THE TORTURE MASTERS
At the very least, you could have given me a glass of water. Animals are slaughtered more humanely than this.
--Atefeh Rajabi, sixteen years of age, about to be hanged for "adultery," August 15, 2004
Absolutely, we do have political prisoners. There are those who are in prison for their beliefs.
--"Reformist" president Mohammad Khatami, April 28, 2004
In the months following his successful revolution against the shah, the Ayatollah Khomeini consolidated his domestic power through the use of four basic techniques:
* The first, common to all modern fascist movements, was the constant mobilization of the masses. The mobilization exploited the symbolsand doctrines of Islamic fundamentalism, and the techniques of twentieth-century mass movements, from monster rallies, constant incitement to hatred of the revolution's "satanic" enemies (of which the United States and Israel were the prime examplars), and, once Saddam attacked and the bloody Iran-Iraq war began, constant reference to martyrdom. A fountain in downtown Tehran was stocked with red liquid, to represent the blood of the martyrs.
* Second, the regime devoted constant attention to the needs of the most impoverished sectors of the society. In a sort of Shi'ite version of Robin Hood, money, food, and housing were seized from the old elites and redistributed to the very poor. Khomeini even exempted the poor from paying taxes, and they were provided with free transportation. The regime's largesse was extended to workers as well, especially those in the oil fields, whose salaries were quickly and dramatically increased. This ensured the loyalty of the lower classes and kept the well-to-do constantly concerned about their own well-being.
* Third was total, uncompromising war against anything having to do with the West. As the Talibanwould famously do in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Red Army, Khomeini banned music. Western books were removed from the schools and often burned. Above all, a strict segregation of the sexes was imposed throughout the educational system. Women would no longer be permitted to teach boys, and women were subjected to the humiliations described earlier: polygamy was reinstituted (with the additional fillip that "temporary marriages"--perhaps long enough for an afternoon tryst--were legalized, in order to finesse charges of adultery), along with the veil, and divorce initiated by women was made far more difficult.
* Fourth was the use of the judicial system as an instrument of terror. As so often happens at moments of dramatic change, the institution was marked by the ghoulish personality of its first leader, the Ayatollah Khalkhali. He had two nicknames, the Butcher of Kurdistan, and the Cat Killer. The first was earned in a murderous campaign against the Kurds in mid-1979. Khalkhali had hundreds of them lined up and executed by firing squads en masse. The second derived from rumors that the man was literally mad and relieved his mental torment by strangling and dismembering cats. Hetreated his human victims with the same compulsive violence; a year and a half after the seizure of power, he told an interviewer that he had probably ordered the execution of four or five hundred "sinners." 5 In the first seven months of Khomeini's rule, the revolutionary tribunals killed off more than six hundred people, including many who had wielded great power under the old regime.
This method of seizing and maintaining power has subsequently been used as a template for the export of the revolution. The mullahs have attempted to export the revolution to many countries, from Saudi Arabia to Bosnia, each time using a mixture of religious proselytizing and terror. By and large, these efforts have failed, but the one great foreign success of the Islamic Republic6--the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon--clearly follows the revolutionary model. Hezbollah is at once a political party, a philanthropic organization that pays particular attention to the poor, and the world's most lethal terrorist organization. In its domain in southern Lebanon, the"party of Allah" enforces the rules of a Khomeini-style theocratic state and enthusiastically spreads the faith by preaching, paying, and bullying the populace. These practices are well-known in Lebanon, and they are spreading. Iran's strategic Siamese twin, Syria, recently approved Shi'ite proselytizing, and the Iranians quickly sent mullahs to preach the virtues of Khomeinism, sweetening the prospects of eternal salvation with cash grants of $10,000 per convert.
Hezbollah's political strength in Lebanon rests on the many acts of charity and public works performed in its stronghold: housing construction, education, health care, and charity. That system is brilliantly conceived to achieve a double objective, just as Khomeini's was. At the same time it delivers much needed assistance to the needy, it creates a mass base of true believers who then assist in recruiting terrorists for both domestic and foreign operations, while concealing the clandestine activities of the armed party. Its efficacy in Lebanon was demonstrated in the summer war of 2006, when Israel--whose ability to gather intelligence on its enemies is legendary--was amazed at Hezbollah's discipline, logistics, military technology, and imaginative tactics. All had effectively been concealed from Israeli military intelligence and Mossad.
When the Israelis sat down after the war to analyzethe "lessons learned," they realized that Hezbollah and Iran had created a model for consolidating power, then striven to apply it all over the Islamic world. Once they looked at Iran in that way, the Israelis saw that the Hezbollah model was being installed on their own border: "The Iranians have been working to create a model in Gaza via Hamas that is similar to Hezbullah's southern Lebanon model ... the same system that supports civil affairs ... also creates a civilian infrastructure for terror." 7 That terror is aimed against both internal and external enemies.
Modern tyrannies have invariably dehumanized entire classes or races, to impose their will on the pure and faithful and rally them to wage war against their foes. This is not a random process; Nazi dehumanization of the Jews, Communist dehumanization of the capitalist bourgeoisie, and the Islamist dehumanization of the "crusaders and infidels" are totally at peace with their official worldview. As Natan Sharansky reminds us, the regimes that support terror against foreign foes also direct terror at their own people, and thus it is no accident that Iran is at once the world's leading supporter of international terrorism and one of the cruelest oppressors of its own people.
