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Iran: The Revenge

Mir Hussein Moussavi; drawing by John Springs

The inability of the authorities to prevent the disclosure of atrocities, and Iranians’ widespread belief that their leaders are lying to them, show how much the country has changed since the first decade of the revolution. Measured in brutality and scale, the events at Kahrizak and other detention centers are not in the same league as the mass executions of thousands of imprisoned dissidents that Ayatollah Khomeini authorized in 1988. That was Khomeini’s attempt, the historian Ervand Abrahamian has plausibly speculated, to “weed out the half-hearted from the true believers” before he died. It was a measure of the regime’s discipline and cohesion back then, shortly after the end of the Iran–Iraq War, that the authorities were able to deny for years that the executions had taken place, despite the existence of letters of complaint about the killings from Khomeini’s then heir-designate, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. “The curtain of secrecy,” Abrahamian wrote in his book Tortured Confessions (1999), “was so effective that no Western journalist heard of it and no Western academic discussed it.”

Nowadays there is no such cohesion, and the curtain is ragged. Despite the regime’s attempts to disrupt Internet and mobile phone communications, dissidents have been able to pass around appalling allegations. Iranians have changed considerably since the first decade of the revolution: they are politically more sophisticated, well acquainted with modern technology, and a lot more cynical. But Iran’s leaders sometimes seem to forget this. Khamenei has berated the critics of atrocities for neglecting the sacred values that, in his view, form the core of the Islamic Republic; in fact, many Iranians believe that the effect of the atrocities has been to eviscerate that core. The ongoing show trial is another example of the regime’s miscalculation. It is based on the premise that Iranians are as credulous and as captive to ideology as they were a quarter of a century ago.

In the 1980s, much of the Iranian public seemed willing to accept staged trials and recantations, and these events often succeeded in their aims to destroy the prestige of opposition groups and impress on people the ideological superiority of revolutionary Islam over rival beliefs. When leading Iranian Communists made public confessions in 1983 and 1984, in many cases after being horrifically tortured, relatively few people denounced these confessions as coerced and, as such, worthless. As dozens of Communists appeared on state television confessing to “treason,” “self-worship,” “dependency,” and an attachment to “irrelevant” ideologies, Khomeini’s supporters boasted of the power of Islam to return deviants to the true path, while some former friends of the tortured leftists said they were ashamed to have known them. The “penitent” who was let out of jail (often on condition that he desist from discussing prison life) was typically ostracized by his former colleagues. As Abrahamian wrote, quoting from the response of one Communist to another’s confession, “We never expected someone of his reputation to get down on his knees…. It was as revolting as watching a human being cannibalize himself.”

By contrast, many, perhaps most, Iranians do not believe what they have seen and heard during the five sessions of the trial of alleged offenders—excerpts of which have been broadcast on state television—that have so far taken place since last June. Many citizens have reacted less to the details alleged and to the confessions than to the wretched condition of the defendants. For many, what was striking about the courtroom appearance of Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, who served as vice-president for the reformist President Khatami and later became Karroubi’s aide in this year’s election campaign, was neither his blanket acceptance of the public prosecutor’s accusations, nor his assertions that the election was fair, nor his description of Khatami’s behavior as “treasonous.” Instead, for days after state TV broadcast Abtahi’s testimony and an “interview” with him, people in Iran spoke with shock and sympathy of his physical deterioration.

When Abtahi was arrested a few hours after the election results were announced, he was a cheerful and portly mullah. The emaciated defendant who appeared in court on August 1 had been stripped not only of his turban and robes, but also of his dignity. In London, an exiled former minister told BBC Persian TV that the Abtahi he had seen in court was not the Abtahi he had known. It’s as if the cleric had suffered so much that he had changed into a different person.

So far, during the five open sessions that have been exhaustively reported in the pro-government press, the court has tried scores of leading reformist politicians, journalists, and intellectuals. The reformist politicians included supporters of Khatami when he was president between 1997 and 2005. Some confessed to carrying out missions for armed opposition groups; ordinary protesters said they attacked public property and basijis. Two Iranian employees of European embassies and a terrified French student who took part in a demonstration were charged with acting against national security. (The student was released on bail six weeks later, but so far has not been granted amnesty.)

