Shah of Iran
Shah of Iran; drawing by David Levine

No historian of the Middle East and Iran will deny that the CIA overthrew the legally elected government of Dr. Mossadeq in August 1953, brought back to the country the Shah, his wife, his brothers and sisters who had run away earlier, and reinstalled the present monarch on the throne. Imagine a more tyrannical and primitive George III being crowned 6,000 miles away by the very descendants of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin with money raised by the American taxpayer. The CIA re-created the monarchy, built up the SAVAK and trained all its prominent members, and stood by the Shah and his secret police as their powerful ally. Iran became the police state it is now.

Thousands of men and women have been summarily executed during the last twenty-three years. More than 300,000 people have been in and out of prison during the last nineteen years of the existence of SAVAK; an average of 1,500 people are arrested every month. In one instance alone, American-trained counterinsurgency troops of the Iranian Army and SAVAK killed more than 6,000 people on June 5, 1963. According to Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 1974-1975 “the total number of political prisoners has been reported at times throughout the year [1975] to be anything from 25,000 to 100,000.”1 Martin Ennals, secretary general of Amnesty International, reports in his introduction to the above book: “The Shah of Iran retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief.”2

I believe the number of political prisoners in Iran is still on the rise. The number of announced executions in the first five months of this year is more than eighty, while the number for the whole of last year was less than forty. Assuming a proportional rate of increase, the number of political prisoners this year must have at least quadrupled, since the number of officially announced executions will have risen fourfold.

Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that an Iranian prison looks like a garden, or that Iranian writers are held in better prisons than the other prisoners. All prisoners have a common destiny. With twenty-six books to my name I was kept in a dark solitary confinement cell of four feet by eight feet. There was nothing on the floor except for a dirty old blanket. There was no bed either.

There were days when seven prisoners of diverse backgrounds were pushed into this cell. We got ourselves accustomed to sleeping while standing. Some had dysentery because of bad food and fear. Some could not stand because of sore feet or burned backs or pulled out toenails. We breathed into each other’s faces. All of us had been kidnapped by the SAVAK; none of us had seen any warrants. Nobody outside knew where we were. We didn’t know ourselves where we were, because we had all been brought to the prison blindfolded. The seven of us could have easily run a school, or a supermarket, or a factory. Imagine 100,000 educated men and women in prison while 75 percent of the whole nation is illiterate! Imagine hundreds of doctors in prison when every fifty villages in the country have only one doctor! Imagine roads awaiting construction while engineers are rotting in jails! The number and the extent of my government’s crimes against its people have no end.

At least four agents of SAVAK are used to kidnap each suspect. There have been occasions when 5,000 people have been kidnapped on one day. This puts the number of such kidnappers simply at thousands. Sometimes even tanks are used in order to get a suspect out of his lodgings. No one knows exactly what the total number of SAVAK officials and its informants is. At a press conference in 1971, a SAVAK authority said that there were, in addition to fulltime employees, informants “in various segments of society—workers, farmers, students, professors, teachers, guild members, parties, and other associations.”3

The Shah’s claim in a recent press conference that the number of SAVAK agents is between 3,000 and 3,300 is entirely wrong.4 The Shah could not hold his grip on the population if that were so. The given number is fictitious. The actual army of agents and informants numbers from hundreds of thousands to millions. Of the fourteen people I met in prison cells during my imprisonment in 1973, at least two had been asked to become members of the SAVAK, and upon refusal they had been tortured. Everything I had said during my stay in the US in the academic year of 1972-1973, before my imprisonment, had been reported to SAVAK, which operates on a global scale.

