BELIEVERS: Love and Death in Tehran.


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Published: 2020
Page #: xii + 366
ISBN: 978-1568593807


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Thirty years have passed since a shattered Nilufar Hartman, pregnant and betrayed, fled Iran. She barely got out alive, carrying her deepest secrets of love and tragedy. Nilufar had arrived in Tehran in November 1979 to take a job as a junior American diplomat at the U.S. Embassy. She had instead spent nine years as an American spy, reporting from deep inside the new Islamic Republic as it collapsed into extremism, civil strife, and war. After her return to America, she chose a quiet university life and swore she would never again do Washington’s bidding. Her tranquility is upended by a plea from Alan Porter, the man who had sent her to Tehran in 1979. Porter tells her about a plot by colluding American and Iranian extremists to provoke a war between the two countries. He says she is the only person who can stop it. Nilufar is reluctant to go back to Iran, vividly recalling the agony of her years under cover, when she posed as a believer, the devout and revolutionary “Massoumeh”. She can never forget the horrific end to her mission when her lover and the father of her unborn child were murdered. A commitment to serve the United States, which never died inside her, propels her back into the maelstrom. Nilufar adopts another covert identity and returns to Iran to end the parallel conspiracies intent on sparking a conflict. While she is working in Tehran, Porter must stop the Americans ready to promote their private agendas through mass murder. Nilufar must evade Iran’s vicious secret police, deliver a message from America, convince a patriotic but suspicious group of Iranians to act, and once more manage a narrow escape from both Iran and her own memories.


Marc Grossman

Ambassador Marc Grossman served as the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, the State Department's third ranking official, until his retirement in 2005 after 29 years in the US Foreign Service. As Under Secretary, he helped marshal diplomatic support for the international response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. He also managed US policies in the Balkans and Colombia and promoted a key expansion of the NATO alliance. As Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, he helped direct NATO's military campaign in Kosovo and an earlier round of NATO expansion. Ambassador Grossman was the US Ambassador to Turkey 1994 – 1997. Ambassador Grossman was a Vice Chairman of The Cohen Group from July 2005 to February 2011. In February, 2011 President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton called Ambassador Grossman back to service as the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ambassador Grossman promoted the international effort to support Afghanistan by shaping major international meetings in Istanbul, Bonn, Chicago and Tokyo. He provided US backing for an Afghan peace process designed to end thirty years of conflict and played an important part in restoring US ties with Pakistan. He returned to The Cohen Group in February, 2013. Ambassador Grossman is Chairman of the Board of the Senior Living Foundation of the Foreign Service. He is a Trustee of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the UC Santa Barbara Foundation, and Robert College of Istanbul. Ambassador Grossman is Vice Chair of the American Academy of Diplomacy. In 2013, Ambassador Grossman was Kissinger Senior Fellow at the Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy at Yale University. Raised in Los Angeles, California, Ambassador Grossman has a BA in Political Science from the University of California, Santa Barbara and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

John Limbert

During a 34-year career in the United States Foreign Service, Ambassador John Limbert served mostly in the Middle East and Islamic Africa, including posts in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Guinea, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. He was president of the Foreign Service employees’ union, the American Foreign Service Association (2003-2005), and ambassador to Mauritania (2000-2003). In 2009-2010, on leave from the Naval Academy, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible for Iran, in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. After retiring from the State Department in 2006, he was Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he taught history and political science until retiring in 2018. In the academic year 2015-16 he held the Gruss-Lipper fellowship in Middle East policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. A native of Washington, D.C, Ambassador Limbert attended the D.C. public schools and earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Harvard University, the last degree in History and Middle Eastern Studies. Before joining the Foreign Service in 1973, he taught in Iran as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kurdistan Province (1964-66) and as an instructor at Shiraz University (1969-72). He has written numerous articles and books on Middle Eastern subjects, including Iran at War with History (Westview Press, 1987), Shiraz in the Age of Hafez (University of Washington Press, 2004), and Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History (U.S. Institute of Peace, 2009). Ambassador Limbert was among the last American diplomats to serve at the American Embassy in Tehran. He holds the Department of State’s highest award – the Distinguished Service Award – and the department’s Award for Valor, which he received in 1981 after fourteen months as hostage in Iran. He and his wife, the former Parvaneh Tabibzadeh, currently live in New York City. They have two children and four grandchildren.

