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Iran’s “Progress”

In response to:

Terror in Iran from the October 28, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

Although I also abhor the tyranny and inhumanity of the Shah’s police state, I feel Reza Baraheni’s argument in “Terror in Iran” (NYR, October 28) is weakened by some factual errors. Having spent two years as an instructor at the University of Tabriz in Iran, I am familiar with the city and its environs. Baraheni states that “in Quri-Chai, the northern slums of Tabriz, there is only one school for 100,000 school-children.” Since the population of the entire city (1976 census) is 475,000, it is absurd to suggest that almost one-fifth of the population is without schools. Further, on my visits to the schools in the “northern slums” I noted excellent schools available to all.

Although the Shah must be criticized for his police-state methods, it must be acknowledged that Iran has made enormous social advances in the last quarter century. Baraheni’s statement about Tabriz schools, and his exaggerations about the lack of potatoes and the prices of meat and onions, are untrue. Though these errors are perhaps small, they lead one to question his other “factual” statements. From personal observation I know of the brutality of SAVAK, and I applaud Baraheni’s campaign to undermine the Shah. I feel, however, that his effort is only weakened by factual distortion.

Thomas R. Moore

Princeton, Massachusetts

Reza Baraheni replies:

I deeply appreciate the attention Mr. Moore has paid to the facts and figures in my article. I also thank him for the compliments he has paid me in his letter. However, I regret to say that I don’t agree with Mr. Moore that there were “factual errors” in my article.

The population of the city of Tabriz (according to A Guide to Iranian Cities, Ebrahim Salah Arabani, FAR Publications, 1966, p. 191) was “809,631 in November 1966. The male population was 417,476 and the female population was 392,155. They speak Turkish, almost unanimously.” The population of the whole country in that year, according to the Guide, was 25,139,153. This means that almost one out of every thirty-one persons in the country lived in Tabriz. Now that the population of the country is over thirty-four million, according to reports in the world press and in the Shah’s own papers, Tabriz must have a population of at least one million.

In order to show Mr. Moore why his census figure for 1976 is wrong, I will quote from an interview with the Shah in the daily Ettela’at (August 23, 1976), occasioned by the Shah’s recent visit to the city of Tabriz:

The Shah of Shahs asked about the population of Eastern Azarbaijan. He was told that Tabriz, the capital of Eastern Azarbaijan, had a population of more than a million. The Shah of Shahs said that the number of deputies to the two Houses of the Parliament (Majlissein) will certainly be increased with the increase in the population.

All data given out by the government in Iran are likely to have been manipulated for various reasons, including Mr. Moore’s figure. The “deputies,” to which the Shah refers, are one reason. Although all deputies from everywhere in the country are hand-picked by the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, provinces like Azarbaijan and Kurdistan, the territories of the two biggest nationalities of Iran, are allowed representatives for less than half of their populations. The government evidently wants representation by trouble-making nationalities to be minimized in the Parliament.

A related reason is that, by publishing a misleading census, the government is trying to play down the serious problems that it has with Iran’s oppressed nationalities, which make up about 60 percent of the entire population. The regime would like to insist that there is only a minor problem of dialects, which will be solved by sending Persian-speaking army men and women to Turkish-, Kurdish-, Arabic-, and Baluchi-speaking areas.

One of the chronic habits of the Iranian regime has been to forget a problem, and think of it as solved. You can see the government’s censorship at work in the question and answer session with the Shah I have quoted. He asks the people around him about the population of the whole province of Eastern Azarbaijan, but the answer deals with the population of one city, Tabriz. This is because no government official, paper, or document is ready to admit that the population of the two provinces of Azarbaijan is about nine million and that there are an additional million Turkish-speaking people living in Zanjan and other cities, while another million Turks live in the capital. Thus the total number of Iranian Turks is now almost eleven million.

As for Quri-Chai, I made a study of the area in the summer of 1974, almost two weeks before I came to the US. Peasants have migrated to the city as a result of the failure of the Shah’s “land reform,” and they have built mud cottages on the stretches of land that run from the slopes of Aynali, in the north and the east, to the flat, greenless lands in the west, up to Yekatookanlar. On the north is the slaughterhouse, and further on is Aji-Chai, where one of the most modern military bases is installed on the bank of the river. The leper house is further to the north.

Quri-Chai is right behind the shoulders of the city. The mud houses have an average of six children living in them. The area has no electricity, no drinking water; there is only one secondary school, by the name of “Sharbatoghlu,” which has been translated into Persian, and has become “Sharbatzadeh.” I talked with about a dozen school teachers, encouraging them to start classes in the local teahouses; but they were all afraid that the government would be suspicious of their efforts, and would regard such classes as preparing the way for revolution. The figure of 100,000 I cited was given to me by these teachers.