The Shah’s despotic regime has not only rendered the whole legal and constitutional process of the country meaningless, but it has also moved to brainwash a whole nation. Last year he suddenly abolished all the existing parties and decreed a new “Resurgence” party whose membership is compulsory to the entire adult population. But even this one-party system is meaningless to the Shah, because, for him, Iran is a one-man nation. Members of the royal family are at the heads of the news media, the Ministry of Information, and the Ministry of Culture. All information passes through these ministries before reaching the people. The Shah has closed down all the major press in the country and created others which are in the hands of the members of the SAVAK. Ninety-five percent of all the available press in the country is in the hands of two families who take their orders from the Shah and the police.5 There isn’t a single piece of paper in the hands of those who don’t want to write the way the Shah tells them to write. There is only one paper factory in the country and this runs at the whim of the authorities. A bestseller in Iran means a book that sells 3,000 copies. According to the Iranian papers, every Iranian studies books only twenty to thirty seconds a year.6


Every schoolteacher of some experience will tell you that in some villages schoolchildren are taken out to graze the grass for their lunch. In many villages people still exchange their daughters for a cow because they can milk a cow and till the land with it, but they can hardly do that with their daughters. A half-skilled laborer in Tabriz, the second or third biggest city in the country, gets even less than twenty-five cents an hour, while a pound of meat costs more than two dollars, onions, if found at all, are priced at fifty cents a pound, and potatoes are not to be had at any price.

In Quri-Chai, the northern slums of Tabriz, there is only one school for 100,000 schoolchildren. In most of the cities of Baluchestan, there is only one bath for the entire population (in the city of Bampour for instance), but since people are so poor that they cannot afford to pay the nickel required to go to the bath, it has fallen in ruins.7 People have frozen to death in winter in this great oil-producing country.

Yet the Shah and the Iranian government claim that Iran will have reached the standard of living of the industrially advanced nations in a matter of a few years!

We need schools, jobs, food, health facilities, democracy, freedom of the press, a revolution in our legal system. We are one of the richest countries of the world. We should be able to do wonders with our wealth. But the Shah has grabbed that wealth, is arming us to the teeth and helping the whole Middle East arm itself to the teeth. Meanwhile the majority of the people of my country stay poor, uneducated, and sick.

Iran is the country of the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich. The lot of the majority of the people in Iran has not moved forward even an inch during the last fifty years of the Pahlavi dynasty’s reign, though the seven-year-old middle-class boy of fifty years ago, namely, the present Shah of Iran, has grown to be one of the richest men on earth.

The reason most of my countrymen would tell you that they carry a grudge against the United States is that the US government has given its unconditional support to a monarch who has terrorized a whole nation, plundered its wealth, and bought billions of dollars worth of military equipment which neither he nor our nation knows how to use. Iran is a dangerous quagmire in which the US is sinking deeper and deeper. The future will speak for itself. But if Iran becomes the new Vietnam, we can be sure that it was the inhumane and irresponsible policies of the US government, the excessive greed of American arms corporations, and the extreme stupidity and adventurism on the part of present Iranian authorities that led to the creation of that crisis in the history of humanity.

The Position of Iranian Writers and Why They Are Tortured

In a country where all political institutions are subjected to the vanities of a dictator, literature and the creators of literature turn into the voice of the nation’s conscience. Iran’s contemporary prose and poetry speak of the physical and spiritual poverty of humanity dominated by terror. They also articulate the spirit of protest against the injustices of despotism. Indeed, Iranian writers substitute for the political leaders who have either fallen prey to the ruler, emigrated, or been imprisoned. In the past, SAVAK had no literary sophistication. But recently spies and informants have turned into critics of literature who dissect a literary image to find a political truth hidden in it.


The government encourages sexist or lukewarm mystical literature, but if you speak about life in the streets of Tehran today, you go to jail. Almost all the prominent writers and poets of the country have suffered incarceration and torture at the hands of the SAVAK in recent years. The government searches houses one by one for books by these writers and others like Jack London, Bertolt Brecht, and Maxim Gorky. If they catch someone reading The Call of the Wild, they give him seven years in prison, calling him a terrorist. Last year the members of a theater group were given between two and eleven years in prison because they had tried to rehearse Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. 8

No book in the country is published without the censorship’s authorization. It sometimes takes years to get permission for the publication of some book a publisher has already printed. All copies of a novel of mine have been confiscated by SAVAK. And I could cite hundreds of similar situations. In Iran one cannot stage Hamlet, Richard III, or Macbeth, because no Iranian should see the death of a prince or a king on the stage. He might jump to conclusions, as if contemporary Iranian history itself is devoid of attempts at regicide.

