Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Roozbeh Farahanipour, an Iranian journalist, democracy activist and former political prisoner in Iran. He was a student leader in the 1999 uprising.
Farahanipour: Thank you for this interview and your concern about the ongoing struggle of the Iranian people for freedom and democracy.
FP: Tell us a bit about your background, how and why you were imprisoned, and what you are up to now.
Farahanipour: During my student years at Tehran University where I was studying law, I was able to organize many like-minded students around the ideas of democratic secularism. Our generation in the mid-1990s was frustrated with the theocracy that had tragically suppressed the generation before us and had succeeded in establishing an absolute dictatorship. The regime was under the mistaken impression that it could go on unchallenged by the new generation. We proved them wrong.
Through student organizing and publishing patriotic articles and journals, we successfully challenged the regime ideology of Islamic internationalism and Jihadist propaganda. We proved that Iranian youth were holding on to their true identity and would welcome nationalistic democracy and secularism over the suffocating propaganda of Islamism.
We enjoyed the support of many well-known older generation patriotic organizations and political figures and were able to grow faster than expected.
I’ve been imprisoned several times for my political activities. Since the Islamic Republic came into power, over twenty members of my family were tortured and executed due to their own prospective political views. However brutal these actions were, certainly, they only hardened and inspired me further and made me become a political activist.
In addition, in my family, there were nationalistic and patriotic tendencies. Therefore, I grew up in a family in which the priority was Iran and nothing else. As a result, I feel an obligatory duty toward my motherland, Iran, to defend and to protect her territory, identity and nation.
FP: I am very sorry to inquire about this painful aspect of your life, but can you share with us your experience as a prisoner in Iran? I am also very sorry about the suffering of your family and the injustices and crimes that have been perpetrated against it. Can you share with us what happened to some of your family members – and why?
Farahanipour: With regards to the treatment that my other compatriots have received in the jails of the Islamic Republic, the treatment I received was relatively friendly. At the moment at least I'm able to stand on my feet whereas many other political prisoners have certainly not been as lucky. My most bitter jail experience, (which would later end up being the last time I would be jailed in Iran), began with security officials breaking down my front door and shooting. They arrested around a dozen MPG (Marze Por Gohar) members and supporters, blind folded us and forced us into cars. Some of us had our hands tied with wires as the security forces had run out of handcuffs. One unlucky female who was not wearing her hijab inside our home, had her face kicked in by the security forces as punishment.
Upon arriving at the jail, I had no clue where I was; only later was I to find out that I was being held at the infamous secret jail called Towhid. During the Shah's regime this very same jail was being used as a torture chamber, it appears the Islamic Republic did not want to break with tradition. Once I fled Iran, I worked vigorously to bring Towhid to the world's attention, faxing and writing every human rights organization I could think of. Initially the Islamic Republic's Intelligence Ministry denied the existence of such a detention facility. However, as international pressure mounted, the Islamic Republic was forced to shut down Towhid, and I'm extremely proud to say that MPG was instrumental in achieving this end.
As part of my punishment, other than being lashed, I was tortured with various techniques one of which was called chicken kabob. This type of torture involved having your hands and feet bound and having a long steel rod run through your arms and legs. As they began spinning you around them, they also began lashing you. The individuals who conducted these types of torture were true sadists, as they would be talking to each other about last night's soccer game or they would be talking on the phone while they were lashing you.
I also endured another torture technique called Ghapuni in Persian, whereby one hand is bent back (as if touching your back) and handcuffed, while your other hand is handcuffed from the bottom. While you are handcuffed in this awkward position, they hang you from the handcuffs, which usually either dislocated or broke your shoulder blades. In my case my shoulder blade broke.
