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.”

Cooper received two sentences: ten years in prison for his alleged spying activities, and a death sentence for an alleged act of fornication, which was never proved.2 He was not told of his sentence until two years after the trial, and even then it was not formally announced. The death sentence was proof to the hard-liners in the judicial system that the Islamic Republic was perfectly capable of dealing harshly with foreign “spies” and Englishmen; by not announcing the death sentence publicly, the government avoided having to carry the sentence out. Cooper had in fact become a pawn in Iran’s relations with England and was being set up for a diplomatic deal.3

Cooper kept busy in prison by solving mathematical puzzles, composing anagrams and musical ditties, and perfecting his Persian; he even began a Persian crossword puzzle dictionary. He translated a mystical poem of Khomeini’s into English and wrote a 2,000-word commentary on it. There was an almost frenetic quality to Cooper’s need to be active and cooperative with his captors, and this involved him in some unusual projects. For example, he undertook to translate into English a 500-page book on Islamic ideology by none other than Mohammad Mohammadi-Rayshahri, the minister of intelligence, who in all likelihood had signed Cooper’s arrest order and was ultimately responsible for his case. Later on, he wrote analyses of British politics and diplomacy for Iranian intelligence and the Iranian ministry of foreign affairs.

None of this activity appears to have helped Cooper to get out of prison. His release occurred, in fact, during a thaw in Anglo-Iranian relations, when officials who wanted to improve relations with Europe became more powerful in Iran. The release from an English prison of an Iranian embassy employee found guilty of attempting to plant bombs in London no doubt was used by British diplomats to help mitigate Cooper’s sentence. Two years after the initial trial, a second hearing was arranged on the fornication charge. The judge this time reduced his death sentence to a prison term and Cooper was released well before the full sentence was served.

Naraghi also had to consider the possibility that he would be executed. “The smell of death was always in the air.” He dreaded even more “that I would be subjected to an Iranian version of a Stalinist trial.” But like Cooper, Naraghi found ways to occupy himself while in prison. He gave lessons in Islamic justice to his young prison guards. He helped organize language classes and lectures by fellow prisoners about the subjects in which they were specialists. In the summer of 1982, believing the Iran-Iraq war was about to end, he and his colleagues pooled their knowledge and drew up a 100-page report on how urban and rural life might be restored in the war-ravaged areas. He helped to run the prison library and began to put together a lexicon of expressions and words whose special usage became current during the revolution.

But Naraghi seems to have dealt with his predicament with greater equanimity than Cooper. He was in his own country and among friends; the charges against him ultimately proved less serious. He also concluded, no doubt correctly, that he and his cellmates would have a better chance of avoiding execution once the bloody confrontation between the government and the opposition had passed and the revolutionary terror had abated. Naraghi was therefore satisfied to bide his time. A Muslim himself, he came to believe the Islamic Republic would not, in the end, take his life. It was a strange sort of confidence, since many others, as guiltless as he, were sentenced to death or subjected to long prison terms. But this sense of equanimity saw Naraghi through and left him unembittered about the thirty-three months of his life needlessly spent in prison.

Naraghi also made use of the prison for his own studies. It was perhaps inevitable that, as a sociologist, he would come to see the prison as “a sociological microcosm” of the revolution, where he could meet prominent officials and military officers of the old regime, Marxists and revolutionary radicals, common criminals, and the men of the new order—prison wardens, revolutionary guardsmen, interrogators, clerical judges of the revolutionary courts. So fascinated was Naraghi by this social world of the prison system that he was very calm at the time of his second arrest, assuming that his imprisonment would be brief. “In all honesty the idea of making new and interesting acquaintances was not altogether displeasing to me,” he writes.

The young radicals of the left, who were either Marxists or followers of some of the clerics, and who by mid-1981 were being imprisoned in large numbers, he found particularly interesting. Most of these young people were under the influence of Marxist ideology, and Naraghi was appalled by their Stalinist cast of mind, their intolerance, their ignorance of Iran and the international scene, and their gullibility and political immaturity. He writes that for the members of one such group, “everything that happened in the world was willed and planned by American Imperialism and more directly by the CIA.” He was also appalled by the ease with which young people who came from similar social and cultural backgrounds but were on opposite sides of the political conflict began, during the postrevolution power struggle, to assassinate, execute, kill, and maim one another in a senseless “fratricidal war.” The young men he met had emerged from the lower middle class, and their opportunities for education and jobs, and their living standards, had considerably improved under the monarchy; but they had grown up in an “ideological vacuum, and without the kind of moral leadership that might have given their lives meaning.”

Naraghi blames much of the violence and extremism of the revolution on the radicals of the left, and especially the Tudeh, or Communist Party, and the People’s Mojahedin. They led the campaign to eliminate the moderates and liberals from positions of influence and stripped the universities, the administration, the economy, and the culture itself of many of its most talented people. Naraghi himself was a target of this campaign. The radicals insinuated themselves into the judicial system as deputy prosecutors and advisers to Islamic judges. During the first phase of revolutionary terror, according to Naraghi, they “manipulated” the judges and encouraged the arrest of industrialists and businessmen, the sweeping expropriation of private enterprises and property (which did much damage to the economy), and the execution of members of the former regime. “Without the influence of the Mojahedin, the number of executions would not have been so high,” he writes. Naraghi also argues that the violence the clerics used against their opponents after June 1981 was brought about by the violence of the Mojahedin and the left against the regime, which created a panic among the clerics.

