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In the Terror of Tehran

Five years ago, in January 1978, the Shah of Iran did much to seal his fate and help begin the inexorable rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. A semiofficial newspaper published an attack on Khomeini and accused him of being in the pay of the British. During the next two days some seventy of Khomeini’s students were killed at the holy city of Qom. The Shah, as an Iranian later put it, had stepped on the dragon’s tail. Almost exactly a year later the Shah fled and the secular and religious opposition marched together in triumph through the streets of Tehran. But the secular opposition never regained the initiative and before long the dragon turned on them too. Now the process of making Iran rigidly Islamic is almost complete and the opposition has been laid to waste.

During the past year the Islamic Republic of Iran has been trying to persuade the world that it is far more reasonable and successful than its enemies claim. Recently it invited a few Western journalists including myself to visit Tehran.

Just write what you see,” said the young Revolutionary Guard as we approached the fourth massive gateway to Evin prison. “Don’t believe the propaganda.”

The “propaganda” is well-documented and cross-checked evidence collected by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. One prisoner’s account, confirmed by Amnesty International, reads:

The victim is strapped to a table in the torture chamber and the soles of the feet are whipped. Cables are the most common instrument used for whipping but in Ghezel-Hessar prison they use rubber hoses in which a metal chain has been inserted. The number of lashes usually exceeds 400, even for those charged with minor offenses. Sometimes the subject may be whipped on several successive days to worsen the suppurating wounds already inflicted. From time to time cold water is poured on the feet or the victim is walked around to revive sensation in the feet, then torture is resumed.

Other prisoners have been kept handcuffed and blindfolded for days on end. Amnesty recently stated that men who refused to cooperate were tied down and thrashed across their testicles. It is estimated that three out of ten prisoners tortured in this way died as a result.

The regime has admitted to the execution of more than five thousand people between 1979 and September 1983, but secret executions are well known, and the Mujahadeen, Khomeini’s opponents, have a list of nearly eight thousand names of executed people, some three thousand of them killed in Evin. There have been frequent reports of executions of children and pregnant women.

The prison was built by the Shah to house twelve hundred prisoners. Now it holds between six and ten thousand. It is ruled by Assadollah Lajevardi, Tehran’s public prosecutor, nicknamed “Hayula” the one-eyed monster. He is a short, stubby man with a huge head and a wide flat face. He lost an eye in a bomb blast in 1975 and his glass eye and thick glasses give him a vague, inscrutable look. Earlier this year he is said to have tortured five journalists, then cut their wrists and left them to bleed to death.

Some of the prisoners may try to tell you they are innocent,” Mr. Lajevardi explained to us. “This is untrue. They are all terrorists and if they say such things you must give me their names. We have all the information in our files, even some information they may not know themselves. Unfortunately the office is closed tonight or I could show you their files.”

As we climbed the stairs to the gymnasium which serves as the prison mosque I could hear a rhythmical boom like the beating of a great drum and voices chanting in chorus.

Inside kneeling in rows were some two thousand young people striking their breasts in unison and roaring out the regime’s slogans. On the wall above the stage was a giant painting of Khomeini, arm raised like Michelangelo’s risen Christ.

The litany rolled on:

Khomeini is our leader.
Death to America.
Death to the USSR.
Death to our former leaders.
Death to Bani-Sadr.
Death to Rajavi.
This is not a prison it is a university.
We are happy to be here.
We want to go to the front to fight.
We want to die for the Islamic Republic.

Separated by a low curtain were about six hundred women, all shrouded in the full black chador. Some had children with them: a baby less than a year old, a four-year-old in yellow rompers, a two-year-old, wide-eyed, sucking a pacifier. Some of these children had been born in prison. One mother told me her entire family was in Evin except her mother, who committed suicide when they were arrested; there was no one else to look after her baby. Several of the visitors began to sob at the sight of the children.