The Problem of Iranian Nationalities

The present population of Iran is 34 million. There are only 14 to 16 million Persians in the country. Of the rest, 10 million are Azarbaijanis, 4 million are Kurds, 2 million are Arabs, and 2 million are Baluchis. There are other ethnic minorities too, such as Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. But only one language is the official language of the country. The Shah considers all Iranians to be Aryans, thus overlooking the ethnic diversity which exists in the country. Everyone has to learn one language, Persian. This is a great injustice to the other nationalities.

I belong to the Turkish-speaking Azarbaijani nationality. The men and women of my generation were told by the Shah to forget about their language and read and write everything in Persian. We did so under duress and learned Persian. When I write a poem or a story about my parents, my mother, who is alive and doesn’t know how to read and write and speak Persian, cannot understand it. I have to translate it for her so that she can understand.

The Shah’s efforts to Persianize the Azarbaijanis and the Kurds and the Arabs and the Baluchis have failed. But his cultural discrimination still prevails. For instance, the 3,000 American children brought to Iran by their parents working for Grumman can go to an English-speaking school. Yet millions of native Iranian children born to Azarbaijani, Kurdish, and Arab parents do not have even one school in which they can study everything in their native languages. This is only one aspect of the Shah’s racism.

Another aspect of this racism lies in the fact that the Shah is purging the Persian language of all that is Arabic and Turkish in it. This makes learning Persian even more difficult for those whose native language is Arabic or Turkish. In doing so, the Shah is also purging the present Persian language of 40 percent of its vocabulary. Arabic, although a Semitic language, stands in relation to Persian, an Indo-European language, as Greek and Latin do to English, from the standpoint of vocabulary. Imagine eliminating all Latin and Greek words from English because the two ancient languages are alien in spirit to English. In passing let me note the ironical fact that the Shah himself speaks Persian very badly. He speaks French and English much better than he does Persian.

The Shah is destroying not only the cultures and languages of the Iranian Azarbaijanis, Kurds, and Arabs, but he is also mangling the linguistic and cultural identity of the Persians themselves. He is destroying the traditions of a whole civilization. Of this whole tradition and civilization he wants to preserve only the worst part, that is, the crown placed upon his head by the CIA and protected through the auspices of former President Richard Nixon and Ambassador Richard Helms.

The Problem of Torture and My Personal Story

Iranian monarchs have always been unrestrained torturers. But torture acquired new dimensions in 1920 with the emergence of Reza Khan as the strong man of the country backed by the British. He became king in 1925 and abdicated in 1941 because of his Nazi and fascist tendencies. In his time no books of history were written to show his attitude toward the dissidents.

However, after 1941 documents began to emerge. Children had been beaten in front of their parents; boiling water had been pumped into the rectums of dissidents; the mouth of a poet had been actually sewed up with needle and string. Several men had been throttled in a peculiar way. The torturers would take them to respectable cells with a bed and several cushions, knock them down on the bed, put the cushions on their mouths, and simply sit on the cushions until the victims underneath breathed their last. Or they would first torture them with what was called Dastband-e Qapani, a handcuff which tied the hands together from over the shoulder and the side. Then they would start to beat the victim with a stick on the chest until he confessed. One would confess to anything under that torture. Physician Ahmedi, a most hideous name in the torture industry of Iran, was called in to inject an air bubble into the veins of the victim.

Such abominations were performed a few years before Hitler started the massacre of the Jewish people. I am sure the two regimes would have loved, in the spirit of Aryan brotherhood, to make a few experiments together, but time was not ripe for that. The torch of torture passed into the hands of the present Shah of Iran, not immediately, because such things require some experience, but after the CIA coup in Iran. Since August 1953 we have been under constant torture.

Let me tell you briefly why I was arrested and tortured.

A book of mine had been published in 1972 when I was in the US as a visiting professor of English and Comparative Literature. The book was called Masculine History, and it dealt with the causes of social and historical disintegration in Iran, the oppression of women, the problem of Iranian nationalities, and ways through which some of the crises in our culture could be solved. Upon returning to Iran, I published three other articles dealing with the same problems. One of them was called “The Culture of the Oppressor and the Culture of the Oppressed,” which discussed the problem of alienation and nationalities. I was arrested on September 11, 1973, tortured the next day, and stayed in the Comité prison for 102 days. I found out later that I was released because of international pressure, especially pressure from writers and poets in this country.

