David Ignatius reviews 'A Time to Betray,' the memoir of an Iranian double agent

By David Ignatius
Sunday, April 11, 2010


The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran

By Reza Kahlili

Threshold. 340 pp. $26

How true does a "true story" have to be? This question immediately confronts a reader of "A Time to Betray," by the pseudonymous Reza Kahlili.

The book opens with this encompassing disclaimer: "This is the true story of my life as a CIA agent in the Revolutionary Guards of Iran; however, every effort has been made to protect my identity (Reza Kahlili is not my real name), my family, and my associates. To do so, it was necessary to change all the names (except for officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran) and alter certain events, chronology, circumstances, and places."

If we cannot depend precisely on the who, what, where or when in a nonfiction memoir, then what do we have? You don't need to be a professional skeptic to wonder if the basic claim of the book -- that the author was a CIA mole inside Iran's fearsome Guard -- is accurate.

So I did some checking. And I am happy to report that the author did indeed have a secret relationship with the CIA. That's a relief, because the story he tells -- of the Iranian revolution and how he came to despise it -- is genuinely powerful. It offers a vivid first-person narrative of how the zealots of the Islamic republic created what has become a nightmare for the Iranian people. By the author's account, the cruelty and intolerance didn't begin with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They have been unfolding for three decades.

Since the bona fides of "Kahlili" are crucial to the credibility of this story, let me share some detective work: Three former CIA officers who ran Iranian operations in the '80s and should have been knowledgeable said they had never heard of such a significant penetration of the Guard during this period. Maybe the case was super-restricted; maybe it was seen as relatively low-level. I can't say.

A current U.S. government official, however, did vouch for Kahlili's role as a spy. "I can't confirm every jot and tittle in the book, but he did have a relationship with U.S. intelligence," the official said.

I spoke with Kahlili's lawyer, too, who told me that the book was "submitted for prepublication review" at a certain unnamed U.S. government agency and that this agency confirmed that Kahlili did have an operational relationship. Eventually, I found one of Kahlili's former case officers, who described him as "legit" and "a very brave guy."

And finally I talked with Kahlili himself. He was using a Darth Vader-style voice modulator, which seemed a little silly since he was calling from California. But I guess ex-spies are entitled to their paranoia, not to mention their publicity stunts. He offered more details that reinforced the integrity of the book.

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