Potkin Azarmehr, an Iranian human rights and pro-democracy activist, joined me for an interview that I did for FrontPage Magazine. He is a representative of the Confederation of Iranian Students and Graduates in the United Kingdom, a member of the Azerbaijani Movement for a United Democratic Iran, and a member of the Iranian Enterprise Institute. He has appeared on CNN, Voice of America, BBC, Sky News, and Al-Jazeera. Mr. Azarmehr also recently participated in the Struggle for Democracy in the Islamic World conference in Rome and was an official guest of the U.S. State Department on the first tour of America for Iranian expatriates since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. You can read his blog at http://azarmehr.blogspot.com.
Rabkin: Potkin Azarmehr, thank you for joining me for this interview.
Azarmehr: Thank you for having me Dan.
Rabkin: To start off, can you tell us a bit about your background and how events in your life unfolded after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran?
Azarmehr: I think the turning point in my life was the Islamic “Cultural Revolution” in 1980. Unlike most of my family and friends, I had stayed away from the mass frenzy that gripped the Iranian nation in 1979. Ever since I was a child I have had a distrust of organized religion and unlike my elders who kept telling me “You are just a kid, what do you know?” I believed we were heading for a disaster.
Until the “Cultural Revolution” in 1980 I remained an observer, just watching what was happening to my country. I would go to different political party meetings and gatherings, but mainly to watch and digest what each group was talking about. Even though I was still a teenager, the “Cultural Revolution” to me was wrong, period. It was a case of black and white - I could no longer sit on the fence.
The Islamists had the majority throughout Iranian society, except at the universities. The majority of Iranian students at the time were secular and leftist. The Islamists couldn’t tolerate this situation so they gave all secular groups and societies a three-day deadline to vacate the campuses. The universities were also to be shut down for at least two years and the syllabi had to change to conform to the Islamists’ Islamic interpretations. During these three days I went to the main university, Tehran University. There were constant clashes between those defending the universities and the thugs which kept marching around the campus threatening to “cut off the ears” of non-Islamic students. These clashes were minor, however, compared to the final day. During the three days I watched thugs who could not read or write – I could tell when they were ripping wall posters which had no pictures – screaming about how universities should be run.
There were also gangs of thugs who attacked the book sellers who were outside of the universities. After the revolution all groups and parties had bookstalls along Revolution Avenue. Even though I was a kid, a teenager not affiliated with any political parties, I knew this was wrong. I always thought a book is for reading, you either like it or you don’t, but you don’t rip it up or burn it.
I got a close shave from thugs wielding clubs and knives who attacked a bookseller one day. Some people and I could see the thugs burning and ransacking some bookstalls further up the road as we were helping this one guy put his books away into his metal box. To this day, I have no idea and no interest as to what sort of books the guy was selling, but the important thing for me was to save the books so people could read and decide for themselves. As the thugs got closer everyone started running away. I was so frightened I froze, but I think that saved my life because by standing still they didn’t think I was one of the people who were helping the booksellers. They ended up chasing and savagely beating up those who had ran.
The final day of the deadline, on which the main assault took place, was the most frightening day of my life. I laid in a joob (old, dried out canals on the side of the road in Tehran that used to be used for carrying water) to avoid the bullets and stones which were flying above my head. I heard later that 16 people were killed that day and many more had been arrested, including three of my friends. Most of those who were arrested were made to overstay their prison sentences and many, including my friends, were executed in the massacre of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.
After all of that, I left Iran for England where I have lived ever since. Here I continued to learn about different Iranian political groups. I knew I wanted to be active against the Islamic Republic, but I didn’t know which group to join until I was introduced to (former Iranian Prime Minister) Dr. (Shapour) Bakhtiar. He was a secular politician who had been a critic of the Shah for most of his life. He had been in prison for six years in total during the Shah’s rule and was banned from leaving the country for 10 years. Yet, his belief in secularism made him the only distinguished figure in Iranian politics who stood up against the mass frenzy led by Islamists. He was known for saying “the dictatorship of the Na’elins” - footwear worn by the mullahs before they became super wealthy – “will be worse than the dictatorship of the boots” - referring to the Shah’s generals.