The torture on the second day of my arrest consisted of seventy-five blows with a plaited wire whip at the soles of my feet. I was whipped on my hands as well, and the head torturer took the small finger of my left hand and broke it, saying that he was going to break my fingers one by one, one each day. Then I was told that if I didn’t confess my wife and thirteen-year-old daughter would be raped in front of my eyes. All this time I was being beaten from head to toe.

Then a pistol was held at my temple by the head torturer, Dr. Azudi, and he prepared to shoot. In fact, the sound of shooting came, and I fainted. When I opened my eyes, I was being interrogated by someone who called himself Dr. Rezvan. The interrogation, combined with psychological torture and sometimes additional beating, went on for 102 days until I was let out.

The account of my arrest, torture, and release has become public record in this country and Europe. Just let me quote from a description I wrote on the torture instruments for a British magazine and for my book, God’s Shadow.

“There were also two other iron beds, one on top of the other, in another corner of the room. These last two, I later learned, were used to burn the backs, generally the buttocks, of the prisoners. They tie you to the upper bed on your back and with the heat coming from a torch or a small heater, they burn your back in order to extract information. Sometimes the burning is extended to the spine, as a result of which paralysis is certain. There were also all sizes of whips hanging from nails on the walls. Electric prods stood on little stools. The nail-plucking instrument stood on the far side. I could only recognize these devices upon later remembrance and through the descriptions of others, as well as by personal experience. The gallows stood on the other side. They hang you upside down and then someone beats you with a club on your legs, or uses the electrical prod on your chest or your genitals, or they lower you down, pull your pants up and one of them tries to rape you while you are still hanging upside down. Evidently great rapists, with very ingenious imaginative powers, have invented this style to satisfy their thirst for sadism. There were in the other torture rooms worse instruments which other prisoners would describe: the weightcuffs that break your shoulders in less than two hours of horrible torture: the electric shock instrument, apparently a recent introduction into the Iranian torture industry; and the pressure device which imposes pressure upon the skull to the extent that you either tell them what they want or let your bones break into pieces.

“Most of the horrible instruments were located on the second floor. I was not taken there, but the office of my interrogator, Dr. Rezvan, was next to this chamber, and one day when he was called to another office for some sort of consultation, I walked into the room, glanced round it and then went back. It resembles an ancient Egyptian tomb and is reserved for those suspected of being terrorists or accused of having made attempts on the life of the Shah or a member of the Royal Family. Not every prisoner goes through the same process, but generally this is what happens to a prisoner of the first importance. First he is beaten by several torturers at once, with sticks and clubs. If he doesn’t confess, he is hanged upside down and beaten; if this doesn’t work, he is raped; and if he still shows signs of resistance, he is given electric shock which turns him into a howling dog; and if he is still obstinate, his nails and sometimes all his teeth are pulled out, and in certain exceptional cases, a hot iron rod is put into one side of the face to force its way to the other side, burning the entire mouth and the tongue. A young man was killed in this way. At other times he is thrown down on his stomach on the iron bed and boiling water is pumped into his rectum by an enema.

“Other types of torture are used which have never been heard of in other despotic systems. A heavy weight is hung from the testicles of the prisoner, maiming him in only a few mintues. Even the strongest prisoners have been crippled in this way. In the case of the women, the electric baton is moved over the naked body with the power increased on the breasts and the interstices of the vagina. I have heard women screaming and laughing hysterically, shouting, ‘Don’t do it, I’ll tell you.’ Rape is also a common practice. Thirteen-year-old girls have been raped in order to betray their parents, brothers or relatives. Once, looking down from Dr. Rezvan’s office, I saw a five- or six-year-old girl placed in front of several prisoners in handcuffs to disclose their identities. Any time she would resist, she would be slapped or her ears would be pulled hard until she would cry and scream. She seemed to have no knowledge of what was happening, and she seemed to know none of the men.”9

SAVAK’s Harassment of Dissidents Abroad

I came to this country with the intention of exposing the Shah’s repression. I immediately joined the ranks of Americans and Iranians who had formed the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in Iran (CAIFI), which had been instrumental in releasing me from the Shah’s jail.10 My firsthand account could be especially useful. Other Iranian writers had been in prison and tortured, and had managed to get out of the country. But they had kept silent, and ironically some of them had been imprisoned again. I had no intention to go back so long as the present regime endures. I wrote and published and lectured and read my poetry on the atrocities committed by the Shah’s regime.