A judge…,faced with an accused who knows the location of a cache of arms, cannot put out of his mind the fact that if he does not extract a confession, people, including innocent people, will be killed.

Yet, contrary to Naraghi’s claims, in matters of revolutionary justice, executions or confiscation of private property, the Islamic groups around Khomeini scarcely needed any instruction from the left. Radical economic policies, including expropriation of private property, were as much a part of their ideology as of the radical left’s. Confiscation of private property continues today, ordered by the government’s own revolutionary courts and other clerical courts. For this kind of mindless “radicalism” there has, all along, been little to choose between the clerical and the Marxist parties. Furthermore, the Iranian government continues to assassinate its opponents abroad; and both Amnesty International and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights have described the many ways in which individual rights, due process, and elementary standards of decency continue to be ignored in the treatment of political prisoners. In March the government arrested and jailed the novelist and satirist Ali-Akbar Saidi-Sirjani, an outspoken critic of censorship and of the cultural policies of the regime. The authorities have since published a “confession” in which Saidi-Sirjani allegedly admits to having used drugs illegally, committed “immoral acts,” and received money from “counter-revolutionary” circles abroad.4

Naraghi remained in prison what he had always been—a centrist, a moderate, and an advocate of reform rather than revolutionary change. When his radical cellmates praised him for making a delicious omelet from dates, apples, kidney beans, and other leftovers, he could not resist telling them: “Unlike you, I am not a revolutionary, and I don’t advocate we reject everything and start again from scratch. Instead, I try to improve what I have, using the ingredients at my disposal.”

He writes that he proved “difficult to place” for those of his interrogators and jailers who believed every person who had a job of any importance under the monarchy was a slavish upholder of the old regime. Like many others who served their country honorably under the monarchy—in education, government, the economy, and elsewhere—Naraghi was neither a bomb-thrower nor a sycophant: he was neither unalterably opposed to the old system nor its unquestioning upholder. He was troubled by the prevailing corruption, nepotism, and repression under the monarchy and by the unnecessary restrictions on political freedom. By the early Seventies he began to feel, as many did, that something was deeply wrong with the Shah’s policies. He tried both to point this out in his writings and to avoid being labeled a dangerous subversive. But the Shah had created a system in which for an intellectual to express the mildest dissent meant crossing the line into forbidden territory. Criticism that was honest and explicit enough to make a difference became virtually impossible, and such constrained warnings as Naraghi and others gave could have no effect on events. Naraghi seems under even greater constraint today. In a recent interview with a Tehran newspaper, parts of which do him little credit, he apparently felt he had to endorse Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie—even though he was clearly uneasy in doing so.5

Naraghi’s account of his conversations with the Shah inevitably call to mind Iran’s present predicament, fifteen years after the Islamic revolution. Since the death of Khomeini, President Rafsanjani has been able to restrain some of the worst excesses of the revolution. But he and the technocrats he gathered around him are now in retreat. His policies of economic privatization, adjusting exchange rates to the market, and reducing subsidies at home are in trouble. Hard-liners and social conservatives, supported by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, are making a comeback both in parliament and in the administration. Last summer, parliament forced the dismissal of Rafsanjani’s minister of finance, Mohsen Nurbakhsh, and this year Rafsanjani’s brother was replaced as head of the television and radio broadcasting services, a government monopoly. The new chief of broadcasting, a Kha-menei appointee, is sponsoring attacks against permissiveness in culture and the arts.

Yet a host of problems still confronts the country. Corruption is widespread, and the economy has been badly mismanaged. Relative to the US dollar or the German mark the Iranian rial today is worth around one fortieth of its prerevolution value. During the last eight months alone the rial declined 50 percent against the US dollar at official rates. This inflation has been ruinous for the salaried and working classes. The government has managed to run up a short-term foreign debt of over $20 billion and late last year was $9 billion in arrears. It has rescheduled most of this debt with creditors in Japan and Europe, but this provides breathing space, not a long-term solution. Foreign exchange shortages mean that many factories are operating at 50 percent of capacity or less, often with a work force twice as large as before the revolution. Huge, inefficient, government-sponsored organizations like the Foundation for the Disinherited and the Martyrs’ Foundation control hundreds of expropriated and nationalized factories and enterprises, which sit like a dead weight on the economy. Since people cannot feel that they securely own property, money goes into trade but not into long-term investment.

The foreign investment which Rafsanjani’s team anticipated has not materialized. It is true that some Iranian businessmen living in exile abroad have taken advantage of Rafsanjani’s invitation to come home again. But the government’s highly published program of privatization notwithstanding, few have succeeded in retrieving their expropriated businesses and industries, many of which are inefficient and burdened with debt anyway. Few see any reason to make new investments. Private capital still flows mostly out of the country, not into it.

