A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran

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A true story as exhilarating as a great spy thriller, as turbulent as today’s headlines from the Middle East, 2010 National Best Books Award-winning A Time to Betray reveals what no other previous CIA operative’s memoir possibly could: the inner workings of the notorious Revolutionary Guards of Iran, as witnessed by an Iranian man inside their ranks who spied for the American government. It is a human story, a chronicle of family and friendships torn apart by a terror-mongering regime, and how the adult choices ...

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A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran

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A true story as exhilarating as a great spy thriller, as turbulent as today’s headlines from the Middle East, 2010 National Best Books Award-winning A Time to Betray reveals what no other previous CIA operative’s memoir possibly could: the inner workings of the notorious Revolutionary Guards of Iran, as witnessed by an Iranian man inside their ranks who spied for the American government. It is a human story, a chronicle of family and friendships torn apart by a terror-mongering regime, and how the adult choices of three childhood mates during the Islamic Republic yielded divisive and tragic fates. And it is the stunningly courageous account of one man’s decades-long commitment to lead a shocking double life informing on the beloved country of his birth, a place that once offered the promise of freedom and enlightenment—but instead ruled by murderous violence and spirit-crushing oppression.

Reza Kahlili grew up in Tehran surrounded by his close-knit family and two spirited boyhood friends. The Iran of his youth allowed Reza to think and act freely, and even indulge a penchant for rebellious pranks in the face of the local mullahs. His political and personal freedoms flourished while he studied computer science at the University of Southern California in the 1970s. But his carefree time in America was cut short with the sudden death of his father, and Reza returned home to find a country on the cusp of change. The revolution of 1979 plunged Iran into a dark age of religious fundamentalism under the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Reza, clinging to the hope of a Persian Renaissance, joined the Revolutionary Guards, an elite force at the beck and call of the Ayatollah. But as Khomeini’s tyrannies unfolded, as his fellow countrymen turned on each other, and after the horror he witnessed inside Evin Prison, a shattered and disillusioned Reza returned to America to dangerously become “Wally,” a spy for the CIA.

In the wake of an Iranian election that sparked global outrage, at a time when Iran’s nuclear program holds the world’s anxious attention, the revelations inside A Time to Betray could not be more powerful or timely. Now resigned from his secretive life to reclaim precious time with his loved ones, Reza Kahlili documents scenes from history with heart-wrenching clarity, as he supplies vital information from the Iran-Iraq War, the Marine barracks bombings in Beirut, the catastrophes of Pan Am Flight 103, the scandal of the Iran-Contra affair, and more . . . a chain of incredible events that culminates in a nation’s fight for freedom that continues to this very day.

A TIME TO BETRAY was the winner of The National Best Books 2010 Awards for Non-Fiction Narrative. It was also honored as the “Finalist” in the “Autobiography/Memoirs” category. It is now part of JCITA’s (Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy of DOD) Iranian Program’s readings.

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics

"A Time To Betray is certainly a thriller, with Iranian intelligence always only one step behind Kahlili’s next move. But Kahlili also writes about an idyllic childhood and illustrates the Iran that disappeared after Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution."