Prologue: The Present. Middlebury, Vermont
Chronology of Real-World Events.
1. Nilofar
2. Massoumeh
3. Porter
4. Beheshti
5. In Plain Sight
6. Ruzbeh
7. The Two Rafsanjanis
8. Behnam Alley
9. Sarhaddi
10. Two Conspiracies
11. Nazanin
Epilogue: Vermont, One Year Later
About the Authors



When two distinguished U. S. diplomats coauthor a spy novel set in the Islamic Republic of Iran, readers are in for multifaceted learning about the surreal politics and mores of the only theocracy in the modern world. As the story unfolds, it offers not only an artful description of the challenges facing a young American agent in Tehran, but also an exceptionally informed and insightful analysis of how self-appointed viceroys of God run the affairs of the state and compete for power among themselves
Exceptionally revealing historical novels – like this one -- convey the manners, uniqueness and social conditions of an age with fidelity to detail and facts. The story under review takes place in two periods. First, the decade of the 1980s, when decisions of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, are treated as uncontested Truth by his followers. In those years – so well portrayed in this novel -- the hostage crisis, Cold War issues, the Iran-Iraq war, the downing of an Iranian Airbus by U. S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf, the Iran-contra scandal, the brutal suppression of secular Iranian critics, the assault on women’s rights, and pervasive anti-American propaganda preoccupy both domestic and international actors. The second period happens thirty years later, when Ayatollah Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, is less than supreme, the Cold War is buried, the White House has become the birth place of alternative reality, U. S. – Iran animosity has reached a new peak, and there is a threat of war between Iran and Israel
The authors recount how desperate Washington officials had few sources of reliable information from Iran as Iran’s theocrats defied the norms and rules of international relations. America’s foreign policy experts are as bewildered and frustrated about the behavior of Tehran’s government as the Iranian liberals and leftists who passionately supported the 1979 revolution against the Pahlavi monarchy. Under such circumstances, a young Iranian-American Foreign Service Officer, is assigned to report on the motives and calculations of Iran’s policy makers.
In this story, Nilufar Hartman is the daughter of American David Hartman and Iranian Farzaneh Rastbin who met at the University of Pennsylvania. She joins the State Department in the summer of 1979 and goes to Tehran to work in the U. S. Embassy’s overwhelmed consular section. She is not captured when students seize the embassy on November 4, and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Alan Porter, asks her to stay in Iran as a spy and report on developments. She accepts the mission and becomes the devout, pro-revolution Massoumeh Rastbin. In addition to Nilufar and Ruzbeh, there are in the story a dozen real or imaginary characters. Some of the fictional players can be ‘real’ and a number of ‘real’ ones are given fictional names
The first job Nilufar manages to secure, with assistance of her well-placed Iranian relatives, is in the security section of Tehran international airport. A woman Nilufar meets while working there is Nazenin Dowlatabadi. Nazenin came to know Nilufar as Massoumeh who is particularly careful in observing Islamic dress code. Once she learns that Massoumeh is a sophisticated woman who has fluent command of several languages, she becomes suspicious of her motives in serving the theocracy. One day, she looks at Massoumeh and says “please tell me who you really are and what you are doing. I am sure you are not the pious, simple, modest girl you appear to be. I think you are hiding something. As we say, you are like water hidden under straw.” Nilufar gradually comes to see Nazenin as a disillusioned revolutionary who can be trusted
After working at this job for several months, Nilufar’s influential relatives help her to become an interpreter for Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, the second most powerful man in the theocracy. Beheshti is anti Communist and his main concerns are the threat posed to the Islamic Republic by People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), an Islamist/Leninist organization. That is why the U. S. wants to provide him with information about secret activities of MEK. Massoumeh is the mediator in this regard and suspects that Beheshti knows where the information is coming from but pretends not to be aware.
As for Beheshti’s efforts to release the hostages, Nilufar comes to see the devious nature of the theocratic order and tells herself “These akhunds (clerics) are amazing. Shameless hypocrites, first they create a crisis. Then they prolong it and use it to solidify their power. Now that they are in control, they say that it has gone on too long and they wanted to end it. Only ten months ago Khomeini forbade Iranian officials from even meeting Americans.” Thus she has ethical dilemma working for Beheshti. “I wish there were some other way,” and she remembers Porter telling her in one of their meetings in Dubai, “there isn’t. We have no choice but to help Beheshti.
Porter is pleased with Nilufar’s performance. He writes to her, “I know this remains hard for you, but Beheshti’s success against MEK has brought us two wins. It has reduced the threat of the leftist takeover, contained Soviet influence in the country and has brought a long-sought breakthrough with the hostages.” Yet, Nilufar is fed up with working for Beheshti and lets Porter know about her plan to seek a different job in the regime. “I will leave Beheshti’s office within the next few months on the pretext of wanting to serve the revolution more directly. ’’ Shortly after Nilufar leaves Beheshti’s office, he and dozens of his party members are killed in an MEK terrorist act
Nilufar joins Tehran women’s gasht, the morality patrols that enforce Islamic behavior and dress. Such work will fit perfectly with my ‘pious Masoumeh’ persona.” Nilufar’a mother, Farzaneh, tells Porter that “most of my relatives in Iran cannot understand why she is doing what she is doing. They’re appalled. To them the morality patrols are the worst of the worst in the Islamic Republic. The men guards are disgusting and the women are worse- rude, uneducated, brutal, and loaded with resentments they take out on ordinary people.’’ “Why is she doing it?” Porter asks. “I know my daughter,” replies Farzaneh. “She’s a lot like me. She is testing herself. Can she do one of the vilest jobs in the country – one that goes against everything she believes? At the same time, can she mislead the authorities into thinking she’s a true believer? She sees her work as the best way to build her new identity and remain above suspicion.