Unfortunately, my experience of the Islamic Republic jails are too epic to cover here, however I do want to briefly describe what I was and wasn't allowed to do in the regime's jails. While some dissidents claim to have written books while serving time in jail, or conduct interviews from jail via cell phone--to begin, the only paper that is accessible to you is the Koran, in Arabic, and if you think you're going to write your "manifesto" on its pages then you're begging for torture. Secondly, there are no pens, pencils or other traditional writing utensils.
In other words, anyone that claims to have written anything in jail--nonetheless serving a political sentence--who had the privilege of having their work "smuggled" out of jail is someone that is working with the regime. With stories about jailed political prisoners being able to make cell phone calls and publishing books from jail are some of the main reasons why the Islamic Republic was able to have its name removed from the black list of the worst human rights abuse offenders.
The idea that a cell phone can get smuggled into jail or that prisoners "donate" their weekly phone airtime to someone is so far removed from reality that it tarnishes the name of real political prisoners - political prisoners whose names the world will never know. When making calls, the prison guards dial the number for you, and in addition to that they listen to the whole conversation. So exactly how a political dissident would have the prison guard call a TV station and conduct an interview critical of the regime all the while the prison guard is listening to the phone conversation, has yet to be explained. The notion that you can smuggle in a cell phone into prison is too ridiculous to even comment on, suffice to say that the Islamic Republic's intelligence arm is mature enough to know the eating habits of their prisoners, much less being to detect whether anything foreign has entered the prison facilities.
During the first week of the Islamic revolution, my mother's cousin, General Ahmad Bidabadi, was sentenced to death by firing squad, by an illegitimate court system. During the mass political dissident killings of 88, more then 30,000 political dissident were killed by the Islamic Republic - almost all of them buried in mass graves.
Even today, the family members of those who were executed by the regime in 1988 do not know exactly where their loved ones are buried. My other cousin's husband was executed while serving jail time; the Islamic Republic decided to take a page out of Nazi Germany's book and detonated part of the jail. Yet another close associate who was a physician was also executed during the mass killings. He and his wife were both imprisoned and because there was no one to take care of their two young children, their kids basically spent more than a year in prison. I would like to note that the two victims' children I've cited that were executed during the 88 purge, are now in the United States and are politically active with us and they certainly will not forget who was responsible for their parent's deaths.
Yet another cousin who was politically active was imprisoned, tortured and subsequently raped, is now trying to live a normal life. Another one of my family members had all her seven children at different times executed. One of her children was a girl, and according to Islamic law, one cannot execute a virgin, thus prior to being executed she was raped. Another one of her children was executed via blood-loss as Khomeini had issued a fatwa that prisoners should first have all their blood drawn -- as the blood bank was running low before being executed. When her last child was executed, no one dared to relay the bad news and thus simply told her that her son was in jail for life with no visiting permission or phone calls. For people such as this brave women one cannot expect her to simply forgive and forget, as many of those who have not had anyone of their family be executed constantly espouse.
My story is not unique by any means; thousands upon thousands of families in Iran have to endure the brutality of this anti-Iranian regime.
FP: I am very sorry about all of this nightmarish suffering that you, your family and your people have endured. Words are insufficient to deal with these crimes against humanity and with the mass suffering they have caused. We can only hope that some kind of Nuremberg-type trial will one day be held to hold this criminal regime to account.
Can you tell us a bit about the MPG party?
Farahanipour: The MPG party was established based on underground activities on July 8, 1998. The founders were a group of young journalists and MPG’s ideologies were defined as such: It “advocated democracy, secularism as an opposition to the existing theocracy and republic as well as an opposition to the Monarchy and also to the dictatorship of the unelected regime.”
In the present time, the dictator is the unelected "supreme theologian," "Imam" or whatever else they call the "leader" from time to time, who is the ruler of the country. The most important agenda for the MPG is removing this dictator and its regime from Iran.
As I stated earlier, the MPG stands for Marze Por Gohar -- meaning the bountiful land which is one of the traditional endearing expressions symbolizing the immense resources and potentials of Iran.
