Hassan Ghaedi/AFP/Getty Images

An unidentified defendant at a trial of alleged offenders, Tehran, August 16, 2009

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.

Mir Hussein Moussavi
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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November 5, 2009