Library Journal
The author, who writes here under a pseudonym to protect his identity, was born in Tehran, and, after attending university in California, returned to Iran and joined the Revolutionary Guard in the closing years of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's reign. Not long after the Islamic Republic was established, he became disillusioned with its fundamentalism because of the arrest, torture, and execution of his friends and many others. He writes of how he made contact with U.S. intelligence agencies and thereafter reported from inside the Guard for several years. The moral ambiguity of spying on his country and his friends in the Guard, as well as fear of the consequences to his family if he were caught, eventually led to his fleeing Iran and obtaining permission to come to the states. His book makes clear that the Guard was claiming, to its domestic audience, a wider role in international incidents than has been recognized in the world press, e.g., in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Kahlili is critical of U.S. policy toward Iran and disillusioned that his information did not lead to stronger action by the several administrations that received his reports. VERDICT Readers usually get stories of life inside Iran from journalists, e.g., Elaine Sciolino's Persian Mirrors. This is the first inside account by someone so strategically placed. Without embellishing, Kahlili manages to convey the horror of Iran's regime after the downfall of the shah. Everyone with an interest in the region or in U.S. foreign policy or real-life espionage will be interested.—Marcia L. Sprules, Council on Foreign Relations Lib., NY
David Ignatius
…the story [Kahlili] 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…One of the strengths of this book is that it makes the author's decision to betray his country—or, more properly, the people who are running it—seem like a morally correct and laudable action. Indeed, people in the Iranian operations division at the CIA should welcome A Time to Betray as a virtual recruitment poster.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"This is the first inside account by someone so strategically placed. Without embellishing, Kahlili manages to convey the horror of Iran's regime after the downfall of the shah." —-Library Journal
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439189030
  • Publisher: Threshold Editions
  • Publication date: 4/6/2010
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 538,240
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Meet the Author

Reza Kahlili is a pseudonym to protect the author’s identity. Reza was born in Tehran, Iran, and served in the Revolutionary Guards and acted as a spy for the CIA. He now lives in California.

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Read an Excerpt

A Time to Betray

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

Threshold Editions

Copyright © 2010 Reza Kahlili
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781439189030



CIA agent Steve Clark uncrossed his legs. He leaned forward, his expression stiffening. ?Followed??

I tried not to let my voice reflect my nervousness. ?Yes. I thought I might be imagining it, but I took a few diversions and the tail was still there. It took me an hour to lose him.?

Agent Clark leveled his blue eyes at me. ?Wally, I want you to be completely aware of the consequences if things go wrong. The United States government will deny any relationship to you. There won?t be a navy fleet coming to your rescue. I?m sorry to be so blunt, but you must understand this. Do I make myself clear??

I swallowed hard and said, ?Yes. I understand.? It was difficult to miss Agent Clark?s message: I was disposable.

It was 1981. The revolutionary Islamic government had been in power in Iran for more than two years. In that time, it had ensnared my country and my people in its brutal grip. I had seen friends executed in cold blood, their last look carved in my memory forever. But now, I was as far away from that government as I had been since the revolution, in a safe house high above California?s Malibu.

With my CIA contact.

Making plans to return to my homeland as a spy.

The world?s most powerful intelligence agency had given me the code name Wally. I never thought to ask them why they chose it. It was hard to believe that I looked like a Wally in their eyes, but maybe that was why they gave the name to me. The assignment they asked me to undertake would have been dangerous for any Iranian. But I was not just any Iranian. I was a member of the dreaded Sepah-e-Pasdaran, the Ayatollah Khomeini?s Revolutionary Guards.

Now that Agent Clark knew I understood that I was ultimately on my own, he moved forward. ?We?ve arranged for you to be trained in Europe. We chose London since you mentioned your in-laws live there. This should not arouse any suspicion. In London, you?ll meet the people who will be your contacts from here on out. These are good people, Wally.?

He handed me a slip of paper with a phone number to call my new contact in London, a woman named Carol. ?Under no circumstances should you use a private phone. Always make your calls from public phones.?

I stared at the number for a long time, trying to keep my feelings in check. I was terrified at the thought of where my return to Iran would lead me. The Revolutionary Guards looked everywhere for spies. No one was above suspicion. And they were likely to be especially wary of me when I got back. I hadn?t just traveled out of the country; I?d gone to the United States, a sworn enemy. They knew I?d gone to college in America and I?d given them a good reason for my being there now, but they would certainly question me when I returned. How would I hold up to their scrutiny?

If they caught me, I knew what would happen. I had seen what they did to spies and to those who opposed the government. The Guards drugged them, raped their wives and children in front of them, and gouged out their eyeballs, all in an effort to get them to talk. I thought of my wife, Somaya, and shuddered.