In the Iranian case, the external enemies are primarily the Jews, Zionists, and Americans, the lesser and greater Satans against whom the divinely inspired Islamic Revolution constantly fights. The internal enemies comprise anyone who challenges the wisdom or legitimacy of the regime ... and women, who are viewed as the ultimate source of corruption. Khomeini was a supreme misogynist, and the laws of the Islamic Republic single out women for special horrors and humiliation.
The oppression and even torture of Iranian women was an integral part of the Islamic Revolution and is embodied in the strictures of Khomeini's constitution for the Islamic Republic. A woman's worth is officially defined as half of a man's. Iranian law provides for the payment of "blood money" in the case of violent crime or accident, and harm to a man costs twice as much as the same damage to a woman. A man killed in an automobile incident gets twice as much as a woman killed in the same event. Incredibly, if a pregnant woman is killed, the guilty party pays the full assessment for the dead male fetus but only half as much for its mother.
Women are systematically dominated by men in everyaspect of civil life. No Iranian woman, no matter how old or distinguished, can marry without her father's or paternal grandfather's consent, or if that cannot be obtained, the approval of a religious tribunal. Mothers don't count. Indeed, although a woman is only recognized as a citizen once she is a mother (and therefore has no legal standing so long as she is single), mothers have no say in the marriage of their children. It is all in the hands of the men.
Given this absolute authority, in many cases young girls (the legal age for marriage is thirteen) are married off to older, even elderly men, because of financial advantage. This sort of treatment also takes place at the opposite end of the age line: girls are instructed to marry young boys (who are eligible at fifteen). Unsurprisingly, a high percentage of divorces involve partners who married when they were under nineteen years of age.
Men can divorce their wives whenever they wish, but women must prove that the husband has misbehaved, which includes drug addiction, conviction for crimes, or failure to provide for the wife's subsistence. Since the men are invariably favored by the courts, women often find it impossible to get a divorce without the husband's cooperation, and this generally requires them to formally renounce their legal right to financial support. In Qom, for example, a recent study found that more than 90percent of divorced women had either abandoned all claim to support or had negotiated a reduction.
Almost all of the tiny handful of Iranian women in positions of authority (only 4 percent of the members of the recently elected parliament are female, and not one was a candidate for a leadership position) endorse the subordination of women.8 One such parliamentarian, Nayereh Akhavaran, remarked, in fine Khomeini-style rhetoric, "Man's right to divorce comes from the fact that because women are emotional, they may destroy everything. But with the right to divorce in man's hands, they will stop the destruction of the family."
The same prejudicial treatment applies to guardianship of children. Iranian civil law denies women the right to legal guardianship; the father always rules supreme, and he cannot ever delegate parental authority to his wife. If he dies, control passes to his own father. And if both are absent or dead, the child then becomes a ward of the state, never of the mother. Mothers, even married mothers, cannot do any of the routine things they do in the West: they can't open a bank account in their children's name, can't approve medical treatment, can't even buy a house for their children. Indeed, even if a house ispurchased with the father's full approval, the mother has no rights with regard to it, while the father can do whatever he wants.
Women have no right to own property, and a wife only receives a fraction of her husband's estate when she is widowed, and of course sons receive twice as much as daughters. If there was more than one wife, the same fraction of the estate--one-eighth or one-fourth, depending on whether there were children--is divided among the widows. As usual, if the situation is reversed, and the wife dies first, the widower gets double: one-fourth or one-half of the estate.
The most humiliating case is if there are no children and the husband dies. The widow gets the usual one-fourth of the estate, and the rest goes to the Islamic Republic. As a leading Iranian feminist puts it, "The government is closer to that man than his wife with whom he has lived an entire lifetime."
Everything is patrilineal, even citizenship. If an Iranian woman marries a foreigner, the children are not considered to be Iranian, unless the mother has received special approval from the Interior Ministry, and she may even lose her own citizenship.
Polygamy is fine for men (up to four "permanent" wives are permitted, plus a limitless number of "temporary" partners) but denied to women (and the chair of theParliamentary Women's Faction endorses polygamy: "This is eventually in the interest of women, and women should accept it"). Consequently, men rarely if ever stand trial for adultery, while female adulterers are subject to the barbaric practice of stoning to death. Not surprisingly, most of the cases of women murdering their husbands stem from the man's infidelity, whatever the largesse of the "temporary marriage" proviso. Here again, the double standard is in full force. Women who murder their unfaithful husband are punished, while a man will go scot-free if he kills his wife if he discovers--or even imagines--that she has been intimate with other men.
Finally, just as the Jews were once forced to wear distinctive clothing, so Iranian women must wear the hijab. This applies to all women, whatever their religion. Muslims, Baha'is, Christians, and Jews all must dress in the same way.
No surprise, then, that laws have been drafted to reduce the number of women admitted to university study, and to forbid travel outside the Islamic Republic for single women. No surprise, either, that Iranian activists are quietly circulating a petition calling for equal rights for women. Their objective is to gather a million signatures and then submit it to the parliament. The regime dreads this--it is hardly a secret, having appeared on many blogs and been announced in public meetings in the majorcities--and anyone caught soliciting signatures goes straight to jail.