The party emblem is an ancient stamp which was imposed after the Sasanian era, the last Persian Empire before Iran’s occupation by Arabs. After the occupation, the emblem was primarily promoted by young people. This sign represents revolution, good luck, birth and freedom. The reason we chose this ancient emblem is the similarity between both occupations. We are about to return the identity of Iran to Iranians.
We have great potential to succeed because of the ideals that MPG stands for, such as freedom, secularism, democracy and patriotism. Taken together, these ideals are the only set of compatible ideals that have been able to compete with the Islamist ideology. None of these, taken separately, have been able to attract more than small numbers or interests by themselves.
The Islamic Republic is critically aware of our capabilities and thus has sought to inflict harm on our organization through various means. For example, one of the senior members, Dr Kasra Vafadari, was murdered in France by the Islamic Republic in 2004.
Democracy, as understood by common people around the world is unfortunately limited to the right to vote, which is interpreted as sometimes voting for a dictatorial, theological or ideological regime, without allowing for future change as in Nazi Germany, or present day Iran or recognizing the rights of the political minority, let alone giving them a chance to compete in a future election. Democracy without secularism, particularly in countries and regions with large religious Muslim populations is increasingly bringing about religious dictatorships to power as in Algeria, Turkey, Gaza and etc.
On the other hand, the Iranian people have had a long tradition of struggling for freedom which must be the basis for a democratic system, preventing populist votes for religious and ideological dictatorships and a hundred year tradition of patriotic movements for democracy. They have strived for at least two centuries for a national identity and national prosperity, always remembering the ancient glory of Persian kings such as Cyrus who was known for his humanitarian rule rather than for his conquests and power. Iranians, having experienced a decent degree of secularism before falling into the Mullahs’ trap for the past 28 years, are yearning for secularism and are ready to varying degrees to free themselves from the yoke of the Mullahs and their Jihadist revolutionary guards and militia.
FP: Expand for us a bit more on the nature of the Islamic regime in Iran.
Farahanipour: The regime in Iran today is basically a ruthless and morally, as well as financially, corrupt theocratic rule of a certain sect within a certain branch of Islam. The Mullahs have amassed so much power and wealth that it has exceeded everyone's wildest dreams. The younger, more ambitious Jihadist types within this regime, perhaps mostly in and around the infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, have an insatiable appetite for world domination, openly advocating the revival of the Islamic imperial past of the kalifas and the more recent Ottoman Empire, willing to gamble all their already won power and wealth for a much bigger prize: Islamic Planet Earth.
The internationalist Jihadist mentality of this regime, perhaps originally proclaimed to compete with the communist movements, is so dangerous and even financially damaging to Iran, that we consider this regime to be like an occupying power, hell-bent on destroying all things Iranian, all history before the Arab occupiers and colonialists took over the old “Persia” and all uniting ideas beneficial to the Iranian nation.
Openly supplying international terrorists and movements with billions of dollars, the mullahs have impudently declared that Iranians deserve poverty, disease and addiction while guns and bombs, training and funds flow to people such as Arab nationalists, Islamists and terrorists, who have been openly against Iran in all international issues and conflicts throughout past and recent history. As far as Iranians are concerned, this regime does not have an Iranian nature but an international pan-Islamist one. Even Ayatollah Khomeini declared from the beginning that "democracy and patriotism are deceptions for the people" and proclaimed patriotism to be "heretical" and anti-Islamic.
Analysts throughout the western world may love to confuse themselves and others with all sorts of theories about this regime, its intensions or nature, but we know exactly what they are. All the deceit and bloody atrocities of the Mullahs against the Iranian people for 28 years have only served to prepare them for much worse all over the world.
FP: How can this regime be overthrown by the people? Give us some examples of the people’s opposition throughout the past 28 years.
