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Prisoners of the Ayatollah

From Palace to Prison: Inside the Iranian Revolution

by Ehsan Naraghi, translated by Nilon Mobasser
Ivan R. Dee, 283 pp., $28.95

Death Plus Ten Years

by Roger Cooper
HarperCollins, 330 pp., £7.99 (paper)

Ehsan Naraghi, an Iranian, and Roger Cooper, an Englishman, both served time in Khomeini’s prisons, Naraghi for nearly three years and Cooper for over five. Naraghi is a prominent intellectual and sociologist who has written widely on Iranian and third world social and cultural issues. Cooper lived and worked in Iran for some twenty years as a journalist, English teacher, translator, speech-writer, businessman, and consultant. Their prison memoirs shed considerable light on the nightmarish world of the Islamic Republic’s jails, courts, and judicial system. We learn how Naraghi and Cooper managed to survive in prison and how they tried to use the judicial system to extricate themselves without surrendering their personal dignity or integrity.

Naraghi’s account is also interesting because he was involved in such debates as were permitted under the Pahlavi regime about the transformation taking place in Iran. He directed a study for the UN on third world “brain drain,” and in the 1970s he wrote a book critical of Iran’s “relentless Westernization,” its forced pace of development, and its tendency to adopt Western economic models to the neglect of its own cultural traditions.

In the dying days of the Pahlavi monarchy, Naraghi, probably at the behest of Empress Farah, who seems to have been eager for the Shah to hear a wider, more critical range of views, was invited to the palace to talk to the Shah about the revolutionary crisis and how to resolve it. The Shah seemed desperate to understand why most of the country had risen up against him. The first half of Naraghi’s book describes the eight conversations he had with the Shah over a two-month period; he seems to have enjoyed giving what amounted to lectures to the perplexed Shah on such matters as the relationship of intellectuals to power and the causes of Khomeini’s success.

The Shah acted, Naraghi writes, “as if I had before me a schoolboy to whom one must explain, report card in hand, the reasons for his failure.” He raised the issue of financial corruption in the royal family, and he reminded the Shah that he had antagonized his natural supporters, including the merchants of the bazaar, by monopolizing power and decision-making. He suggested that the Shah should have brought the centrist National Front into Iranian politics, and he spoke of the estrangement from the monarchy of the younger generation. He also said that the Shah had identified himself far too closely with the US, and he urged him to make over his own and all royal family wealth to the people, to surrender his power to constitutional government, to open up the political system. The Shah was shocked, angry, horrified, and baffled by these suggestions but by the end of their talks he seemed to Naraghi resigned to the fall of his regime. They were still meeting when demonstrators were in control of the streets and the monarchy was crumbling. It was too late for the kind of moderate concessions and reform that might have worked ten years earlier, and the Shah had no taste for the kind of brutal repression practiced by Saddam Hussein. Nor was he able to make a radical shift in policy, as F.W. de Klerk did in South Africa.

The second half of Naraghi’s book deals with his thirty-three months in prison. He was first arrested and interrogated, but not jailed, in April of 1979, within a few weeks of the revolution, and was accused of being a supporter of the Pahlavi dynasty. The young men who questioned him were leftists who did not seem to have fervent Islamic beliefs and were almost totally ignorant of national and world affairs. He was released four days later when Ayatollah Motahhari, a confidant of Khomeini, interceded on his behalf. Eight months after that he was again arrested, and this time jailed, once more for supporting the Shah’s regime. Four months later, having satisfied his captors, he was again released.

Naraghi was imprisoned again in July of 1981 under far more menacing circumstances. A month earlier, President Abol-Hasan Bani-Sadr, who once had been a researcher at the institute that Naraghi headed, lost out in the fierce, internecine rivalries within the revolutionary coalition; when he fell out of favor with Khomeini, he was impeached. Bani-Sadr’s one-time allies, the Marxist-Islamic People’s Mojahedin organization, launched a campaign of armed resistance, assassinations, and bombings against the regime. The government retaliated with extensive arrests, summary trials, and executions that were sometimes carried out in the streets. The revolutionary terror was at its height. “Up to three hundred people were arrested every day for a year,” Naraghi writes of the terrible period of his second imprisonment. The Evin prison “turned into something of a concentration camp…There were up to eighty executions a night, and in the cells the prisoners felt closer to death than to life.”

Because of his earlier ties to Bani-Sadr, Naraghi became the victim of a high-level political struggle with which he was wholly unconnected and he was swept up in a wave of indiscriminate arrests. He was beaten by a sadistic warden, and at one point a guard told him he was about to be shot. He was allowed virtually no contact with his family, not even by telephone, and for a long time he was not even certain of why he had been arrested or of what he had been accused. After a year and a half in Evin prison, he was told by a sympathetic judge that he would be released the next day, but this decision was immediately countermanded on the order of the revolutionary guards. Naraghi, however, survived the terror and was eventually exonerated, because no one could find any evidence against him. When he was cleared, the examining magistrate even apologized for the unjust treatment he had suffered.