The brutal treatment of Iranian women by the mullahcracy occurs daily, not in isolated cases. As Iran Focus reported on March 2, 2005, "At least fifty-four Iranian girls and young women, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, are sold on the streets of Karachi in Pakistan on a daily basis," according to "a senior women's affairs analyst ... speaking to a state-run news agency." The analyst, Mahboubeh Moghadam, added that there are at least three hundred thousand runaway girls in Iran right now, the result, in Moghadam's words, of "the government policy which has resulted in poverty and the deprival of rights for the majority of people in society."
Moghadam suggested (and remember that this did not come from a samizdat network, but from a broadcast on Iranian national radio) "that such a task was very difficult to carry out without some sort of government green light."
Professor Donna M. Hughes, at the University of Rhode Island, one of the few Western scholars reporting on these horrors, says that the enslaved women are typically sold to people in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, such as Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. But the slave trade is not limited to the Islamic world.
Police have uncovered a number of prostitution andslavery rings operating from Tehran that have sold girls to France, Britain, and Turkey as well. One network based in Turkey bought smuggled Iranian women and girls, gave them fake passports, and transported them to European and Persian Gulf countries. In one case, a sixteen-year-old girl was smuggled to Turkey, then sold to a fifty-eight-year-old European national for $20,000.
There are countless examples of the maltreatment of Iranian women, but none so dramatic as the case of a foreigner of Iranian origin who tried to expose the regime's systematic oppression of those seeking greater freedom for all Iranians.
In the summer of 2003, a middle-aged Iranian-Canadian journalist named Zahra Kazemi was arrested in Tehran while taking photographs of regime hoodlums beating up young people demonstrating against the regime. A few days later she turned up dead in a local military hospital. The regime denied requests from the family and the Canadian government to examine the body, insisted that she had fallen in her prison cell and died of head injuries resulting from the fall, denied that anyone had beaten her, and hastily buried her without any proper autopsy.
The Kazemi family never believed the regime's story, but efforts to get at the truth were predictably fruitless. It was one of those things that "everybody knew," but itcould not be documented sufficiently to convince the skeptics and apologists for the mullahs. Then, in the spring of 2005, a medical doctor named Shahram Azam was granted asylum in Canada and presented a firsthand account of the terrible death of Zahra Kazemi.9
Dr. Azam said he examined Kazemi in a military hospital in Tehran on June 26, 2003. He said he found horrific injuries to her entire body that demonstrated torture and a nurse's examination suggested rape. By the time he examined her--an examination limited by the Islamic Republic's sexist restrictions that made it illegal for a male doctor to look at her genital area--Kazemi was unconscious and her body was covered with bruises. According to Dr. Azam, she had a skull fracture, two broken fingers, missing fingernails, a crushed big toe, a smashed nose, deep scratches on her neck, and evidence of flogging on her legs and back.
"I could see this was caused by torture," Azam told Canadian journalists. He added that the nurse who examined Kazemi's genitals told him of "brutal damage," which led him to conclude she was raped.
All of this is consistent with what we have learnedabout the methods of torture routinely employed in Iranian prisons and reported by leading international human rights organizations from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to Reporters Without Borders and the State Department's survey of human rights around the world. These sadistic practices are directed against all critics and opponents of the regime, but they are carried out with particular energy when the victim is female, a legacy from the founder. Misogyny was famously one of Khomeini's personal obsessions.
The cheerless creatures who rule the Islamic Republic of Iran have developed a particularly wicked use of torture. Not only do they use the full panoply of physical and psychological horrors on their captives, but they then send the victims back into their homes and neighborhoods for brief periods of "parole" or "medical leave," so that their friends and families can see with their own eyes the brutal effects of the torture. This is certainly not an expression of tenderness toward the mullahs' targets, but a demonstration that the regime has understood that torture is far more effective on the population at large whenits effects are there for everyone to see. The clear intent of this unusual practice is to intimidate the population at large, to break the will of would-be dissenters and opponents, and to maximize the effects on the victims themselves, for the brief respite from the pain of the prisons is mercilessly accompanied by the certainty that the agony will soon resume. That knowledge makes it more likely that the prisoners will break and cooperate with the regime. The mullahs love show trials and are willing to be generous to dissidents who abandon their opposition and cooperate with the system. The Soviets would extort false confessions and then kill their victims; the mullahs are more refined. They are quite willing to kill their challengers, but they calculate that it is often more valuable to leave the "guilty" at large--carrying the physical and emotional scars of their brutal treatment--as proof that opposition to the regime is hopeless.
Thus, when a victim uses his time outside the torture chambers to call for the people of Iran to act against the regime, it warrants our attention. If the Western political leaders were willing to openly challenge the mullahs, or if the organizations who champion "human rights" were more aggressive in fulfilling their own mission statements, we would know the names of these brave Iranians, and we would give them, and the Iranian people more broadly, the kind of support they deserve.
One of the most prominent dissenters, a distinguished journalist named Akbar Ganji, was given a weeklong "medical leave" from Evin Prison in Tehran in June 2005 and promptly gave an Internet interview that nearly proved fatal. He called for a general boycott of the "make-believe elections" for the presidency, scheduled for the seventeenth of the month, and urged the Iranian people to engage in large-scale civil disobedience.
