The following is by an Iran expert who wishes to remain anonymous.
Grave, soft-spoken, the exiled Iranian religious scholar Abdolkarim Soroush is a living record of the Iranian revolution. As a fanatical young supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini, he helped purge Iran’s universities of leftists and secularists in the early 1980s. Later, as a founder and editor of Kiyan, a monthly journal of religion and philosophy, he upset his orthodox revolutionary colleagues by arguing that Islamic law should be viewed as a product of its time, subject to alteration as society evolves. Soroush has since denounced Iran’s system of government, what he calls its “republic of faith,” as harmful both to Islam and to politics, an argument that led to his expulsion from Iranian academic life in 2000 and, more recently, an extended sojourn in Europe and the United States. Until this year, driving troublemakers abroad has been a useful and politically inexpensive way for the Islamic Republic to deal with dissent. Iranian history is full of people who lost their relevance after leaving Iran. But this, so far, has not happened to Soroush.
Iran’s summer of discontent started on June 12, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won an election that his reformist opponents, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, declared to have been rigged, setting in motion a large, peaceful protest movement. While it had the support of two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the movement was put down with immense brutality, although it remains, as continuing smaller demonstrations show, very much alive.
Soroush is one of a handful of dissident public figures who have had a moral and intellectual influence on the protesters throughout the crisis in spite of being outside the country. During their confrontation with Ahmadinejad and his main backer, the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reform-minded Iranians drew encouragement from the supportive words and actions of Soroush and other expatriates, which they monitored through the Internet and overseas TV stations. In August, Soroush gave his most significant TV interview in Persian in several years, to the BBC’s new Persian-language channel, in which he disputed the legitimacy of a religious government that imposes its writ by force. In September, his Web site carried an extraordinarily forthright and eloquent open letter with the title “With God’s help, religion and freedom will remain, and tyranny will die.” It might as easily have been called “The last rites of the Islamic Republic, by a zealot who turned against it.”
Soroush’s open letter was addressed to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and it conveyed an ironic awareness of their respective standing as religious authorities. Although Khamenei’s supporters refer to him as a grand ayatollah, the highest rank in Shiism’s clerical hierarchy, he is known among leading Shia religious scholars to be an indifferent theologian. Since he became Supreme Leader on Khomeini’s death in 1989, Khamenei has favored a dry, severe interpretation of Islam—the interpretation favored by the conservative constituency he has courted, and which is rejected by Soroush, who is an authority on the thirteenth-century mystic poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi.
When Soroush addresses Khamenei as simply “Mr. Khamenei,” as he did in his letter, this was in contrast to the sycophantic language to which the Supreme Leader is accustomed. In his letter, Soroush speaks as a morally superior outcast and sage, a persona familiar to any reader of mystic poetry. He speaks also as an embodiment of the “Islamic Iran” that Khamenei repeatedly invokes as an ideal to be protected, and which the Islamic Republic, by manipulating religion and neglecting Iran’s literary and artistic heritage, has undermined.
Soroush’s letter is a coruscating denunciation, and its hybrid style, combining the formal, Arabic-influenced language of the seminary with a rolling, alliterative verve, is a further reminder of its author’s two selves. Soroush denounces Khamenei’s readiness to “wash blood with blood” and to “disgrace God but not yourself,” but he is not despondent—even though most of the country’s top reformists are behind bars, and a show trial of nearly a hundred is underway.
On the contrary, Soroush draws the conclusion that now, having turned from an authoritarian into a tyrant, Khamenei is starting his final decline. Alluding to the Supreme Leader’s admission that the prestige of the Islamic Republic has been damaged by reports of brutality in the nation’s jails, Soroush writes sarcastically, “I salute you for identifying and declaring the squalor and abjectness of religious tyranny…. I want to say to you that a page has been turned in time’s ledger and that fortune has turned her back on the regime….”
Soroush believes that the regime’s victory is a Pyrrhic one, that the effort of suppressing the demonstrations, murdering and torturing scores of citizens, and staging a show trial has exhausted it. From Soroush’s viewpoint, the regime that is morally bankrupt must inevitably fall. This is a recurrent lesson from Iran’s national epic, the eleventh-century Book of Kings, which chronicles, in myths and history-telling, the opposition between virtue and power. It may also be a lesson from the last Shah of Iran, who fled the country in 1979 and whose successors are now in conflict.