The chanting over, we were allowed to mix with the prisoners, but wherever I went I was followed by at least one Revolutionary Guard. I managed to lose them once, just long enough to be told by a prisoner, “We have Tazir here [religious punishment by beating]. I confessed to a crime, it is better to confess.”

Almost all other prisoners I spoke with said they had been Mujahadeen supporters. Abdul Reza Zokayi, a thirty-one-year-old former Mujahadeen, said he was arrested fifteen months ago and was serving five years. “If they choose to execute me I have deserved it. I was a member of the hypocrites [the government name for the Mujahadeen] and under Islamic law one who sympathizes must bear the same punishment as one who acts.”

Another penitent told me he had given the names of other colleagues to the prosecutor. “When they were brought here,” he said, “they were very angry, but one of them came to me one day and said, ‘I am glad you gave me the chance to go on the right path.”’

Vahid Savidghalan, a thirty-four-year-old graduate in mathematics of a Kansas university, had taken part in an anti-Khomeini uprising. He had been a member of the Confederation of Islamic Students in America. He said he was allowed to study, was well treated, and had not been tortured. The prisoners were allowed visits from their families every two weeks, he said.

The two sides of Evin prison, far from being incompatible, may be complementary. The regime may keep some prisoners, “reformed” by the prospect of torture and execution, and give them privileges as an incentive to the others, to display to visitors. In the presence of the Revolutionary Guards, they all praised the mercy of Khomeini and the humanity of the system and none showed any sign of torture, physical or mental. I asked to see a prisoner who still supported the Mujahadeen but somehow “there wasn’t time.” None of the prisoners I spoke with ever held important positions in their organizations.

A similar display was mounted at a prisoner of war camp. About three hundred Iraqi soldiers were paraded chanting slogans against President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and praising Khomeini. I was not allowed to interview any of them without a guard at my shoulder. The fear in the face of a prisoner picked out of the ranks for me to question contradicted his answers. The Red Cross has complained about the ideological pressure mounted on Iraqi prisoners and stated that some prisoners have been injured and even killed.

The Khomeini regime is not content to crush its opponents; it wants the conversion of their souls. It is bound by a spell that demands absolute loyalty to a literal interpretation of certain Koranic injunctions. Its mantras are the mesmeric litanies of hatred, chanted on every public occasion, clenched fists punching into the air. Each one begins with Allah Akbar—God is great. I asked a visiting Arab doctor why he joined in when, in private, he had expressed revulsion at the regime. “I cannot refuse to pray,” he said. The regime has kidnapped God and hung the regime’s banner around his pedestal.

The exponents of Shi’a fundamentalism I talked to were not brainwashed political hyenas from the illiterate classes. Several who lectured me had spent years in Western universities. One educated supporter of the regime explained to me, “I have a duty to prevent you from damaging yourself by failing to obey the laws of God just as I have a duty to stop you from jumping off the top of that building.”

Hence women must wear a veil and are not permitted social contact with men who are not related to them; a wide range of pastimes from chess to boxing is banned and of course alcohol is forbidden. Transgression of these laws earns an inquisitorial reprimand from the Revolutionary Guards or even a night in prison and a beating.

To the middle classes who have grown up in a Western atmosphere these laws represent a monstrous intrusion on personal liberty but to a great many Iranians they are merely the rejection of obscene foreign ways and the reestablishment of Islamic Iranian culture. More important to the young secularized middle classes is that the freedom of expression they had hoped for with the fall of the Shah has been utterly destroyed.

Behesht-e-Zahra, Tehran’s main cemetery, throbs with the zeal of the fundamentalist Shi’a crusade. I visited it on the day of the burial of thirteen of the Iranian volunteer force in Lebanon who had been killed by French air strikes. Their cortege swayed through the city center bringing Tehran to a standstill and paused outside the derelict US embassy for an orgy of slogan chanting. These martyrs—all who die in the cause of the Islamic Republic are martyrs who go straight to paradise—were special. Though they had been killed by French bombs, they were portrayed as having died fighting the Great Satan, the United States, proving that Iran could fight on two fronts at once.