There was little in the way of cross-examination. The public prosecutor read from charge sheets and the defendants—or, less often, their lawyers—responded. The senior reformists accepted the charges in toto, and their defense consisted of prepared confessions. Some of them thanked the prison authorities for treating them so splendidly, praised the Supreme Leader, and claimed to have experienced enlightenment about the virtues of the regime. Again and again, these defendants testified that the elections were not rigged in any way and that any such claims were absurd. Only a relatively few small fry were allowed to contest their guilt or try to elicit the judge’s sympathy. (There is no jury in the Revolutionary Courts.) A drug addict claimed he was out of his mind when he allegedly set fire to military property. A member of Iran’s Jewish minority apologized to the Supreme Leader for smashing a bank window.

Taken together, the list of charges provide some insight into the people who devised the trial—the officials in the judiciary and intelligence ministry, and perhaps the Revolutionary Guard, who set out to implicate the reformists and a variety of actual, potential, and imagined enemies in a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic and abolish the unelected office, the Guardianship of the Jurist, that Khamenei occupies. These alleged foes include the People’s Mujahideen Organization, which has been defeated militarily but survives in Iraq and in Europe; monarchist groups; trade union leaders; women’s rights activists; local and foreign NGOs; and a considerable number of foreign states, Britain in particular.

They also include Western foundations with a history of promoting democracy and human rights (including Freedom House and the Open Society Institute of George Soros), Western writers on nonviolent struggle, such as the American Gene Sharp, Iranian bloggers, the BBC, and Ahmadinejad’s chief opponents Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hussein Moussavi. Some of the information buried in the indictments may be true, for many of these countries, groups, and individuals are, indeed, very critical of the Islamic Republic. For the most part, however, the prosecutor did no more than concoct fantasy.

In the first session, the prosecutor read extensively from what he described as the statement of an unnamed “spy” who had been arrested and was in custody; it read more like the incontinent theorizing of a conspiracy nut with an Internet connection. At one point in this account, the “spy” described a meeting he claimed to have had with the head of an American foundation in Israel, who apparently told him, “Our goal is to foster and promote the ideas of people like Abdolkarim Soroush in Iran.”

The main point of the second session, on August 8, was to implicate the British in the riots. (Early in the crisis, the Iranians expelled two British diplomats for “activities incompatible with their status”; Britain expelled two Iranian diplomats in response.) Hossein Rassam, an Iranian employee at the British embassy in Tehran, confessed to arranging and attending meetings between British diplomats and Iranian politicians. The ambassador and his team were apparently engaged in gathering information about Iran and sending it back to the Foreign Office—what diplomats do. But Ahmadinejad’s supporters eagerly depicted the “old imperialist” as a prime mover behind what they, in a neat inversion of reality, called the reformist ” coup d’état.” The third session was dominated by allegations that Mehdi Hashemi, whose father, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is a bitter foe of Ahmadinejad, is a money-launderer and helped fund the Moussavi campaign from the public purse.

Many of the defendants have been accused of capital charges, but the granting of pardon is a recognized part of Iranian, and Islamic, justice, and Khamenei has not shied from using it in the past. For his part, Ahmadinejad has himself urged “Islamic compassion” for all save the “ringleaders” of the protests.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the country’s official and semi-official mass media were in control of the information that was available to Iranians, many more might have swallowed the big lie. Nowadays, for every choreographed hearing, every confessional interview, there is a second, parallel account coming from reformist and opposition Web sites, overseas TV stations, and the rumor mill of a regime that has forgotten how to keep a secret. Some Iranians are so disgusted by the pro-government bias of the state broadcasts that they boycott them. The numbers of viewers of state TV are said to have declined, and at the end of August a reformist newspaper claimed that the station’s advertising revenue had dropped dramatically, though not solely for political reasons.

Reform-minded Iranians seldom criticize those who have recanted, although the sympathy felt by some has been tempered by the knowledge that today’s oppressed reformists were, in many cases, yesterday’s ideologues and fanatics. Admiring speculation swirls around the prisoners who appear in court haggard and worn, and yet have not confessed. Some of them, it is said, have endured unimaginable torments but have refused to give in.

All those hours of interrogating and torturing—in the end, they are unlikely to make a difference. The Iranians who are receptive to theories of a vast conspiracy are the basijis, as well as other hard-liners from Ahmadinejad’s core constituency of the urban and rural poor, people who didn’t need convincing in the first place. From all the evidence emerging from Iran, the rest, those millions of Iranians who think that theft was committed on June 12, and assault thereafter, have not changed their minds.