I do not believe that Iran “has made enormous social advances in the last quarter century.” Some lip service has been given by the Shah’s regime to the needs of the populace. But, according to most economic experts who have observed Iran, as well as journalists from many countries who have reported on it, the Shah’s land reform is a joke, the inflation rate is one of the highest in the world, and the Shah’s Literacy Corps has failed miserably. According to the daily Ettela’at (August 31, 1975), during the first ten years of the White Revolution, two million more people have been added to the number of the illiterates in the country. Corruption is so widespread that threats of jailing, even shooting, cannot solve the problem, because at the heart of corruption are the Shah himself and the royal family.

Concerning medical care, Ettela’at wrote in its issue for April 17, 1976 that 368,201 people’s eyes in Eastern Azarbaijan were examined; 62,568 of them had trachoma and 305,633 of them had another eye disease (the English translation of which I don’t know). This means that most people in Eastern Azarbaijan must be suffering from some sort of eye disease.

As for onions, Ettela’at wrote on January 23, 1976, three days before the fourteenth anniversary of the Shah’s White Revolution, that onions and eggs are so scarce that people get the autograph of those who find these two items, because one must be a great artist to be able to find onions and eggs. The same paper wrote on February 2 that an “Onion and Potatoes Seminar” (!) is being proposed to deal with this issue. On April 26, the problem was still unsolved, because people complained in Ettela’at that there were long lines for onions and potatoes, even in front of the cooperative of the oil company officials.

When I asked Iranian travelers during the summer what they wanted from New York, almost unanimously they replied: “The best souvenir for us Iranians is onions.” As for meat, few countries have suffered so severe a shortage of meat during the last five years as Iran. The reason: the Queen’s uncle Qotbi has driven many of the butchers of the country into bankruptcy by importing cheap, old, frozen meat from abroad, and forcing it onto the market. The Shah has provided Iranians with a rotten regime; the Queen’s uncle contributed to this enterprise by providing Iranians with rotten meat. Perhaps these are among the “enormous social advances” Iran has made “in the last quarter century.”

PS. Since the publication of my article, “Terror in Iran,” several alarming reports have reached me which I would like to bring to the attention of your readers.

The Manchester Guardian reported on January 9:

Despite the concern abroad, the fate of many Iranian intellectuals remains largely unknown. Atefeh Gorgin, a writer, is reported to have left prison eight months ago, but it is not known whether Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi, the sociologist given an eight year sentence by a secret tribunal, is alive or dead. Some suspect that she was shot while trying to escape, others say her torturers have blinded and crippled her.

Earlier, through contacts with Iranian travelers in Europe and the United States, the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in Iran (CAIFI, 853 Broadway, Suite 414, New York) had confirmed reports that Atefeh Gorgin was released, but that she was mysteriously killed before reaching home; and that Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi was transferred from Qasr prison, where prisoners with definite convictions are held, to Evin, a prison famous for its modernized torture chambers.

Considering the sequence of events in the case of these two women political prisoners of Iran, we were genuinely alarmed that if immediate action was not taken, the Shah’s torturers would indeed kill or cripple these two women, if they had not done so already. We were also concerned about the fate of Dr. Gholamhossein Sa’edi, Iran’s foremost play-wright and anthropologist, who is not allowed to leave Iran, because, according to The Manchester Guardian Weekly, “his left foot is reported still to bear the marks of SAVAK torture.”

On January 19, I wrote to Mr. Nasser Shirzad, General Consul of Iran in New York, about world concern in connection with the fates of these Iranian writers. On January 24, a delegation of prominent Americans, including Eric Bentley, Frances FitzGerald, and Muriel Rukeyser, along with myself and other CAIFI officials arrived in the Iranian Consulate in Manhattan to see Mr. Shirzad as scheduled. The delegation and press correspondents, invited to question Mr. Shirzad on the fates of these writers, were kept in the waiting room for about an hour. All this time petty officials from the consulate negotiated with us from behind a bullet-proof glass window on whether Mr. Shirzad was available, or if so, whether he had received my letter, and whether he could receive us. The petty officials kept contradicting one another miserably. We held a press conference in the waiting room and left the building.

Amnesty International has put the number of Iranian political prisoners between 25,000-100,000. Liz Thurgood, reporting from Tehran in The Manchester Guardian Weekly, has said: “Despite repeated denials by the regime, many Iranians still believe the number of political prisoners to be about 60,000.”

I appeal to all Americans to raise their voices against the Shah’s brutal repression of the people of Iran, and against this hopeless lack of communication resulting from the blind arrogance of the Iranian regime. We demand unconditional amnesty for all the political prisoners of the Shah. We specifically demand explanations on the fates of Vida Hadjebi Tabirizi, Atefeh Gorgin, and Dr. Sa’edi, one of Iran’s most talented contemporary writers.

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