As they did every day, the visions came to me of what I had witnessed in the infamous Evin Prison, where the government kept political detainees. They?d paraded teenage girls in front of me as they led them to their deaths. These girls were barely out of their childhood, barely old enough to think for themselves, much less form thoughts against the state. They knew nothing about the machinations of politics. They were innocent in every sense of the word and certainly innocent of the trumped-up charges that led to their imprisonment. Yet they suffered fates too brutal for even the most vicious criminal. None of these girls would ever know the joys of romantic love. None of them would ever hold her own baby in her arms. Their few remaining moments of life had been filled with a level of abuse few can imagine.


Agent Clark startled me out of my thoughts. I realized he had been watching me as I stared off into space. ?Yes??

?There is one other thing, and I don?t want you to take it personally. It?s just part of the procedure we have to go through.? He cleared his throat. ?You?ll have to undergo a lie-detector test.?

I didn?t protest. This made sense, of course. Agent Clark might have been comfortable with me and confident about my motives, but if I were a professional spy on behalf of the Revolutionary Guards, they would have trained me to behave exactly as I had in the CIA?s presence. The lie-detector test was insurance.

Agent Clark arranged for the test to take place in the Hacienda Hotel in El Segundo, just south of Los Angeles International Airport. I entered through the restaurant, as instructed, and walked to the back hall. This led to a bank of elevators. From there I headed to room 407, taking the stairway instead of the elevator to make sure no one was following me. At the room, I used the key Agent Clark had given me. He was already there.

The agent administering the test arrived shortly thereafter, carrying an oversized briefcase. He didn?t offer his name, only nodding instead. I noticed that he?d tied the knot on his thin tie too tight.

Though I wasn?t hiding anything from the CIA, I began to feel a hint of panic. The agent must have noticed this, because he smiled and told me to relax. Doing so was not going to be easy for me. As the agent unpacked his equipment, my heart pounded. I glanced at Agent Clark and he offered me a reassuring look. This did little to calm me.

The other agent explained the process, telling me what each of the several wires coming from the machine did. The agent would be reading my nervous system, which I had disciplined myself to control, though I wasn?t doing the best job of it right now. I eyed the door. For just a moment, I considered making a break for it. I would find some peaceful place where neither the CIA nor the Revolutionary Guards could find me.

But then I remembered the executions. The hangings. The torture. My friends. And my resolve returned as never before.

The agent asked me to sit down and roll up my sleeves. He hooked the wires from the machine to my arms, wrist, fingers, and chest. Sweat formed on my forehead.

?You can relax, Wally,? the agent said. ?This isn?t going to hurt.?

Agent Clark moved into the second room of the suite, closing the door behind him. The other agent told me to look straight ahead. He sat to my right, adjusted himself a couple of times, and said he was going to ask some questions; all I needed to do was answer with a simple yes or no. He bent over, concentrating intently as a roll of paper extruded from the machine, his pen ready to make notations.

?Is your name Reza Kahlili??


?Are you twenty-seven years old??


?Were you born in Iran??


?Are you married??


?Do you work for the Revolutionary Guards??


?Did they ask you to come here??


?Did they help you with your travel plans??


?Did they ask you to contact us??


?Have you contacted the Guards since being here??


?Have you told them about this meeting??


I noticed that several of the questions seemed repetitive, with nuanced differences. I wondered if this was the agent?s attempt to trip me up.

?Does your wife know you are here??

?She knows I am in America but she doesn?t know I am with you.?

?Stay with yes or no, please. Does anyone know about your contact with the CIA??

?No ? well, yes ? Well, not really ? but FBI agents ??

He did not let me finish. ?Only yes or no, Wally.?

I was sweating heavily at this point. This made the places where the agent had attached the electrodes itchy. The agent watched me shift in my seat and then made a notation. I wondered how badly my obvious nervousness was hurting my chances.

The agent turned two pages in his notes, seeming to skip ahead. ?Have you been inside Evin Prison??