Ruzbeh Parvizi is born in California as the son of an Iranian father and American-French mother. Four years into Nilufar’s mission, the CIA sends him, as a French-Iranian journalist, to Tehran named Phillipe Tehrani to support her work. Nilufar was originally afraid to work with him, but over time their relationship goes beyond collaboration and they fall in love
Operating under the code names “Miriam” and “Yousef”, they are both disturbed, as is Porter, when the President of the United States refuses to condemn Iraq’s use of chemical bombs against Kurdish civilians in Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war. In a joint message to Porter, Miriam and Yousel write, “We are surprised and distressed by American official statements about Halabja attacks. What we heard from the State Department spokesman contradicts what Yousef saw firsthand in Iraqi Kurdistan. Eyewitnesses are unanimous that the Iraqis killed at least five thousand Kurdish civilians at Halabja on March 16 with poison gas. Putting aside questions of morality and truth, our explicit, pro-Iraqi position now prevents Speaker Hashemi-Rafsanjani from making any efforts on behalf of American prisoners in Lebanon.
In 1988, the two decide to leave Iran separately and get married in the U.S. Ruzbeh applies for a transfer from his “employer” and Nilufar informs Hashemi-Rafsanjani that she needs to return to the United States to help her aunt, whose husband is stricken with Alzheimers. Rafsanjani responds with sympathy and tells her, “Ms. Rastbin, you have served our beloved country very well. I wish all our educated young people were as conscientious and as committed as you.
Ruzbeh happens to be one of the 300 passengers killed on the Iranian Airbus mistakenly shot down by U. S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf. The memory of Ruzbeh and the child born after his death continue to shape Nilufar’s life in the rest of the story. After the tragedy, Nilufar leaves Iran, abandons government service, earns her doctorate, and becomes an academic. Nazenin goes to England to continue her university studies, receives a Ph. D. in Mathematics, and joins the Khatami administration.
The second part of the story begins in the present. Retired ambassador Alan Porter, the former undersecretary of State, comes to see Nilufar at Middlebury College in Vermont where she is a professor. He persuades her to return to Iran to prevent a possible war between Iran and the United States. He and a number of CIA and State Department officials have learned that extremists in both Washington and Tehran, including the MEK and a foreign policy advisor to U. S. president, plan to provoke a violent incident in the Persian Gulf that would lead to war between the two countries. Porter asks Nilufar to return to Iran and work with her uncle Arash, a retired Iranian diplomat, to stop the plot. Nilufar is initially reluctant to get involved, but the danger of war persuades her to accept. She returns to Iran as Ziba Amiri with a letter from Porter to her uncle Arash explaining the plan to stop the plot. She tells her uncle and his Iranian allies, “As an American I love my country. I also love Iran, my mother’s country. I will do all I can – including risking my life – to make sure our two peoples are not dragged into pointless suffering.
When Nilufar returns to Iran, Nazenin is a professor of mathematic at Tehran University. When Nilufar’s mission is betrayed, Nazanin helps her to escape Iran when she is in danger of being arrested. The circumstances of her escape could be a scene in a James Bond movie
In Washington, Alan Porter asks his friend John Byrne, the president’s chief of staff, to arrange a meeting for him with the president. John sounds surprised with the request and says, “Alan, I know you are a patriot and I admire your service to our country as a Foreign Service Officer. But you realize who you are and what you have done are huge negatives with the president.” Alan insists, “John, I have never asked you for anything since you have been at the White House, but our country is in danger and I am desperate.” John submits and asks Allen to “wear fireproof underwear” for the meeting. As Alan and John are about stepping into Oval Office, president Martin McGuire shouts at them, ”who the hell are you and what the fuck are you doing here?” While the president is watching “two televisions on the wall showing the same news channel,” Porter introduces himself and says I am here because ….
The plot of the story is a creative combination of real and fictional events involving real and fictional players. Historical fiction is supposed to take place in the past, while Believers begins in the past and continues to the present. The story is believable and its details are familiar to those who follow events in Iran and the forty-two year enmity between Tehran and Washington. The behavior and calculations of the players match the power rivalry and instrumental motives of players both within Iranian theocracy and in the irrational confrontation between Tehran and Washington. The authors are exceptionally knowledgeable about the political culture of both countries and they use their creative license as novelists with progressive normative orientation, irony and humor
Reading good books, fiction or non-fiction, can be a learning experience and enjoyable at different levels, depending on the background and interest of the readers in the topic. Believers is a prime example of such a book. Iranians who read English will find it fascinating and many of them are likely to feel a sense of personal connection with both the actual and fictional parts of the story. Westerners, particularly Americans, who have been following the course of the Islamic revolution, have much to learn from the book and gain an exceptionally insightful portrayal of how a theocratic regime functions in a country where modern ideas and demystification of religious superstitions have been expanding in the midst of a sectarian sociopolitical order. In addition to general readers, the book can be used as required reading in literature, Iranian studies and U.S. foreign policy courses. A Persian translation of the book is bound to become a best seller in the diaspora as well as among the underground readership inside the country. An unintended but virtually certain consequence of Believers is to warm up the market for conspiracy theories among Iranians. I wished the book had been published before my retirement from teaching.
Mansour Farhang