Farahanipour: This regime can be overthrown by the masses of Iranian people as in the past. Mass movements have taken it to the brink several times up until now. The internal machine bringing the Mullahs to power was the large scale participation of people who had been deceived and mesmerized by the Ayatollah. The very same people have repeatedly experienced the extent of the deceit and the brutality of this regime and every time they have felt the regime's weakness, they have risen up to repeat their powerful Revolution of 1979, this time against the Mullahs.
By the mid-1980s, even in the midst of which were numerous popular uprisings, opposition and even armed confrontations, the regime succeeded in killing and capturing tens of thousands of opposition activists, thereby closing down a chapter of Iranian struggle against the Mullahs.
In the early and mid-1990s, Iran experienced huge mass uprisings in major cities such as Islam Shahr (near Tehran), Ghazvin (100 miles west of Tehran) and Mashad (near the Afghan border in the east) involving hundreds of thousands of poorly armed people fighting the IRGC forces equipped with Cobra helicopter gunships, armored cars and heavy weapons, resulting in thousands of casualties and each lasting for several days. During these insurrections, there were times when the army commanders would issue declarations, refusing to enter the fight against the people and local militiamen joined the people against IRGC forces mostly sent from Tehran.
This period of consecutive eruptions developed into a massive pro-democracy movement that caused the regime to retreat and allow certain reforms to go forward in order to stem the rising tide.
By 1997, when the deceiving reformist Khatami became so called president, women, students, minorities, workers and others were ready to join the movement, and indeed they did. A deep solemn movement towards democracy began to emerge until with the huge student and popular uprising of July 1999, the regime understood that it was getting out of hand and began a gradual suppression of the movement, which had by the way already splintered due to the Khatami deception.
Since the 1999 uprising, every two to three weeks, there has been either a major strike somewhere in Iran or smaller uprisings in smaller towns and regions of our large country. The Sunni areas of Iran, such as Baluchistan and Kurdistan have never been fully under the Shiite government since 1979 and there is always something big going on. Dozens of massive political riots under the name of "soccer riots” and youth movements have taken place and are ongoing.
Today, even during the IRGC Ahmadinejad government, worker strikes have approached historical dimensions; teacher strikes, women's demonstrations, gasoline riots with heavy political content, ethnic unrest, are the order of the day. Organized student strikes and activities have exceeded all but the 1999 and 2003 massive student uprising levels.
What is missing is a centralized opposition capable of connecting and converging all these events and trends into one big ongoing revolution. This is what the MPG is striving for.
FP: What is the best thing the U.S. and West can do to help the struggle of the Iranian people?
Farahanipour: There was an external component to the 1979 Revolution, which is one and the same with the external lifeline thrown to the regime every time it approaches its downfall. Suffice it to say that all those European and American forces, who assisted the Ayatollah to easily sit on the throne in 1979, are still today helping the Mullahs to survive, prosper and attain military prominence in the region.
The first thing that the US and the West should do, if they really dislike this regime, is to cut off the regime's financial and military lifelines. Sanctions in place, which have never been fully implemented, must be actually implemented.
Additional military, security and diplomatic sanctions must be adopted.
The Iranian people cannot confront a powerful regime and its international supporters in the US and Europe successfully; no people can and no people have.
The second issue is to stop helping those Iranians who are in the US and in Europe and whose job is to lobby in favor of promoting certain factions within the Mullahs, dropping the sanctions and establishing "normal" relations with this highly abnormal regime.
If the US and the West drop their assistance to this regime and its supporters, the playing field will be somewhat leveled. The Iranian people and their opposition forces will then feel they are facing an isolated and weak regime.
They will do what they have always been doing unsuccessfully before, and this time they will succeed.
FP: Let’s hope so.
Roozbeh Farahanipour, it was an honor to talk to such a brave and noble freedom fighter. We wish you all the best. Thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
Farahanipour: It has been a pleasure participating in this interview, particularly considering a time where almost all left and liberal organizations have completely forgotten the human rights situation in Iran. However, your questions make it very clear that for Frontpage Magazine, human rights is still important.