograph showing Dr. Waldheim on his official visit to Iran in 1978 kissing the hand of the sister of the Shah, who used to come every year to the UN General Assembly as the leader of the Iranian delegation.
The following day we began our talks at the Foreign Ministry and heard Iran’s grievances against the United States. We heard a lot of shouting outside. Mr. Ghotbzadeh said, “There seems to be some agitation going on,” and advised Dr Waldheim to go back to the hotel and suggested that I should stay and work on a draft communiqué on that day’s talks.
The following day we had another round of talks, which were a repeat of the talks from the day before, and then Mr. Ghotbzadeh said, “You have to show that you understand the suffering of the people of Iran under the Shah. You must go to see the victims of the SAVAK.”
We agreed and were ushered into a big hall, which used to be the air force officer’s club but was now used to house people who had been apparently physically disabled by the SAVAK.
The hall was full of these people who were waving their wooden limbs and shouting in Farsi, which I understood a little, “’Till blood is in my veins, Khomeini is our imam.” [ . . . ]
Meanwhile, in our discussions, it was agreed with the Foreign Minister to set-up an international inquiry committee to investigate allegations of grave violations of human rights and of illegal acts under the previous regime in Iran. He said we had to meet the Revolutionary Council, headquartered in the former Senate building. “This is the power centre, so we will not be harassed,” we thought. But lo and behold as we got to the front gate, there were these young men with the same posters of Princess Ashraf Pahlavi.
Walking up the winding staircase, we passed teenage Revolutionary Guards armed with Kalashnikovs. When we got to the rotunda of Senate building, it was pitch black.
At the elevator, a guard castigated Dr Waldheim and the UN, saying, “You are a stooge of the Americans.”
We went up the elevator in one piece. The Revolutionary Council sat in a U formation. Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti was head of the council. We sat like prisoners in the dock, asking to meet with Ayatollah Khomeni, but that never happened. The Council accepted the idea of an international inquiry committee, which could lead to a mutually satisfactory solution of the crisis.
When we returned to the United States, Dr Waldheim and myself met President Jimmy Carter in the Oval office and briefed him on what had happened. Afterwards, the UN set up a three-man inquiry committee that visited Iran. At one point it seemed as if the hostages would be released, but then it fell through and the report of the inquiry committee was never made public.
Eventually Ghotbzadeh was executed post-crisis for allegedly trying to overthrow the regime. Beheshti died in a bomb blast later. Our visit was not fruitful.
IA: Your visit to Iran provides fodder to the supposition that the UN is unable to keep peace. Is this so?
RA: We are not always successful, but the UN has brought about peace settlements in a number of instances like Namibia, Cambodia, Afghanistan (post-Soviet invasion), Central America and Timor-Leste. It has been instrumental in keeping peace in many more situations.
IA: You were Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Cambodia. Can you tell us what role you played in that mission?
RA: I was working on that for 10 years. In Cambodia we were able to assist in drafting a peace agreement that was approved at the Paris Conference in October 1991. Under that agreement the UN would maintain peace, control and supervise certain ministries, and organize free and fair elections.
IA: You were also the Associate Administrator of the United Nations Development Program. Do you feel the UN is adding value in the area of development?
RA: Well, when I was number two at the UN Development Program, I insisted on going to the field in South Asia and seeing what difference the UN was making. Two instances come to mind that illustrated our value-add.
In one village that I visited, a man came up to me and proudly said: “There have been no babies in our village so far this year and we hope there will be none till the end of the year!” So, our family planning program was working!
The other program that was working was our savings and loans program. Micro-credit was not the principal driving force. The program’s focus was on social mobilization.. We had communities pool their savings and then lend to those among them who came up with the most viable proposals. They also agreed to discuss their horticultural, livestock, poultry, fishing and social needs every week. Once the community demonstrated they could handle money, the Bangladesh Krishi Bank would lend money to the community. Again, an old man told me, “We had forgotten how to dream. What this program has done is that it has given us our dreams back.” What higher praise could there be?
IA: Which of the Fletcher alumni do you keep in touch with?
RA: Apart from the people who were in my batch in the Pakistan Foreign Service, I have crossed paths with Herb Levin, F56, who I saw in Hong Kong and the USA as a member of the US Foreign Service. He later joined the UN as adviser to Under Secretary General Ji Chaozhu, who in his younger days interpreted for Mao Zedong. I’ve met others on and off throughout my career, as many have worked at the United Nations. One of my roommates, Thomas Boyatt, F56, was US ambassador to Colombia. I visited him a couple of years ago in DC. There was also “Mike” Maynard Glitman, F56, who is accredited as the key US negotiator in the nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union. I met him in Ottawa and then in Geneva when he was in the US mission the UN. [Mike passed away just a few days after this interview]. I am also in touch with Dave Willey, F56, who had been at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and before that at Morgan Stanley, and was able to reconnect with a number of classmates at the 50th reunion.
IA: Thank you very much. I have to confess I didn’t know that either you or [your son] Zia [Ahmed, F97] were alumni until Zia reached out to me to congratulate me on my admission. He said he had chosen Fletcher because of its reputation, legendary alumni and the courses it offered. I can certainly attest to his reasons and am always inspired by our alumni.