[Editor's Note: the following profile is on Amir Abbas Fakhravar, the Annie Taylor Award recipient at this year's Restoration Weekend, Nov. 15-18].
As a teenaged high-school student in Iran, Amir Abbas Fakhravar was required to participate in the daily morning ritual of marching atop American flags. The idea was to express complete contempt for the country that the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had famously cursed as the “Great Satan,” but Fakhravar, an avid student of history from an early age, had his doubts. “It was that flag that had been put on the moon, that flag that symbolized progress for the human race, so why were we stepping on it?” he wondered.
That was when Fakhravar first began to question the Iranian regime. When he received no answers, the questions became more “aggressive.” At last, he realized that “regime change was the only option” for Iran.
Bold words. But Fakhravar, 32, now an opposition activist living in exile in Washington D.C., has earned the right to speak them. For his role in leading Iran’s pro-democracy student movement, Fakhravar spent a total of five years and three months in Iranian prisons, including Evin Prison, sadistically run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, suffering countless beatings and tortures along the way. His close relatives -- including his two sisters and a brother-in-law -- have also served jail time for their political views; his close friend Arjang Davoodi, beaten so fiercely by prison interrogators that he has lost his eyesight and his hearing in one ear, remains behind bars. So when Fakhravar calls for the end of the Iranian regime, you get the sense that it is not only out of a desire to see the Iranian people freed from nearly thirty years of stifling, theocratic rule. Its personal.
Fakhravar delivered his first major political speech in 1993, while only a senior in high school. Taking aim at Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the young upstart offered some fresh advice for the then-president. “Instead of telling people what they need, why not ask them want they want?” Fakhravar declared. His parents, mindful of the Islamic Republic’s tolerance for dissent, appealed for him to steer clear of politics. But Fakhravar was undeterred.
He was back at it in December of 1994. While attending medical school in Iran’s Orumiya province, Fakhravar gave a speech lambasting the lack of freedom in the country. The repercussions were swift and severe. Enforcers from the government’s ministry of intelligence burst into the classroom, handcuffed him and, as despairing students looked on, dragged him away in a blindfold. It was an unsubtle message to stay silent. Fakhravar refused. As punishment, in 1996, he was sentenced to a three-year jail term (later partially suspended).
If authorities thought that they would hear no more from the student activist, they miscalculated. By 1999, Fakhravar had returned to the battleground of politics, working to organize student support for the reformist candidate for president, Mohammad Khatami. Although it was unclear that Khatami represented a genuine alternative to mullah rule, the students thought that he could nevertheless spur reform within the system.
That was their miscalculation. In July of 1999, Iranian police launched violent raids on student dormitories, following them up with brutal crackdowns on student demonstrations. Khatami, the great hope of the opposition, failed to seriously challenge the hard-liners; the students, Fakhravar among them, came to the conclusion that the system was beyond repair. “That was when the movement became focused on regime change,” Fakhravar said in a recent interview, speaking through a translator.
Fakhravar was not always a dissident. Before joining the student movement, he had been a doctrinaire leftist. Like many Iranians, he read and believed the books and lectures of Ali Shariati, the Iranian sociologist best known for his fusion of revolutionary Marxism and Islamism. For the young Fakhravar, Shariati’s vision of a “god-fearing Marxist” had a certain resonance.
Fakhravar could not sustain his Marxist faith for long. A dedicated reader of politics and history, he soon discovered fatal contradictions in Marxist theory. It was not the only contradiction that his studies exposed. Even as his teachers assured him that the United States had to be eliminated -- “getting rid of Americans and Israelis was a good deed,” he remembers being taught -- Fakhravar’s study led him to the opposite conclusion. “I read how America rescued Europe in World War II, and I decided that it was actually a very generous nation,” he says. Information on Israel was more difficult to come by; indeed, to call the Jewish state anything other than “the occupying regime” was to risk reprisal from the authorities. But that fact alone convinced Fakhravar to reject the anti-Israel indoctrination of his teachers. “It’s not that I knew about Israel. But so long as the Iranian government opposed Israel, I supported it.”
Fakhravar has paid terribly for his heresies. Sentenced to eight years in prison in 2001 for his involvement in the student movement, Fakhravar served four consecutive years, including eight months in solitary confinement when he was subjected to “white torture,” a form of sensory deprivation in which he was locked in a windowless cell, denied all human contact, and was surrounded by white (including white walls, white clothes and even white rice for food).
Even worse than the torture was the mental anguish. “Day in an day out, the interrogators would say, ‘You will never see the blue sky again.’ ‘You will never see the moon again.’ ‘You will be buried here.’” At night, Fakhravar would have nightmares, his mind racing with images that the prison walls closing in, burying him. Terrified, he would awake in a cold sweat.
Most dispiriting, however, was what happened before he went to prison. Fakhravar recalls being beaten up and thrown in jail for three days. Finally, a judge finally came to see him. Fakhravar protested his detention, but the judge showed no interest in his case. “Remember,” he recalls the judge sneering at him, “those who cross the line deserve to die.” “When you hear that from a judge, you lose hope,” Fakhravar says. In the end, he was sentenced without trial, or even so much as an opportunity to plead his case. The official charge: “Insult to the Supreme Leader,” the Ayatollah Khamenei.
There was one good thing that came out of prison. In the course of serving his sentence, Fakhravar became friendly with a gang of “hard-core criminals.” On the outside, they arranged, for a fee, for him to get a passport. To keep the authorities off his trail, a customs officer at Tehran airport was bribed to keep his name off the list of passengers. In May of 2006, ten years after his first prison sentence, Fakhravar fled Iran for Dubai. Shortly thereafter, he arrived in the United States.
One day, Fakhravar would like to return to his home country. Presently, however, he has a lot of work to do. Prominent on his busy schedule is his position as the president of the Iranian Enterprise Institute. Inspired by the American Enterprise Institute, the non-profit organization was founded in September of 2006 and specializes in publishing bulletins (so far, only in Farsi) about Iranian politics and advocates support for Iran’s student opposition against the ruling regime. Although the institute is just getting off the ground, some leading American neo-conservatives are reported to be supporters. Fakhravar’s hope is that the institute will re-energize the Iranian opposition movement in the United States, which he fears is too riven by infighting to be effective and too out of touch with the concerns of today’s Iranian youth to provide meaningful assistance to their cause.
For his part, Fakhravar has no doubt about what needs to be accomplished. Asked what he would like to see in Iran’s future, Fakhravar replies without hesitation. He wants to see an Iran that’s free, secure, democratic, and prosperous; an Iran governed by laws and a constitution that will withstand attacks against it; an Iran that maintains a separation between church and state; that lives in peace with its neighbors; and that has no need for nuclear weapons. “I have a long list,” Fakhravar acknowledges. But then, he has never been one to shrink from a challenge.