Roger Cooper was arrested for espionage, in 1985, as a British spy. Although he had a knack for getting himself into compromising situations, Cooper also had the kind of background certain to raise suspicion among those in Iran who tend to see a potential Lawrence of Arabia in every Englishman. He was fluent in Persian and Russian and had served as an interpreter with the British Army Intelligence Corps. He had also picked up Serbo-Croatian and several other Slavic languages. In Iran, he had converted to Islam in order to marry a young woman from a prominent Iranian family.1 He liked to travel in seldom visited parts of the country.

Cooper left Iran around the time of the revolution, but he recklessly came back in 1985 as the representative of an American marine construction company. He then stayed on long after his two-week visa had expired. He was picked up in December 1985 and kept in prison for five years.

Cooper appears to have fallen into the hands of the counterintelligence department of the secret police, who clearly thought him a serious suspect. Whereas Naraghi spent eighteen months in prison before he came in front of an investigative magistrate, Cooper’s interrogation began within two days of his arrest and continued over many months. Fearing that he would disappear into the dark hole of Iran’s prison system and never emerge, Cooper writes that he agreed to confess to what he says he hoped would seem a harmless bit of cooperation with a British diplomat and intelligence officer, even though he believed himself innocent of anything of the kind. Still, the confession was damaging to his case and later served as a basis for his conviction and sentencing.

It was not, however, the only evidence brought forward at the trial. It turns out that even before the revolution, the Savak, the Shah’s secret police, had Cooper under scrutiny as a possible spy and dogged his every step. The clerics and revolutionaries now in power had themselves been the subject of unfair and often outlandish charges by the Savak, but Cooper’s file was treated as if it were reliable and could legitimately be used against him. (Naraghi’s Savak file also became the basis for his interrogation, but since it did not bear out his presumed “collaboration” with the previous regime, it helped rather than damaged his case.)

Cooper’s “interrogator”—“the person who was to have almost total control over me for the next three years”—first appeared before him wearing a tight-fitting white mask over his face with slits for eyes. He promised to puncture Cooper’s eardrums with his ballpoint pen if Cooper so much as caught a glimpse of his face. The interrogator, whom Cooper calls Hosein, viewed the world through the prism of conspiracies, imperialist manipulation, and espionage. “You’re all spies,” he told Cooper, adding that he would gladly take one hundred Englishmen into the courtyard and shoot them if given the order.

What he wanted from Cooper was a confession, and Cooper, within months of his being arrested, agreed to give it to him in exchange for a promise that, having told all, he would be freed—without formal charges, a trial, or publicity, a promise Hosein never kept. Cooper says that in order to satisfy Hosein he concocted a story of an entirely fictitious British diplomat, “Colonel Dick Hooker,” for whom he, in his capacity as a journalist, agreed to write general reports about Iranian domestic affairs, using publicly available sources of information. Only later, he told Hosein, did he discover that “Colonel Hooker” was an intelligence officer. To satisfy Hosein’s fantasies about the workings of the “British Intelligent Service,” as Hosein called it, Cooper drew elaborate charts of the structure of British intelligence, gave its officers names taken from the novels of Evelyn Waugh, and invented a secret “Iran committee,” reporting directly to Mrs. Thatcher, whose sole purpose was to coordinate British policy on Iran.

When Cooper’s interrogator insisted he make a public confession before the television cameras, Cooper went along, once again counting on a promise that he would be freed from prison, and he worked with Hosein to make up questions and answers. When the confession was televised, Cooper discovered the questions had been altered to make his vague replies seem far more specific and damaging than he had intended. Hosein took enormous satisfaction in Cooper’s TV appearance, apparently believing that the confession acquired credence simply from being made before the cameras, for all of Iran to see.

Cooper’s trial, before a special branch of the Revolutionary Court dealing with spies, demonstrated the prevailing judicial approach, which Cooper aptly sums up: “You wouldn’t have been brought here if you were innocent.” Not until two days before his trial, almost two years after his arrest, was Cooper allowed to hear the charges against him.

Cooper’s request for a lawyer was ignored; the judge told him that a lawyer “would not be necessary.” When Cooper demanded evidence supporting the charges against him, the judge replied that the evidence, with the exception of his confession, was confidential. “As regards the verdict,” the judge remarked on the first day of the trial, “that is obvious from the start.” While making his detailed final defense, Cooper noticed the judge was sipping tea and reading the evening paper, so he stopped talking. “No, go on,” the judge said. “It’s only the newspaper. I’m listening.”

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    Cooper explains that while he was teaching English at Tehran University, he was asked by a young woman who was studying law for private lessons in English law. The woman, “a strict Muslim in her way,” could not be alone with him unless they were technically man and wife. To resolve this difficulty, he entered into a sigheh, or temporary, marriage with the woman, although, he writes, they never had physical relations. Such temporary marriages, based on a contract to run for a specified period of time after which the marriage lapses, are permitted under Shi’ite law.

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