"We are faced with a personal dictatorship, the dictatorship of [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei," he said. "Khamenei has ruled for fifteen years and wants to rule for life. I oppose this and I say that this contradicts democracy." Ganji called for Khamenei himself to submit his dictatorial rule to a public ratification. "He must take part in a free election; should the people vote him in, he can rule, and should they reject him, he must step aside."10
Paradoxically, this was the way Khomeini had consolidated his own power. Instead of seeking election from his peers, the old ayatollah had organized a national referendum. But Ganji was right; by the time he gave his interview,the great majority of Iranians had soured on the Islamic Republic, and it was highly unlikely that the Supreme Leader would be confirmed in a free and fair election. And Ganji's provocation, a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, was met with the regime's usual brutality. Following the interview, the head of the Evin Prison announced that Akbar Ganji had to return at once. He proved an extremely able challenger; once in jail he went on a hunger strike that reportedly savaged his health to the point that he went into a coma. President Bush called for his release. International organizations echoed the call. Under all this pressure, the mullahs relented, taking him from prison to a hospital, where he was rehydrated and, after some delay, delivered to his family.
Perhaps the regime knew by then that they had accomplished at least part of their goal, for the Ganji who had been brought back from the edge of death was no longer the forceful campaigner who had demanded that the regime submit to the people's will; he continued to speak for greater freedom in Iran, but much more quietly, and he no longer insisted on a prompt election for the Islamic Republic's top position. Indeed, the regime sent him on a Western tour, where he spent most of his time denouncing American pressure on the mullahs.
The Iranian torturers do their work well; Ganji is not the first dissident to decide not to sacrifice his own life, orthose of his family and friends, in a desperate gesture of independence. Yet others, often including major religious figures, refuse to submit. They are shown no mercy. At the same time Ganji was taken back to prison in Tehran after his brave interview, six other political prisoners in Karaj Prison were starting their second week on hunger strikes, and eight others joined them. Three other political prisoners--Taghi Rahmani, Hoder Saber, and Reza-Ali Jani--smuggled a letter out of prison, addressed to outgoing "reformist" President Khatami, declaring that they had savagely been tortured. Rahmani said he had been held in solitary confinement for 134 days, and the others described humiliations I do not care to repeat here.
The face of the Iranian resistance is Ahmad Batebi, a student whose photograph appeared on the cover of The Economist, holding up the bloody T-shirt of a friend during the 1999 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran. He had already become one of the leaders of the student movement, but that photograph sealed his fate. He was rounded up and sentenced to death. The sentence was later reduced to a mere fifteen years in jail, more than a year of which was served in solitary confinement.
Any Iranian dissident who has been subjected to the rigors of the regime's jails will tell you that those who make it through form a community of survivors. So Batebi continued to organize a dissident network for several years and managed to send and receive letters by bribing his jailers.
Released on "furlough" in the spring of 2005, Batebi went underground, seeking to mobilize his friends and comrades for a major push against the regime before Ahmadinejad was sworn in as president, and the foreseeable crackdown on all forms of protest began.
Moving from house to house, communicating with his prisonmates by letters smuggled in and out of Evin, Batebi gave several interviews by cell telephone. "What I want is international pressure for all the political prisoners who have been so horribly treated. I want all these human rights activists, these Amnesty Internationals, to put their resources together to give more attention to the political prisoners in Iran."11
Rejecting the pleas of his overseas friends and supporters to get out of the country, Batebi was finally captured in the summer of 2006 and subjected to theharshest treatment. He did not break, nor did his torturers. On February 20, 2007, his friends and lawyer announced that Batebi had suffered a stroke the previous week. His lawyer reported that Batebi, in a coma, had been taken to a hospital near Evin Prison, and that doctors were not even permitted to examine him without the presence of security guards, so great was the fear that Batebi might escape a second time.
After minimal treatment, he was carried back to Evin, and shortly thereafter his wife was arrested, held for a week, then released. It was part of a broader pattern. In recent months, there had been a rising tempo of arrests and interrogations of student activists all over the country. A member of the central committee of the official student movement announced, "In the past month at least three hundred students have been summoned to disciplinary committees, and that number has actually increased with the new wave of summoning." He reported that seventy-five Tehran students at the University of Tehran had been summoned to disciplinary committees in the past month alone, an unprecedented level of repression in the history of the university.12
Perhaps the most spectacular case of resistance to the regime is the story of Ayatollah Mohammed Kazemeini Boroujerdi, an Iranian cleric fighting against the "political religion" that has dominated his country since Khomeini.13 Boroujerdi's challenge to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic lasted several years. Both he and his father--who died in 2002 and whose grave has been desecrated--refused to embrace the Khomeinist doctrine that only a Shi'ite sage was fit to govern the Islamic Republic. The Boroujerdis retained the traditional Shi'ite view--the one famously held by Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq--that clerics should stay out of government and tend to their flocks.
Ayatollah Boroujerdi was in and out of prison and repeatedly in front of the Special Court for the Clergy, starting in 2003, barely a year after his father's death. According to Amnesty International, "he has reportedly developed heart and kidney problems as a result of torture."
His most celebrated round of defiance started in late June 2006, when he preached to a large crowd in a Tehransports stadium. A month later, on July 30, the secret police came to his house, intending to arrest him. But they found that he was protected by scores of supporters, so they arrested some of them instead. According to Amnesty International, one of the victims had a heart attack on the spot and was moved to a nearby hospital. Another said that he was arrested at his home and dragged off to three weeks of solitary confinement and daily threats.