If Soroush is right, and the Islamic Republic has lost whatever moral legitimacy it once possessed, the main damage was inflicted this summer. In a historic sermon on June 19—one week after the disputed election—the Supreme Leader finally abandoned the fiction of his neutrality in Iranian politics, favoring Ahmadinejad over his opponents and denying widespread fraud in the elections. The following day, Khamenei ordered the Basij—a militia group drawn from the poorer districts whose members receive privileges—and the Revolutionary Guard to attack tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Tehran and other Iranian cities, leading to a bloody carnage in which dozens were killed and thousands arrested or beaten. The summer was punctuated by further protests, also savagely put down. As the regime’s leading personalities turned on one other, two events took place that might, one day, be regarded as milestones in the decline of the Islamic regime.
The first was the circulation of reports of murder, torture, and rape from behind the doors of Iran’s jails, atrocities that continue and have become a major scandal, managed with spectacular ineptness by the regime. The reports have discredited the Islamic Republic’s claims to righteousness and morality, and they have led many Iranians to compare Tehran’s most notorious detention center, at Kahrizak, between Tehran and Qom, with Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.
The second event was a mass trial that told us much about the Islamic Republic’s diminishing ability to manipulate public opinion. This trial, of leading reformist politicians and journalists, and also of ordinary demonstrators, began on August 1. It has aimed to destroy the reform movement and convince the public that the reformists have cooperated with foreigners to launch a “color revolution” of the kind that ended other anti-Western regimes in such European countries as Serbia and Ukraine. The trial was widely seen as a failure. The reform movement is not dead, and the desires that animate it, for greater political freedom and personal autonomy, have not been extinguished. And to judge by copious anecdotal evidence and the blogs of people living in Iran, a very large number of Iranians do not believe the confessions they have heard from prisoners; they see the trial primarily as evidence for the Islamic Republic’s descent into tyranny.
Rumors of ill-treatment in places such as Kahrizak and the notorious Evin Prison in north Tehran had been circulating for weeks before Mehdi Karroubi—a cleric and presidential candidate who was officially adjudged to have come in fourth in the election, and has since, with Mir Hussein Moussavi, become a leader of the opposition movement—went public with allegations of rape and torture. Karroubi’s claims led to a crisis because for the past three decades he has been a member of Iran’s political establishment. He has occupied senior posts, including the speakership of the parliament, and cannot easily be dismissed as an opposition troublemaker.
Yet this is what his adversaries have tried to do—particularly after his Web site carried extracts from an account by a man who said he had been sodomized in jail, and then, after lodging a formal complaint, was threatened by judiciary officials. Supporters of the President and the Supreme Leader have accused Karroubi of spreading lies at the behest of Iran’s external enemies, and they have called stridently for his arrest. On September 12 a judiciary report described the evidence that Karroubi had presented in support of his claims as “fake,” and recommended “decisive” legal action against all who “spread lies” and damage the “prestige of the system.”
Allegations of savagery on the part of the security forces, judicial officials, and prison staff are now so widespread, they amount to a damning indictment of the system these people serve. In August, footage was circulated of new, unmarked graves, allegedly those of detainees who had been raped and mutilated, at Tehran’s main cemetery. At the beginning of September, a reformist Web site carried the names of seventy-two people who, according to the site, had lost their lives to official brutality since the start of the crisis. (The real number is thought to be higher; many have been intimidated into concealing the circumstances of the deaths of members of their families.)
Then there are the lesser outrages and humiliations that now, after a bloody summer, seem almost mundane. How many Iranians were beaten by the security forces, how many female demonstrators subjected to vile insults by marauding basijis?* How many state employees and students have been threatened for supporting the opposition? The answer is many thousands, and it may be assumed that they and their friends and families have abandoned whatever positive feelings they once had for the Islamic Republic. A peaceful movement of protest can usually be suppressed, but violence and intimidation are costly instruments.
Each brutal action has been followed by a ludicrously incompetent cover-up. In the aftermath of the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman whose death, almost certainly by police firing, was captured on film and seen around the world, Iranian officials and pro-government media outlets claimed, variously, that the film was fake, that the CIA might have killed Neda, that the BBC had arranged her death, and that she was alive and living in Greece. In July, an official from Tehran’s prison service announced that a detainee called Mohsen Ruholamini had died from meningitis at Kahrizak; it was later revealed that he, along with others, had died from brutal treatment. Eventually, in late July, Khamenei ordered Kahrizak prison to be closed, and it was announced that several unnamed officials there were being prosecuted. This judicial process, if indeed it exists, may end up like the earlier trial of several members of the security forces for launching a murderous attack on protesting students in a university dormitory in 1999. That trial ended with the conviction of a conscript doing military service for stealing a razor.
See the account of such treatment by the anonymous Iranian woman in "Veiled Threat," The New Yorker, October 5, 2009.↩
See the account of such treatment by the anonymous Iranian woman in “Veiled Threat,” The New Yorker, October 5, 2009.↩