As soon as my voice proved effective, I had libels and slanders thrown at me in some of my public meetings. At a meeting in Austin, Texas, a few months ago, I was threatened with death by suspect elements in the audience. On one occasion in California, I was told by San Jose State University Campus Police Chief Ernest Quinton, in the presence of Professor Kay Boyle, Professor Jessica Mitford, and Daniel Ellsberg, that there was “information from a reliable source” that I would be killed if I participated in the panel. I was advised by the three other panelists not to participate.

On August 5, 1976, I was told over the phone by Professor Richard Cottam of the Department of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania that he had heard from a most trusted friend of his in the State Department that the Iranian government had dispatched several assault squads from the SAVAK to Europe and the United States who were to exploit the cooperation of Mafia elements in this country to eliminate those Iranians who have raised their voice against torture and repression in Iran. “These men,” the professor told me, “will appear as ordinary muggers and kill the Iranians one by one.” Although he had no idea about the identity of the intended victims of these would-be assassins, he told me that my name could definitely be on the “top list” of victims.

I held a press conference at the office of PEN on August 11 to inform the public of the danger of the arrival of such squads of SAVAK thugs. I also quoted in this press conference from The Times11 and The Sunday Times12 of London how SAVAK agents had been ordered to take over all the affairs in the Iranian embassies and consulates in connection with dissident Iranians abroad. I mentioned the cases of two British MPs, Mr. Stanley Newens and Mr. William Wilson, who had discovered from documents made available to them that they were being subjected to SAVAK surveillance because of their outspokenness against repression in Iran. I discovered from these two newspapers that the SAVAK had ordered its operatives to break into the homes of Iranians abroad, collect material, steal documents, take pictures of dissidents, tap their telephones, and keep them under strict surveillance.

In connection with the reported arrival of these SAVAK squads in the United States, I have written letters to the attorney general of the United States, the director of the FBI, Mayor Beame, and the police commissioner of New York. So far, I have received no answers.

But the harassment of my family by SAVAK doesn’t stop with me. My niece Narmin Baraheni was arrested in January, tortured by the SAVAK, and given seven years in prison for charges which are not yet known. The Iranian government is spending millions of dollars on American universities with one aim in mind: to keep Iranian dissidents out of American universities. This has made it very difficult for me to get a job in these institutions.

The Shah has thus exported his policy of bribery and co-optation to other lands and many centers of learning. While terror goes on at home and Iranians both abroad and within the borders of Iran live in fear, the Shah uses the services of former Secretary of State William Rogers and former US Ambassador to Tehran Armin Meyer to persuade the American public that he is only a “benevolent despot,” as if such a paradoxical creature could possibly exist. Mr. Rogers is deeply involved, both as director and lawyer, in the Pahlavi Foundation of New York, a tax-exempt organization set up by the Shah’s multi-million-dollar Pahlavi Foundation of Tehran. The funds for this foundation were extracted from the Iranian peasants by the Shah and his father. Both the former secretary of state and Congressman John Murphy of New York, another director of the Pahlavi Foundation of New York, are thus serving the interests of one of the most horrible dictators in modern history.

I would like to end with a quotation from a statement delivered on August 11, 1976, by former Attorney General of the United States Ramsey Clark in the press conference held at PEN concerning the arrival of squads of SAVAK thugs from Iran:

A single death threat cannot be tolerated for the desire of profit from fifty billion dollars in trade.

The Congress and the Executive should act to prohibit all military and economic aid and trade with Iran while it tyrannizes and tortures at home and threatens life abroad. America’s friends must be those nations that respect the fundamental human rights of all people.13

This Issue

October 28, 1976