A Spy Story with a Heart
Marc Grossman and John Limbert, two retired diplomats, have written the finest spy story that I’ve read in years. BELIEVERS, Love and Death in Tehran, is the rare book that focuses on the spy as opposed to the counter-espionage team trying to find the mole. In so doing, they weave a very human story through a timeline of historical events in such a way that the reader both empathizes with the lonely spy and recalls the emotions brought on by the hostage crisis that followed the Islamic revolution
Grossman and Limbert each have extensive experience in the region and at the State Department’s highest levels. Grossman had been Ambassador to Turkey, Undersecretary for Political Affairs, and was called out of retirement to be Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2011. Limbert, also a former Ambassador, spent much of his career in the Middle East and Islamic Africa. He was also among the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran from 1979 to 1980. He retired to teach history at the U.S. Naval Academy but took leave in 2010 to return to the State Department to head the office responsible for U.S. Iran policy
With their backgrounds, the reader longs to know how much of the novel is fiction and how many kernels of truth are embedded in the narrative. Indeed, the book covers Iran’s history beginning with the hostage crisis, Iran’s war with Iraq, the attack on the USS Stark, Iran-Contra affair, and the downing of Iran Air 655 by the USS Vincennes. You see these events both through the eyes of the spy and senior U.S. policymakers.
There is enough tradecraft to satisfy anyone looking for a classic cloak-and-dagger tale and a love affair that is believable enough to satisfy someone looking for pulp fiction. I might pick a few nits over the spy’s initial exfiltration and am tempted to observe that, at times, the background narrative reads like an internal memo at the State Department. But those are minor flaws and much less objectionable than the flowery prose in other books that I recently read
The book jumps to the present to close out the primary story. With a plot device worthy of the conspiracy theories that populate some corners of the Internet, they offer a satisfactory resolution to several threads of the story. But it was the epilogue that makes me say that was the most satisfying book that I’ve read this year. In it, the story again focuses on the human side of living with secrets. For that reason, it is particularly satisfying when the protagonist, a strong-willed woman who had endured so much comes, finally tells her son, grandson, family and a few close friends the story of her life while facing death
Ambassador Richard Holwill ( retired).