The security forces tried again on August 3 and were again driven off by Boroujerdi's defenders. A month later, they tried a different approach. Boroujerdi was visited by a government security agent, to try to talk some sense into the ayatollah. So the world outside could understand the kind of intimidation used by the regime, even against high-ranking clerics such as Boroujerdi, he secretly taped the conversation, then had it smuggled out of Iran to the United States.14
The security agent began as a "good cop." He assured the ayatollah that he, too, was a religious man, having attended a seminary after the Revolution. He said that the visit was a kind of courtesy call, offering Boroujerdi the chance to surrender in a civilized way and then face trial. There is no escape possible, he said, for one way or anotherBoroujerdi would face charges of insulting the government and the clerisy, and perhaps even having been an accomplice to murder.
Boroujerdi would have none of it. He defiantly told the agent that he had already prepared himself for martyrdom (and indeed when he was finally arrested, he was wearing a funeral shroud). He added that he had already suffered a heart attack, did not fear death, and that he would now contact the foreign press. This enraged the agent, who warned Boroujerdi that no place would be safe for him, even the mosque. He confirmed Boroujerdi's dark suspicions that his father had been murdered by order of the regime and said that he didn't give a damn about the foreign press.
Boroujerdi did indeed contact the media and also wrote to such world leaders as Kofi Annan and Javier Solana, to their apparent indifference. Amnesty International, one of the few organizations to pay any attention to the story, only issued a press release about a month after Boroujerdi's conversation with the agent, and there was little coverage of it elsewhere.
The secret police came again for Boroujerdi on the morning of September 28, again found he was defended, and again dragged off many of his supporters. In its press release five days later, Amnesty wrote, with a rare flair for understatement, "There are fears that the Ayatollah may be at risk of imminent arrest."
Boroujerdi was dragged off to his destiny a few days later in a dramatic confrontation that involved thousands of demonstrators, some in Tehran, and some on the road to Qom, where many of the country's most prestigious religious schools and scholars are located. The official news media reported that more than two hundred supporters were arrested at the house in Tehran, but this was the least of it. The security forces (Revolutionary Guards) were unable to clear the road, since people from various towns joined the original protest. A violent confrontation occurred when Revolutionary Guards special units were called in. Several hundred were arrested, and many were hospitalized, including five Revolutionary Guardsmen in critical condition.
That such a demonstration could take place at all shows that opposition to the regime is quite widespread. It's hard to imagine a more direct attack against the regime; support for Boroujerdi, who opposed Khomeini's constitution and the requirement of a theocratic state, was tantamount to calling for the end of the Islamic Republic. Thousands of people stood up to the regime's killers, in defense of a solitary religious man whose crime was to preach traditional Shi'ite values. That's a major event.
No doubt many of the people on the highway to Qom were protesting the skyrocketing inflation that has taken place under the mullahs--and gotten considerably worseunder Ahmadinejad--while others were challenging the regime for political reasons, because they wish to be free. But no matter which way you look at it, the willingness of Iranian citizens to risk life and limb to express their contempt for the mullahs is a major indicator of the internal political situation.
The Boroujerdi case is the tip of a large and perhaps counterintuitive dissident group that is rarely discussed in the press, although it is well-known to all informed Iranians: the growing clerical opposition to the Islamic Republic. In the holy city of Qom, thousands of clerics suffer in jail because they have criticized the regime, and Qom is usually the Iranian city with the lowest voter participation in the country's elections. The antiregime clerics are certainly not opposed to Shi'ism, let alone to Islam, but they are alarmed at the regime's failure, oppose the harsh oppression, and, reasonably enough, fear that when the regime comes down, Islam may gravely be weakened. In January 2007, the country's most senior dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, attacked the regime's policies, saying, "The people's economic problems cannot be resolved by chanting slogans," and called for the release of political prisoners.
The dissident clerics are right to be concerned because Islam is indeed losing followers in Iran. An Iranian ayatollah told me that it was not unusual to find the centralmosque in major cities such as Shiraz and Tabriz virtually empty for Friday prayers. He said that a grand total of five people had shown up in Tabriz one Friday. The unpopularity of Islam is a major cause of opposition to the regime from some of the country's highest-ranking clerics, as well as students, intellectuals, workers, and teachers, because they see the steady erosion of the ideological basis for the Islamic Republic itself.