?Do the interrogators rape virgins before they?re executed??

?I ? I didn?t realize Agent Clark would be telling you ??

?Yes or no, please, Wally.?

I swallowed as memories tumbled one after the other. Parvaneh?s last look at me. Roya?s letter. ?Yes. They rape the virgins before they are executed because they believe virgins are sent straight to heaven.?

?Wally, please, just yes or no. Did you witness this??


?Did you witness tortures and executions at Evin Prison??

In the hum of the air conditioning, I could hear Naser calling, ?Reeezzzza.?

I exhaled slowly. ?Yes.?

The agent turned back a couple of pages to where he had been.

?Do you work for the Revolutionary Guards as their chief computer engineer??


?Did you acquire this position through Kazem Aliabadi??


?Was Kazem Aliabadi a childhood friend??


?Was Naser Hushmand also a childhood friend??


?As far as you know, is Kazem loyal to the goals of the Revolutionary Guards??


?As far as you know, is Kazem aware that you do not share his beliefs??


?As far as you know, does Kazem consider you loyal to the goals and ideals of the Revolutionary Guards??


?Have you taken an oath to remain loyal to the Revolutionary Guards, including a vow to become a martyr for the Ayatollah Khomeini??


?Is Kazem aware that you took this oath??


?Do you consider it immoral to break an oath to your friend??

I felt a lump in my throat as a tide rose in my chest. My eyes brimmed with tears. I had left home a respected member of the exclusive Revolutionary Guards. I would return a jasoos, a spy betraying my country. I knew that if my father were alive and found out what I was doing, he would turn his back on me. I knew that my grandmother, who taught me to be a devoted Muslim and to be honest and trustworthy, would be ashamed of me.

Through the roar of blood in my ears, I heard the agent ask, ?Would you like me to repeat the question??

How could I be a spy if I could not hide my emotions and provide fast answers to provocative questions? I had joined the Guards with the purest intentions. I believed at the beginning of the revolution that the Islamic movement was fair and just, carrying the promise of a nation?s salvation. Instead, I had witnessed brutality, murders, and lies committed in the name of God. I had witnessed the destruction of a nation. Because of this, I was about to embark on a life of treason. I was going to lie to my wife, lie to the people I loved most. I was going to risk their lives without giving them the chance to protect themselves.


The CIA saw me as a godsend, an asset they needed at a time when they were struggling to understand the threat that Iran had become to them. If I was going to help them, they needed to know what made me tick. Yet I wasn?t sure I could explain myself to them. How could I make them understand why I was risking my family and betraying my friends to save my country when I wasn?t sure myself?

For the first time since I?d begun this journey, tears broke over the edge of my eyes and dripped down my cheeks.

?Wally,? the agent said softly, ?do you consider it immoral to break an oath to your friend??

The question split my soul in two.


Because the two people inside me had contradictory answers. And God would not send half of me to hell.


? Reza Kahlili


Excerpted from A Time to Betray by Reza Kahlili Copyright © 2010 by Reza Kahlili. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Truth or Lies 1

2 Three Friends 8

3 Coming to America 28

4 Shah Raft: The Revolution 41

5 The Invincible Imam 56

6 A Funeral and a Wedding 66

7 Evin Prison 78

8 Commitments 87

9 The Prayer 96

10 Code Name: Watty 109

11 Tricks of the Trade 119

12 Training for Espionage 134

13 A Spy Returns Home 142

14 Brothers in Arms 149

15 Hope and Peril 158

16 Hejab l69

17 The Torch Is Passed 179

18 The Radical 190

19 Suspicions 198

20 Another Martyr 210

21 Too Close to Home 223

22 Far From Home 237

23 Gods House 245

24 Brother, My Brother 255

25 Leaving Home 271

z6 Back into the Cold 280

27 Eye for an Eye 289

28 Double Agent 295

29 Free at Last? 308

30 Vatan 3l8

31 Omid, Hope 328

Acknowledgments 339

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 46 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 9, 2011