The fountain in the cemetery runs with blood-colored water pumping ceaselessly into the air and splashing down the steps. The graves of the martyrs, covering acres upon acres, have sprouted a forest of flags; either black or showing the red, white, and green of the Islamic Republic. Hundreds of women in black chadors huddled round the graves, some of them weeping; among their children I saw several with red armbands, signifying they are volunteers ready to fight and die for Islam. One woman said, “No one can regret a son becoming a martyr …my son has brought honor to our family.” Beyond the recent graves a space the size of a football field had been cleared and the gravediggers were at their work.

Here war is not a painful necessity but a glorious commitment sanctified by God. It brings salvation for the dead and redemption for the living. The determination of the bereaved mothers to bury their grief in further sacrifice explains how Iran can take such heavy casualties in the war with Iraq and yet find more volunteers eager to go to the front.

The Iranian regime is satisfied with the progress of the war. It continues to mount World War I–style infantry attacks, pouring large numbers of volunteers across the trenches armed only with RPG rocket launchers, Kalashnikovs, and faith. This tactic recaptured Khorramshahr in April last year but elsewhere has made few military gains. The Val Fajr operation mounted on the northern front this autumn recaptured about seven hundred square kilometers of Iranian soil of no strategic value at the cost of about eight thousand casualties.

Although it may have lost a quarter of a million dead since the war started in September 1980, Iran only rarely has to appeal for volunteers. On a visit to the war front from the Iraqi side last year I was told by a sector commander that his men had been sickened by killing hundreds of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds who had been forced to attack them. This seemed doubtful. Now I believe him but I do not think they were forced.

The bloody sacrifice of the young volunteers keeps the revolution at boiling point and allows the government to hold back its main army and air force. Meanwhile the Iraqis, backed financially by the Gulf states, have to spend vast sums containing the constant pressure of these attacks. They are beginning to show signs of panic. Much propaganda was made of the arrival in Iraq this autumn of French Super Etendard aircraft armed with Exocet missiles. The Iraqis threatened to close down Kharg Island, Iran’s main oil exporting port. But the island is well protected by F-14s armed with Phoenix missiles; and the Etendards do not give the Iraqis much greater military power than the Super Frelon aircraft and the Exocets they already possess. The Gulf is not about to be closed.

The Iraqis have also used a form of mustard gas against Iranian infantry on at least two occasions this year, risking international opprobrium by breaking the Geneva protocol of chemical weapons. They have launched Scud B missiles against civilian targets—one hit an elementary school in Behbehan last October killing eighty pupils. None of these desperate measures have had much effect. Iraq is suing for peace on almost any terms short of capitulation; but Iran, with a population three times the size of Iraq’s and exporting two-and-a-half times more oil* than her enemy, wants a longdrawn-out war of attrition.

Iran’s price for peace is the head of Saddam Hussein and possibly the removal of the Baathist party from power in Iraq. Saddam’s crusade to topple the Khomeini regime has been reversed. One Revolutionary Guard told me, “Once we have rid Iraq of Baathism we will set Lebanon free and restore Palestine to its people.” He said he would have been honored to carry out the bombing on the American marine headquarters in Beirut last October.

Iran denied responsibility for the attack and for the attacks in Kuwait in December, but the Khomeini regime dreams of an Anschluss of all Muslim peoples, a great holy war spreading out east and west driving out the pernicious materialisms of capitalism and communism. This is a prospect far more dangerous to world stability than anything currently happening in Lebanon. Hence Saddam is able to portray Iraq as the front line of defense against this messianic crusade and ask for support from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union and the United States.

Inside Iran the war has caused food shortages, rationing, and a flourishing black market with prices sometimes ten times the official rates. Queues for bread and meat are a common sight in the cities. A BMW several years old was being sold for the equivalent of $50,000 last September.