Little noticed outside Iran, the decline of Islam has stimulated an underground revival of Zoroastrianism. Long afflicted by the Islamic Republic, Zoroastrianism remains an important unifying symbol for Iranians of all ethnic groups, as can be seen in the annual celebration of Norouz, the "Iranian" New Year. Both the importance of the celebration and the regime's great fear of such celebrations are regularly downplayed by the Western press. Just look at the Reuters coverage of the holiday in 2005:
ISFAHAN--Iranian authorities beat up and teargassed exuberant young revelers as they breathed new life into a pre-Islamic fire festival with a night of dancing, flirting, and fireworks. The Islamic Republic, which has anawkward relationship with its ancient Zoroastrian religion, only gave guarded recognition to the "Chaharshanbe Souri" festival last year.15
The Islamic Republic does not have "an awkward relationship" with Zoroastrianism. It restricts Zoroastrian practices, including the celebration of the Zoroastrian New Year, Norouz. Never mind "guarded recognition"; there is a fear. The mullahs know that a big Zoroastrian revival is under way in Iran, another sign of the hollowness of the Islamic Republic, and the hostility of the Iranian people to their leaders. And to say that the authorities "beat up and gassed" some "revelers" is quite an understatement, since, on the evening of March 15, there were large-scale demonstrations all over Iran, combining the Norouz celebrations with calls for the downfall of the regime itself. Effigies of top mullahs were burned in the streets. But Reuters makes it sound like a frat party that just got a bit out of hand:
Hundreds of people poured onto the streets in Tehran and other cities for a rare night of partying. Public revelry is unusual in Iran where the authorities consider it to be at odds with the country's strict moral codes.
The IRNA news agency said police used tear gas in more than four places in Tehran. Vigilantes were also seen beating up a group of boys in the central city of Isfahan.
In fact, the Tehran clashes were symptomatic of what was going on all over the country. Isfahan, Mahabad, Shiraz, Rasht, Kermanshah, Babol, Sannandaj, Dezful, Mashhad, Ahwaz, Marivan, Khorramabad, Zabol, Baneh, Tabriz, Hamedan and Oroomiah all experienced street fights between the regime's security forces and groups of Iranians.
No wonder, then, that the regime is moving ahead to destroy ancient monuments that remind the people of their pre-Islamic heritage. Just as the Taliban famously blew up the monumental statues of Buddha, Khomeini and his heirs planned to raze the remnants of the ancient Persian empires. Some of those plans are now being implemented. In late January 2007, the minister of power and energy announced that the Sivand Dam would begin operating, which would submerge the ruins of the capital city of Cyrus the Great. In case any Iranian had any doubts about the reason why, it was timed to coincide with a ten-day celebration of Khomeini's triumphal return to Iran in 1979.
The rulers of the Islamic Republic have therebymanaged to unify secular and religious opponents of the regime.
Half of Iranians are Persian, and the other half are composed of various ethnic groups and tribes: Azeris, Kurds, Baluchi, Ahwazi Arabs, Lur, and so forth. Plus, a very small part of the population is non-Muslim, of which the Jews and the Baha'is are the best known, and the Zoroastrians are perhaps the largest. The mullahs view them all with hatred and suspicion, and they are constantly concerned about the security of their people. From time to time, ethnic-cleansing campaigns are launched against them, lately with particular intensity against the Ahwazis, Zoroastrians, and Baluchi. The campaign against the Kurds dates to the first months of the Islamic Republic and has never been stopped. In late February 2007, Ahmadinejad warned Iraq that his government would not hesitate to enter Iraqi territory to act against the Kurds if the Iraqis didn't prevent "their" Kurds from behaving in (unspecified) ways counter to Iranian wishes. This followed many months of joint Iranian-Turkish ground attacks against Kurds in northern Iraq.
In the south, the regime has been conducting a secretethnic-cleansing campaign against the Ahwazi Arabs. British human rights activist Peter Tatchell calls it "a sustained, bloody campaign of intimidation and persecution against its Arab minority,"16 waged in secret to the great indifference of most of the world. It's the usual pattern. Sixteen Ahwazis were sentenced to death on the basis of confessions produced under torture, and the executions "seem designed to silence protests by Iran's persecuted ethnic Arabs." The government has announced plans to transfer a million Arabs to another region of the country, recalling Stalin's efforts to solve his "nationalities problem" by similar means.
Anyone trying to dig out the facts of the court cases runs up against a hard stone wall. "Foreign journalists are severely restricted and local reporters are intimidated with threats of imprisonment." Even so, some elements of this remarkable repression have filtered out. For one thing, all Ahwazi trade unions, student groups, and political parties have been banned. In the year starting October 2005, no less than a quarter of a million Arabs were moved from their villages, and another four hundred thousand are facing similar prospects in the near future. Dozens of towns and villages have beenbulldozed into the sand. At the same time, Persians are offered interest-free loans to move into new towns in the vacated areas, and plans call for half a million to arrive in the near future. All Arab newspapers and schoolbooks have been banned, and all instruction is in Farsi (a pattern repeated in all minority ethnic areas). Eighty percent of Ahwazi children suffer from malnutrition, even though they live in the potentially richest area of the country; 90 percent of the oil comes from there.
Not that the regime's ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Ahwazis is simply the result of some sort of racist or cultural hatred per se; it has a decidedly geopolitical dimension: control of the Shatt al Arab, the narrow waterway between Iran and Iraq through which much of Iranian and Iraqi oil passes en route to major markets. If the Iranians can dominate the waterway--where fifteen British sailors and marines were taken hostage in March 2007--they can effectively dominate much of the Iraqi economy. The mullahs have therefore set about the construction of a major military stronghold in the area, and that in turn requires that the Ahwazis be removed. The regime simply kicks out the locals and transfers ownership of the land to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and state-owned enterprises. This has the pleasant side effect of enriching the mighty: some forty-seven thousand hectares of Ahwazi farmland were deeded overto favored businessmen and individual members of the security forces. The indigenous Ahwazis have been reduced to misery and forced into shantytowns.17
Similar treatment has been applied to the Azeris, Baluchi, Kurds, and other smaller groups. Despite Tehran's efforts to convince the world there is a real risk of ethnic separatism, and thus without tough action the country might be split apart (a concern often shared by diaspora Iranians in Europe and the United States), the ethnic groups are overwhelmingly patriotic and at most ask for moderate rights of the sort that have become common throughout Europe: dual language education, some media outlets in their traditional language, and the celebration of traditional holidays.