    A breathtaking book from a fascinating man with a fascinating life

    As an Iranian-American who was born after the revolution but has had chances to visit Iran several times for significant periods of time, I find Mr. Kahlili's book to be both breathtaking and a testament to the horrors and pain inflicting upon the Iranian people to people like my grandfather to my little cousin. Reza Kahlili exemplifies his story as a young man attending USC to becoming a Revolutionary Guards member once the Revolution hit Iran in 1979. Mr. Kahlili allows the reader to understand how good and secular people were washed up into the fervor of the Islamic Revolution in 1979' and how such a madman such as the Ayatollah Khomeini was able to lie and brainwash a people with such a rich culture and ancient history.

    Mr. Kahlili's book is wrote in a manner that both the simple reader can easily comprehend along with an elegant prose that the more extensive reader can quickly get through. His story is more of a human story that not only details his spying days, but of his relationships with his family members and friends since childhood that both contributed to both the revolutionary fervor that was able to sweep him up during the revolution along with the values and ideals that his parents and grandparents taught him that allowed him to say "enough is enough, it's a time to betray" in joining the CIA for the sole purpose of helping Iran become free from tyrannical tyrants.

    "It's very important to understand this mentality of martyrdom and radical conviction. They truly believe that one day Islam will conquer the world. If we allow the Guards to go unchecked, the consequences could be devastating for the region - and the world." This quote comes from Mr. Kahlili's book and I think highlights the situation so well with Iran. The Iranian regime is a regime that has occupied and sent Iran back into the stone ages for the past 32+ years in a process I uniquely term "de-evolution". This is a regime that does not think in "this world" but rather makes decisions based on prophecy and world ending messianic beliefs. They go so far as to rape virgins before executing them so that they "don't go to heaven". This is a barbaric and primitive regime that has occupied the once great nation of Iran and the entire international community must understand that negotiating is not an option with these madmen. This regime will not be happy and will not rest until the "return of the hidden imam" and will do everything to facilitate this end-of-the-world prophecy including starting wars and allowing millions of Iranians to die for their fanatical beliefs. The international community must stand by the side of the Iranian people in overthrowing this barbaric regime. It is the right thing and necessary thing to do for not only insuring that Iranians have the opportunities to live in dignity, peace, and freedom but the international community will get rid of itself of a barbaric and dangerous regime that endangers world peace with their nuclear activities and ambitions.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 1, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Reza reader not on razor's edge

    This book had the potential to be a thrilling account of espionage in one of the most dangerous places at the most dangerous time in the world. Instead, it focused largely on family matters and feelings. It was often repetitious. There were moments of intrigue; meetings with CIA operatives, close calls with the Revolutionary Guards and the typical tribulations of leading a double life. However these came second in importance to the author's struggle to be himself to his wife and his fellow Guardsman, while being someone else to the CIA. The book leaves the reader feeling as worn out as Kahlili must have been at the end of his journey. A quick but mediocre read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 17, 2010


    I absolutely hands down feel this is the best book I have ever read!!! I feel as though it has opened my eyes and made me want to learn so much I wasn't aware of!! Everyone should take this time to read this book you will not be disappointed!!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 13, 2012

    This is a must-read book. I had no idea that the Iranians were

    This is a must-read book. I had no idea that the Iranians were under a rule they did not want. It is only the radical Islamists who want the country to be what it is. The author of this book took great risks to go undercover and let the West know what was going on there. What courage! It is a gripping tale of how Rez Kahlili grew up with his childhood friends, came to the US to study, got into the Revolutionary Guard, saw how brutal the government was, knew it wasn't right and endeavored to do something about it.

    . The atrocities that occur there will occur here if people don't pay attention to how this can happen. I highly recommend reading this book to understand the situation in Iran,have compassion for her people and make sure the same thing doesn't come here.

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