Dr. Bakhtiar accepted to be the Shah’s last prime minister, but his premiership lasted only 37 days. He was betrayed by the Shah’s generals who were headed by General Qarabaghi. General Qarabaghi had made a deal with the mullahs behind the scenes with the full approval of Jimmy Carter’s administration. Carter had sent General Huyser to Iran to persuade the Shah’s generals not to resist the revolution. When the Marxist Fedaian and the MEK took over an ordnance depot with the help of the air cadets, Bakhtiar ordered the generals to put down the mutiny. Instead, owing to Carter, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the top generals declared a statement of neutrality in the unfolding events. The revolutionaries were now armed and government institutions started, one by one, to fall. General Qarabaghi left Iran safely and led a comfortable life after the revolution.
Bakhtiar managed to flee from Iran six months after his downfall and appeared in France, a country he loved very much. He had been educated in France and during his student years had joined the French Resistance against Hitler. He spoke French better than most French and always said France is like his second country. When Bakhtiar became the prime minister I immediately warmed up to him, but my family thought differently of him. As a kid watching the events unfold I just kept quiet for their sake. In England, however, I had no such restrictions. I felt free to support the man I believed made the most sense. Bakhtiar announced the formation of the National Movement of Iranian Resistance (NMIR) as a secular opposition movement to the mullahs.
In 1991, Bakhtiar was murdered by the ‘moderate’ (Iranian President) Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s agents with the collusion of (French President) Mitterand’s socialist government on August 6th. After his murder his organization struggled to survive. He was an irreplaceable figure and the regime knew exactly why he had to be killed.
In 1996, I saw potential in the use of the internet in disseminating political ideas and set up NMIR’s website, one of the first Iranian political websites. However, after Dr. Bakhtiar’s murder, NMIR was not functioning as an organization any more as there were no funds and everyone was demoralized. The website, however, enabled me to become part of a network of a new generation of activists.
On July 9, 1999, to everyone’s surprise and after two decades of “cultural revolution” and brainwashing, student uprisings took place across 19 cities in Iran. It was like a dream come true. After two decades of total repression in Iran’s universities against any secular activity, the students were shouting and demanding a secular democratic regime. The protests went on for 6 days before ‘reformist’ (Iranian President) Khatami’s government crushed them. However, this had sparked a new dawn for the pro-democracy movement in Iran. As an ex-pat who had become bi-lingual and bi-cultural, I saw it as my duty to contact the combatants inside Iran and use my skills to promote their struggle. And without going into too much detail at this stage, that is what I have been doing since 1999.
Rabkin: How are things inside of Iran today?
Azarmehr: Let me just give you news headlines inside Iran from yesterday. Of course, this is the type of news that you do not hear in the Western mass media for reasons that I have never understood.
- According to the government’s own figures, 650,000 citizens of Tehran have taken part in the second round of the farce elections for the Majlis (Iranian parliament), that is less than 8% of those eligible to vote! And this is also despite the constant calls to the faithful that it is their religious duty to vote.
- Three Iranian teenagers, aged 12, 16, and 17, in Ilam are amongst the protesters who have been shot dead in a general strike throughout the town happening right now.
- A Friday prayer imam in Zahedan has been injured during an assassination attempt.
- Students at Sahand University of Tabriz have staged a hunger strike and sit in. 17 have already been transferred to hospital.
-Workers of Avangan (an Iranian power generation company) in Arak have closed the Tehran-Qum highway protesting against the fact that their wages have not been paid for months.
- Taxi drivers in Kerman are on strike because they have not been able to keep up with rising prices.
- Iranian teacher and political prisoner Arzhang Davoodi, sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, is on a hunger strike after having been moved from Evin prison to the even more notorious Rajaii-Shahr prison, where he is now amongst the most dangerous criminals.
These are just one day’s headlines. Dan, do you get the picture? The Iranian people do not want this regime any more. Dissent and the pro-democracy movement are alive and kicking. The only problems are the lack of leadership and direction and building an alternative that can encompass all layers of Iranian society in a final push to get rid of the Islamic Republic.
Rabkin: Many Western so-called experts on Iran claim that change in Iran should come from within the regime, not from outside of it. In other words, they believe that if another “reformist” like Khatami comes to power, all of the world’s concerns with respect to Iran will be subside. What are your views on that theory?
Azarmehr: I believe change should come from within Iran, but not from within the regime. Also, as with most other social upheavals, we will need some outside help.
Forget about change from within the regime. Let me give you two small examples on how futile Khatami's eight years were.
During the time when Khatami was president and the "reformists" had an absolute majority in the parliament, two bills were passed by the Islamic assembly. One was to raise the age of legal marriage for girls from 9-years-old to 12. Another was to allow women to go abroad for education without having to get permission from their father or husband.
Both bills were vetoed by the Guardian Council. This is a very closed system. Nothing substantial will be achieved from within the system without some real pressure.