But the regime cannot risk granting even those mild freedoms. The regime in Tehran has long since lost any semblance of popular support and has maintained power only through the systematic use of terror against its people. It cannot claim popularity on the basis of its accomplishments, because twenty-eight years of theocracy have produced ruin and misery. More than four million people have fled the Revolution, most of them well educated and highly skilled. The data on those trapped by the tyrantsare startling, but altogether in keeping with the Islamic Revolution's historical indifference to social misery. As Khomeini neatly summarized it, the revolution was about religion, "not about the price of watermelons."18
* Forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line according to the CIA's World Fact Book (2002).
* Unemployment is at least 15 percent and perhaps significantly higher, as compared to less than 3 percent in the last years of the Shah.
* Close to 4.5 million Iranians live on less than $1.25 per month according to Ahmadinejad deputy Parviz Dawoodi.
* In 2000 per capita income was 60 percent of what it was before the Revolution.
* Iranian economists estimate capital flight at up to $3 billion a year, and it may well be significantly greater, as those with money send it to safe havens abroad.19
* The distribution of the shrinking wealth is firmly in the hands of the regime's elite families. More than 80 percent of the country's gross national product comes from the petroleum industry, which is entirely in government hands. The mullahs have effectively ruined this primary source of national wealth: oil production is currently 3.9 million barrels per day, while it was 6.2 million at the end of the shah's rule. According to a study released on Christmas Day 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences, oil exports are expected to decline by upward of 10 percent a year for the foreseeable future.
* Inflation has run wild. The exchange rate was 70 rials to the dollar in '78, and it was about 9,300 in the spring of 2007, when a new 50,000-rial banknote (graced with an atomic symbol) was introduced.
* There are said to be more than fifty thousand suicides per year.
Europeans shun the country. In the summer of 2001, Newsweek International proclaimed Iran the "worst country in the world for journalists," and the French-led international organization Reporters sans frontières branded Ayatollah Khamenei the Middle East's leading "predator" of a free press. According to the organization, Iran ranks162nd out of 168 countries in meeting internationally recognized standards of a free press.
All of this might have been tolerated in the name of the true faith if the leaders had demonstrated a virtuous asceticism. But the regime is famously corrupt and has instituted a unique form of state theft. A percentage of most business deals, and even many elementary cash transactions, is deposited in an account known as the "leadership's household," which is entirely at the disposal of the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This tax ranges upward from about 5 percent to nearly 30 percent on luxury items. The base price for a standard Iranian car--the Peykan--is roughly $6,250 but the actual cost is $8,125. The difference goes to Khamenei. The leadership is awash in money while the people starve.
Most Iranians are convinced that the ruling class is enormously corrupt, and with good reason. The average salary for an Iranian minister is less than $500 a month, and it is impossible for such a person to live on such a salary; he is getting additional money elsewhere. Every now and then the curtain is lifted a tiny bit, and the corrupt practices are exposed. In 2002 a young financial wheeler-dealer by the name of Shahram Jazayeri-Arab was sentenced to twenty-seven years in jail for paying bribes to government officials in exchange for big contracts. His conviction was "partially canceled" and he was scheduledfor a new trial in early 2007. But he mysteriously disappeared from Evin Prison before the trial started. He apparently got out of the country before all security and police forces received the instruction to arrest him.
Jazayeri's escape was a major event and produced major consequences: the immediate purge of the director of Evin Prison, the director of the judiciary branch responsible for combating economic corruption, and two judges involved in his case.20 The escape was clearly orchestrated, since Jazayeri apparently knew an awful lot about powerful people who were on the take.
The most scandalous aspect of the case is the extensive connection of Jazayeri with the children of senior conservative clerics, commonly known as the Aghazadehs--which in Persian means the children of prominent gentlemen. This issue was so serious that soon after the corruption case was officially filed, the head of Iran's judiciary stressed that he would pursue the violations of the children of senior clerics and announced, "We would pursue the Aghazadehs cases by starting our investigation with those closest to us."
At about the same time, an informed judiciary authority told Iran newspaper (May 1, 2002) that regardingthe charges of having monetary connections with (the son of Iran's former attorney general) and (the son of Iran's former minister of intelligence), Shahram Jazayeri has said that the son of another prominent official involved in the scandal was (the son of a former member of the Guardian Council). The then secretary of the Islamic Coalition Party, Habibollah Asgharoladi, said the following in this connection: "The case is clear. He had purchased a ship and sold it to two or three separate buyers."
One nice touch spoke volumes about Iranians' view of their regime: Supreme Leader Khamenei had received a million dollars from Jazayeri, but returned it. So profound is the cynicism in Iran with regard to its leaders, it was widely believed that this did not demonstrate virtue on the part of the Supreme Leader, but only that Khamenei had been warned that there was evidence about the million dollars, enabling him to get rid of the money in time to escape any embarrassment.