Grossman and Limbert have written a gripping novel, combining the best of espionage intrigue with a plausible yet frightening story of US-Iranian relations. Skillfully written, steeped in history, and amazingly relevant for today.
—Ross Harrison
Senior Fellow, The Middle East Institute and on the faculties of Georgetown University and the University of Pittsburgh.


A tale of intense excitement and labyrinthian intrigue. It grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go. Grossman and Limbert (who was a hostage at the US Embassy in 1979) weave a story that is dazzling in detail and literary grace. This debut work achieves the goal of a masterful novel: to educate and entertain
—William S. Cohen
New York Times Bestselling Author and Former Secretary of Defense.


Limbert and Grossman have written an exceptionally intelligent novel embedded deep in the reality of Iran and the dangerous art of spying in a hostile land. Foreign Service Officer Nilufar Hartman, arrives in 1979 Tehran at what initially appears to be the exactly wrong place at the wrong time — as Muslim students storm the US embassy. For her it turns out to be exactly the right place. Nilufar’s story is suspenseful, romantic, and vitally important. This book never lets up.
—Mark Bowden
Award winning author of "Black Hawk Down" and "Guests of the Ayatollah.


With Believers: Love and Death in Tehran, Ambassadors Marc Grossman and John Limbert have crafted a riveting and exceptional international thriller based upon the U.S.-Iran conflict of the late-1970s and 1980s—filled with the explosive tension and authenticity that only savvy veteran insiders in Middle East diplomacy could have produced. A nuanced yet pulse-pounding espionage tale with a great female protagonis
—Samuel Marquis
Author of "Soldiers of Freedom" and "Blackbeard: The Birth of America." #1 Denver Post Bestselling, Award-Winning Historical Fiction.


Limbert and Grossman have written a riveting thriller woven into forty years of revolutionary Iran’s tensions with the United States. It is filled with rich characters, history and twists that take readers right up to the dangers of an open conflict today. It’s tremendously relevant to our times. The former diplomats know the reality of U.S. policy up close. Limbert, as a former hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, knows the Islamic Republic like few other Americans
—Robin Wright
Author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World".
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