But, yes, perhaps a lot of international concerns with respect to the Islamic Republic will subside because the likes of Khatami are experts in arranging an attractive shop window to deceive the outside world with and attract the “useful idiots.”
Rabkin: In your opinion, what is the best way to bring real change to Iran? What can people in the West do to help?
Azarmehr: Dan, I am so glad you said people! I am a firm believer in the fact that we should appeal, first and foremost, to international public opinion and to people in the West before going to their politicians. At the end of the day, it will be public opinion which will put pressure on Western politicians to act. Otherwise, they will just seek their own short-term interests and deals.
Here is what we should do in the West to help:
We should appeal to and mobilize the students and academics in the West, because the Islamic Republic suppresses academics and students in Iran.
We should appeal to and mobilize the trade unions and workers in the West, because the Islamic Republic suppresses workers and trade unions in Iran.
We should appeal to and mobilize women in the West, because the Islamic Republic suppresses Iran’s women.
We should appeal to and mobilize writers, artists, and performers in the West, because the Islamic Republic threatens the freedom of these people both inside and outside of Iran.
We should appeal to and mobilize journalists in the West, because the Islamic Republic kills and imprisons journalists.
We should appeal to and mobilize those around the globe who believe in freedom of religion, because the Islamic Republic suppresses people of other faiths, and even Shiites who do not accept the interpretations of the ruling clerics.
We should appeal to and mobilize those who are against the execution of minors and homosexuals and are against human rights abuses, because these types of things are rampant in the Islamic Republic.
We should enlighten and mobilize the left, because the Islamic Republic is not the “progressive” champion of the poor as some of the leftists in the West imagine. This is the same mistake that the Iranian left made and they paid a very heavy price for their mistake. The left in Iran were amongst the first victims of the religious tyranny that massacred them. The Ayatollahs hate no one more than the atheist socialists.
I believe we can appeal to and mobilize everyone around the world. We just need the means to be heard.
We should create a situation similar to the anti-apartheid movement as I have always believed the Islamic Republic is an apartheid state. Not a racial one, but a religious one where the rights of Iran’s citizens are determined by their religion and their conformity to the state interpretation of religion.
In my experience we have had two major difficulties in doing these things: the mass media and the Islamic Republic’s well-funded and well-organized lobbyists.
Rabkin: Potkin, could you speak in more detail about how the media and these lobbyists are the problem?
Azarmehr: It is difficult to mobilize public opinion if people don’t have a background in Iranian issues. If the pro-democracy movement in Iran doesn’t get its fair share of airtime it makes our job so much more difficult. For some reason the media doesn’t think reporting on Iran’s pro-democracy movement is “fashionable” or “marketable” – these are words used by media people themselves whom I have met.
Take an event as significant as the student uprising in 1999 in Iran. 19 cities see massive protests for six days, but we had to pull our hair out to get the BBC to report on this. Finally, they did report on it two days after it had begun, but on the fourth day they referred to it as “mob rule.” A noble and peaceful pro-democracy movement, which only demanded the basic rights everyone takes for granted in the West, in the eyes of BBC editors, was presented as “mob rule.” After that there was nothing about the crackdown or the arrest of 2,000 students in just one day. It was not “marketable” news in the eyes of the BBC’s news editors.
Or take (Iranian investigative journalist Akbar) Ganji’s hunger strike. I have an email from the BBC saying it’s not always possible to fit all of the world’s news in the time limit of the 10 O’Clock National News. Ganji was on hunger strike for 70 days. I cannot believe that in 70 days Ganji’s hunger strike was not as important as some kitten being stuck in a tree, something that I have seen make the 10 O’Clock News!
Or take last year’s police campaign against “thugs and hoodlums.” Hooded police were bursting into houses around Iran in the early hours of the morning. They would drag people out of their homes half-naked and then savagely beat them up in public. There were lots of pictures of this all over the internet. There are numerous videos of the film footage on YouTube, but nothing in the mass media!
The Confederation of Iranian Students managed to bring one of these victims to the UK. This guy named Pourya Fazlollahi is not a thug or hoodlum. He is one of the most gentle and polite youngsters you will ever meet. We have film footage and pictures of Pourya which show the visible marks of beatings on his body. Pourya is now pursuing a football career in the UK and things are looking promising for him as Tottenham F.C. (an English soccer team in the Premier League) is interested in him.
More than that, the very police chief who was heading this vicious campaign against “immoral people” has himself been caught in a brothel with six prostitutes who claimed the police chief made them pray naked while he watched them from behind.