As usual in such cases, the evidence against the regime was blamed on foreign conspiracies, and in the Jazayeri saga, the regime's apologists claimed that the bribes had come from overseas in order to entrap the recipients. This magically transformed corrupt officials into naïve victims of sly foreign enemies of the regime, and Jazayeri himselfwas portrayed as an enemy agent. He made lots of overseas phone calls, especially to Great Britain; he received loans from British and French banks; and he paid off some of his "victims" through "third-party intermediaries."
However, Jazayeri did not take refuge in the countries accused of sponsoring his illegal activities. On March 17, 2007, Iranian radio announced he had been arrested in "an Arab country" and would be extradited to Iran.
As Paul Klebnikov, the intrepid American journalist who specialized in exposing the Mafia-like activities of post-Soviet Russia--and was gunned down in Moscow in July 2004--wryly observed, "The economy bears more than a little resemblance to the crony capitalism that sprouted from the wreck of the Soviet Union. The 1979 revolution expropriated the assets of foreign investors and the nation's wealthiest families; oil had long been nationalized, but the mullahs seized virtually everything else of value--banks, hotels, car and chemical companies, makers of drugs and consumer goods."21
Despite Khomeini's celebrated contempt for earthly wealth, the ruling class of the Islamic Republic has demonstrated great avidity for both money and power. The most infamous case is the former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the country's mostsuccessful politicians and businessmen, the chairman of the Council of Experts, which names the Supreme Leader, and at this writing a leading contender to succeed the ailing Ali Khamenei, the successor to Khomeini.
Rafsanjani used the privatization program he launched during his presidency to redistribute state-owned enterprises to friends, political allies, and his own family members. The Rafsanjanis were pistachio farmers, and one of Hashemi's brothers now runs a big pistachio export business, estimated at roughly half a billion dollars per year. If you buy pistachios in Iranian-American shops in southern California (especially in "Terangeles"), the odds are long that you will be enriching the Rafsanjani family.
The Rafsanjanis' empire was built on the destruction of the old order. Shortly after the Revolution, family members gobbled up the national television network, created import/export companies, took key positions in the Petroleum Ministry and the organization that builds and manages the Tehran subway system, and even acquired a thirty-acre horse farm in an upscale neighborhood in the capital (where, according to Klebnikov, land now sells for a cool $4 million per acre). All this activity enabled the Rafsanjanis to leverage their hard currency, which they could buy for 1,750 rials per dollar (the subsidized rate for legitimate imports), then sell on the open market for 8,000 rials or more, depending on demand.
All that money translates into great political power in a country where most people are struggling to make ends meet. Favors are granted and purchased, networks are established, and the ability to conduct business on an international scale means that money can be salted away in foreign banks as insurance against bad days ahead. Other members of the theocratic ruling class have performed similarly, if less ostentatiously, especially those fortunate enough to have gained control over the national charities or the bonyads, powerful foundations that were in many cases originally created by the shah's family and were seized after the Revolution. All operate under the direct control of the Supreme Leader. The most famous of these is the Mostazafan and Jambazan Foundation, long managed by Mohsen Rafiqdoost, whose main credential was his role as Khomeini's chauffeur on the imam's triumphal entry into Tehran after the fall of the shah. From there he became minister of the Revolutionary Guards, then head of the Mostazafan Foundation, then the Noor Foundation, another Islamic "charity" that runs big real estate ventures, imports medicines and other pharmaceutical products, and dabbles in the construction business.
All of this activity generates enormous sums of money, a large part of which is spent on international terrorism and the country's secret nuclear project. In Klebnikov's words, Iran today is "a dictatorship run by a shadowgovernment that--the U.S. State Department suspects--finances terrorist groups abroad through a shadow foreign policy. Its economy is dominated by shadow business empires and its power is protected by a shadow army of enforcers."
Inevitably, the Revolutionary Guards--the main instrument of terror both inside Iran and in the international arena--realized that it would be more efficient to take direct control over a significant part of the business activities that, after all, provided them with much of their budget. Last year, the deputy commander of the IRGC gave a rare public interview in which he admitted that nearly one-third of the Guards' operations were not military at all, but commercial. Estimates of annual earnings run into the billions of dollars, most likely tens of billions. 22 According to information from well-informed Iranians, as of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Revolutionary Guards controlled more than thirty companies in Iran and Dubai, through which most of the funding for foreign terrorist operations flowed.
The current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a creature of the Revolutionary Guards. His elevation was due in large part to their power and wealth, andhe has ensured that their wealth will increase. As the Financial Times tells us, he managed to award the Guards several big contracts: a gas pipeline from the Gulf, an exploration contract for a major gas field, and the construction of a new line for the Tehran subway.
As of the spring of 2007, Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani were engaged in a very public fight for the right to succeed Khamenei, then struggling against a particularly virulent cancer. That fight was not just over which of them would be the next Supreme Leader (and it was by no means certain that the two names exhausted the candidate pool); it was also over enormous sums of money, and therefore over great political power.
One thing was certain: whoever succeeded Khamenei was unlikely to change the basic international strategy of the Islamic Republic. That had been established by the Imam Khomeini within weeks of the seizure of power in February 1979, and the mullahs believed it was succeeding.
THE IRANIAN TIME BOMB. Copyright 2007 by Michael A. Ledeen. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.