The streets of Tehran look like a tattered American dream. Cracked and faded plastic signs announce forlorn-looking ice cream parlors and hamburger bars; advertisements have gone and the angry brow of Khomeini scowls down everywhere from posters, wall paintings, and shop windows. There are a few unkempt Cadillacs to be seen in the eternal traffic jams and a Pan Am sign still perches over an office block but it is beginning to rust. The city is littered with abandoned, half-completed tower blocks. The Intercontinental and Hilton hotels have been renamed: the Hilton is now called the Freedom Hotel (an odd title since an armed guard slept on the floor in the corridor outside my room to prevent any subversion or sin). The US Information Service has been taken over by an Islamic Institute.

Although there is great personal wealth in Tehran it is un-Islamic and inadvisable to display it. Some of the bazaar merchants are making more money now than they did under the Shah, and although it is an Islamic duty for the rich to support the poor with alms it is difficult to see how charity can solve the enormous discrepancies between rich and poor in the country.

Since Khomeini has pledged himself to help the poor and the mosques have assumed the responsibility of organizing food rationing, the government will have to take the blame for economic discontent. But despite widespread complaints about shortages and the war there is no organized opposition left to channel the discontent. The pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards, have apparently obliterated it. Equipped with a fleet of new Nissan patrol wagons they flash around Tehran with arrogant contempt for the civil police and all other officials. They dress in plain clothes, open-necked shirts, have at least three days’ growth of beard, and are as likely to be seen questioning a woman whose veil has slipped as leading the crowds in slogan chanting.

It is the Revolutionary Guards who have driven the Mujahadeen, the Islamic leftist opposition, off the streets and stopped their bombing campaign. It is they who have caught and executed the Baha’is. Recently they wrecked the offices of Mehdi Bazargan’s Freedom party when it tried to hold a seminar. Significantly it was their leader Mohsen Reazai who announced the arrest of the entire leadership of the Tudeh (communist) party early this year, which led the Soviet Union to criticize the regime. A leading member of the Armenian community, one of the few minority groups left unmolested, said to me, “Perhaps we will be next.”

The pasdaran are the most visible instruments of the Ayatollah’s power. In the background are the shadowy clerical factions which the Ayatollah manipulates. The Hojjatieh, for example, believe that there should be no political leadership until the return of the twelfth Imam, Mohammed’s successor, who it is believed will one day return to earth to purge it. In the interim they offer Khomeini conditional support. The other factions seem mainly to be based on personality and tactics rather than on fundamental differences.

In the elections for the Majlis, or parliament, scheduled for March, these factions may become clearer but the trend is toward a more monolithic clerical state. The Freedom party, the only secular party still represented in the Majlis, is thought unlikely to elect any members. The Majlis itself must submit to the Council of Guardians, twelve conservative clerics, half of whom are directly appointed by Khomeini, who assure the Islamic purity of the laws.

The regime now has one insuperable problem: Khomeini’s death. “God preserve Khomeini until the return of the twelfth Imam,” runs the slogan. Khomeini is eighty-one but is said to be in good health, and he has an elder brother of ninety-six. At present every major decision is made directly or indirectly by him, every organization reports to him. He smooths over splits, his word is law. He wields more than political power, and if a successor can swiftly seize his mantle and rule in his name the regime could survive his death.

At present the politician closest to the levers of power is the skillful speaker of the Majlis, Hojetoleslam Rafsanjani, but he lacks the formal authority of an ayatollah, so Ayatollah Montazeri, a former student of Khomeini’s, would probably act as a figurehead. He has recently been given the title Grand Ayatollah by the regime even though he lacks the usual qualifications. If there is no clear successor, the factions are so inured to absolutism and so resistant to compromise that the country could be plunged into internecine civil war.

  1. *

    1.7 million barrels per day.

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