Ahmadinejad has survived. Iran continues to sell its oil on the international markets. An Iranian delegation began talks in early October with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany. (Foremost on the agenda will be Iran’s disclosure, in late September, of an additional nuclear facility believed by many Western intelligence officials to be designed for a weapons program. Ahmadinejad has refused to negotiate on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program, which is what everyone else wants to talk about.) The authorities want to give the impression that, in the Islamic Republic, it is business as usual. But it is not. The economy is moribund. Senior officials are obliged to spend much of their time denying that the country is in crisis. Even Ramadan was different this year. The authorities canceled many public sermons and religious meetings for fear that they would provide a pretext for reformist supporters to come out and demonstrate.

Internal conflict is eating away at the system. A deep rift has opened up between today’s ruling hard-liners and the heirs of Khomeini—yesterday’s ruling hard-liners. Hassan Khomeini, the Ayatollah’s most prominent grandson, boycotted Ahmadinejad’s swearing-in ceremony in August, and the family foundation is suing a newspaper, whose editor is appointed by the Supreme Leader, for claiming that the foundation has been infiltrated by “conspirators.” The sons of some of Khomeini’s closest clerical colleagues are now closely associated with the reformists. Ali-Reza Beheshti, the son of the Islamic Republic’s first chief justice, was one of two prominent reformists who were arrested for gathering evidence of torture in jails. (He was later released on bail.)

There is widespread revulsion at the growing political influence of senior officers in the Revolutionary Guard, and their economic power. Iran’s leading theologian, the same Hossein Ali Montazeri who objected to the prison executions of the 1980s, has referred to Iran’s current system of government—a coalition of the Supreme Leader, the president, and the Revolutionary Guard—as a “military guardianship.” Opposed to the hard-liners is a reformist movement that might, in the absence of most of its leaders, become more radical. Thousands of ordinary Iranians gave vent to anti-Khamenei slogans this summer. They no longer resemble a loyal opposition, but a force for deeper change.

At the beginning of September, an ordinary Iranian woman, Zahra Baqeri, the sister of three famous martyrs—one of whom was killed under the Shah and the other two fighting against Iraq in the war of 1980–1988—vented her frustration in an explosive open letter in which she compared the basijis to the “Mongol hordes” and denounced those who “have shut their eyes to the truth because of filthy, material power.” Baqeri’s fury is shared by many others who devoted much of their lives, and lost members of their family, in pursuit of a dream of justice that never materialized.

Alongside the anger, there is, particularly among the former revolutionaries, a mood of historical introspection, lending itself to ironic comparisons. In her open letter, Baqeri favorably compared the treatment of political prisoners and their families under the Shah to what has taken place under the Islamic Republic. In August a reformist newspaper reprinted a poignant interview with a much-loved revolutionary figure, Ayatollah Mahmud Taleghani. Taleghani had been among the first to enter Evin Prison after the Shah’s fall. Standing in a blood-stained cell, Taleghani had described the fall of Evin—which had been built by the Shah to house political prisoners—as one of the revolution’s great achievements. “Islam,” he was quoted in the newspaper Etemad-e Melli, as having said all those years ago, “has come to free people…in Islam, there is no such thing as a jail.”

For millions of Iranians, of course, the whole of their country increasingly resembles a big jail, and this has ramifications for anyone trying to do business with the Islamic Republic. Monitored and bullied by myriad intelligence-gathering organs, many Iranians are dismayed by the West’s enduring readiness to negotiate with the Iranians about their steadily advancing nuclear program. The alternative, an increase in pressure on the Islamic Republic, brings its own problems.

Talks in Geneva at the end of September yielded hopeful headlines: the first official bilateral negotiations between Iran and the US in three decades, and an apparent Iranian undertaking to ship some of its low-enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment before being returned to Iran for use in a research reactor—a “farming out” of the process that Iran, hitherto, has balked at accepting. The West’s long experience of Iran’s negotiating strategy, which centers on providing Russia and China with plausible pretexts to withhold their support for serious sanctions, suggests that the chances remain heavily weighted against a deal that would satisfy the US and its allies. If, as remains unlikely, sanctions-shy Russia agrees to an increase in diplomatic and economic pressure, and the Chinese go along for the sake of consensus, Iran’s international isolation will be a pretext for further repression on grounds of “national security.”

In the past, Iran’s leaders were able to use broad public support for the nuclear program to conceal other, more fundamental cracks. No longer. For those who took to the streets this summer, and most recently, on September 18, when opposition supporters hijacked a pro-government demonstration against Israel to put forward their own grievances, anything that endows the Islamic Republic with legitimacy, including a prestige-enhancing deal with the West, would be regarded as a sell-out and a betrayal—although the demonstrators, by embarrassing the regime, may have helped to bring about a change.

—October 7, 2009

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