Dan, don’t you think this is all very interesting news? But, no, unless the story is something that is anti-American, no one in the media cares. We had CBS come and do an interview and filming with Pourya, but it was never aired because they said there is other, more “marketable,” news at the moment.
As for the lobbyists, unlike people like us who have day jobs and live on shoestring budgets, they are very well-funded groups and individuals. Their job is to portray a desirable image of the Islamic Republic wherever and whenever it is appropriate. So in universities, where there are a lot of left-wing activists, they go and portray the Islamic Republic as an anti-imperialist champion. Conveniently, they don’t say anything about the massacre of the Iranian left in 1988, where thousands were killed and dumped into mass graves, or about how the perpetrators of that crime are in Ahmadinejad’s government now. To liberals and intellectuals they show the Islamic Republic as a young democratic state which is under threat. They say that if only this threat was removed the Islamic Republic would be a flourishing liberal democracy. There are many more examples. These lobbyists even include university lecturers and Western politicians.
Take the phenomenon of Hakha. The scammer suddenly managed to get so much airtime from God knows where. He appeared endlessly in the media promising to free Iran on a certain date at a certain hour! He became such a subject of ridicule and the mullahs were laughing the whole time. They were telling the Iranian people “You don’t want us? These are the people who are waiting to take over form us! You want these idiots?” Who funded this fraudster? I am sure the Islamic Republic had something to do with it.
Before we can even get to taking on the Islamic Republic, we have to waste so much energy with the lobbyists, apologists, fraudsters, and fakes. But, despite all their funding and our limited resources, we will be successful in the long run because it is easier to defend the truth than it is to defend a lie.
Rabkin: If it came down to having to resort to military action to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons or Iran becoming a nuclear power, what would be your preference?
Azarmehr: First of all, let me say that I am not against military invasions for the sake of it. I believe that throughout history there have been many times when invasions have liberated people. Take the invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese which liberated the Cambodians from the horrors of Pol Pot’s mass murders or the allied invasion of Europe which liberated Europe from Hitler.
However, in those examples there was no other alternative. In Iran, on the other hand, there is an overwhelming desire for change. Every day there are protests of some sorts that you just don’t hear about. The last nine years have been wasted in not recognizing the potential in this. Even if we come to the conclusion that there is no other alternative, which I do not subscribe to, what will happen after an invasion? In the absence of an organized credible alternative to the mullahs, who will run Iran? There will be chaos and anarchy.
I believe there is still time to utilize the overwhelming desire of the Iranian people for change. We must channel this dissent in a proper and organized way. If that happens, it will set an example for the rest of the region because peace and prosperity in Iran will bring peace and prosperity to the entire Middle East.
At the same time, more targeted sanctions can weaken the regime and crack its image of invincibility amongst the Iranian people. Once the Islamic Republic’s image of invincibility is cracked the protests will gain their critical mass. With that, an alternative will appear and that will be the end of the Islamic Republic.
Rabkin: A lot of pundits in the West claim that Iran’s nuclear program is a matter of pride for the Iranian people and that an attack against such a popular institution would backfire, do you agree?
Azarmehr: This notion of Iran’s nuclear program being a matter of pride for Iranians is a myth created by non-sense journalists and think tanks.
In the absence of free opinion polls, how do they make such observations? They go to Iran and speak to someone on the street or during an official state demonstration. Of course, they don’t realize that telling the truth in dictatorships has consequences, so they think some poor guy will tell them the heartfelt truth in front of cameras and people he has never seen before. And with that, these anecdotes turn into hard facts thanks to these “pundits” and their ignorance.
Yet, they miss out on the slogans that Iranian youth were shouting during the Iranian Fire Festival which were mocking the regime’s nuclear energy slogans. Or the hundreds of placards we see held at protests in Iran which demand much more basic rights as the real “obvious rights” - a reference to the regime’s slogan of “nuclear energy is our obvious right.”
Rabkin: If Iran manages to acquire nuclear weapons what will be the consequences?
Azarmehr: The consequences will be enormous risks and dangers to the world if such an unaccountable government obtains these weapons, especially considering the fact that this unaccountable state has a messianic mission for global domination. The export of the Islamic Revolution is a fundamental part of the Islamic Republic’s constitution. If they get nuclear weapons, it will become a reality.
Rabkin: For the sake of humanity, let’s hope something will be done to prevent that from happening. Potkin, I want to thank you again for joining me.
Azarmehr: It was my pleasure Dan.