The government continues to have support from the primary beneficiaries of the revolution, the men who serve in the revolutionary guards and the revolutionary committees and who are to be found within the clerical community and powerful lobbying groups like the families of “martyrs.” But these constituencies form a narrow political base. Partly to keep its supporters happy, and partly because it assumes that legitimacy and popularity derive from taking a radical position on “Islamic” issues, the government continues to spew a mind-numbing anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric—this in a country where the US remains the first choice among young Iranians wishing to study abroad, and where the debates among the intelligentsia—about civil society, for example, or the relationship between religion and politics—draw heavily on the discussion of these issues in the West. In fact the main items of Western popular culture, including movies and rock music, are avidly sought by the middle classes, and imports of everything from technology to consumer goods come largely from Europe and Japan.

The government is the prisoner of its own rhetoric. It cannot enter into a dialogue with the US for fear of being attacked as unfaithful to the principles of the revolution. It cannot resolve the Rushdie problem because this would violate the heritage of Ayatollah Khomeini. It cannot open up the system to real political opposition for fear it would be voted out of office. Thus the regime can only allow a degree of discussion and debate within the ruling group.

In their dealings with other governments in Central Asia, in the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere, Rafsanjani and his associates have shown themselves capable of pragmatic and moderate policies. But seeing themselves as the leaders of a worldwide revolutionary Islamic movement, they feel that they must adhere to pre-ordained positions that exacerbate Iran’s relations with many other nations—implacable opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, for instance, and support for the harshly repressive government in the Sudan and the Islamists in Egypt. Public discontent over economic and other conditions led to riots in Iranian cities two summers ago. These could easily recur.

No group has claimed responsibility for the bomb that killed twenty-four and injured scores of other pilgrims at Iran’s holiest shrine in Mashad in June. But such dreadful slaughter is yet another sign of spreading discontent. In an atmosphere where conspiracy theories are rampant, many in Iran believe the government itself to be responsible.

Iran is not a closed society. A vigorous middle class, including a variety of merchants, traders, artisans, and technocrats, continues to carry on an active economic life. Moreover, in small, independent journals such as Kiyan (“Cosmos”) and Goftegu (“Dialogue”), serious discussions are taking place among intellectuals on such questions as the need for a more open political process. Significantly, however, this debate is taking place outside the government and state apparatus. When an ossified state sits atop an energetic society, it can seldom maintain stability for very long. In intellectual and literary journals, writers dare to assert that Iran cannot remain forever at war with the rest of the international community, that a clerical monopoly of power and enforcement of state religion are not the only possible choices for Iran, and that pluralism has its attractions. But of course they do so at risk to themselves and in convoluted, often oblique, language.

For example, the philosopher and Islamic thinker Abdol-Karim Sorush, whose ideas are popular among the new generation of postrevolution university students, has been arguing that Islam and democracy are not incompatible and that Islamic thinkers must consider seriously questions of individual and human rights.6 In a much-discussed series of lectures, Sorush has pointed to the dangers of converting Islam, or any religion, into an ideology and of demanding, as did the leaders of the Russian revolution, that society conform to ideological pressures. His references to Iran under the ayatollahs is indirect but unmistakable. Ideological societies, he writes, are enemies of pluralism, reason, and independent thought; they confer privilege on an official class of interpreters [an apparent reference to the clergy] who cannot be contradicted, glorify and concentrate power in the hands of the leader, and are characterized by the absence of rule of law.

Fear of excommunication, of accusations of irreligion, snuffs out the breath in the chest. The search [for truth] becomes a futile activity because the answers are known beforehand; in fact all questions have been answered…. In ideological societies the manner in which research should be conducted, books written, individuals judged, are all predetermined. And to prevent any cracks in this pre-ordained system of thought, it is necessary continuously to create enemies, close the frontiers, and brainwash [the people]. Whoever doubts these imperatives [of ideological societies] needs only to look at Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Castro’s Cuba, Mao’s China, and Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge.7

The former prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, remarked in an interview that the Islam which has prevailed in Iran since the Islamic revolution is causing thinking Iranians to lose their faith altogether. If before the revolution, he said, the intellectual and cultural challenges to faith and religion came from abroad, today the threat to Islam and to faith—the cause of “weakening and destruction”—springs from the experience of the revolution itself. The educated classes and people of faith, he said, “have witnessed a face of Islam and of the proponents and executors of religion and government” that can “shake their religious faith and understanding.” Many of the faithful, he wrote, have become indifferent to religion. He went so far as to cite from the Koran God’s depiction to the Prophet of the dark days when (owing, in Bazargan’s telling, to irresponsible leaders), “You will see people quitting Allah’s religion in droves.”8

Thus Iran once again faces its perennial problem. The state apparatus represents only a limited constituency and persists in imposing an increasingly unconvincing rhetoric and ideology on the rest of the country. There are those, nevertheless, who are finding, however cautiously, the courage to speak and write truthfully about the failures of the regime. Inevitably, their numbers will grow and they will speak more loudly. As they do so, will the rulers listen?

This Issue

August 11, 1994