FrontPage Interview’s guest today is Roozbeh Farahanipour, an Iranian journalist, democracy activist, former political prisoner in Iran and head of Marze Por Gohar Party (MPG), an Iranian opposition party seeking the establishment of a secular republic in Iran. He was a student leader in the 1999 uprising, just one year after creating MPG.
FP: Roozbeh Farahanipour, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
You recently snuck back into Iran, ten years after your escape, and then got back out. Tell us what happened and why you did this.
Farahanipour: July 9th was the tenth anniversary of the 1999 uprising in Iran in which I was one the organizers and for which I was later imprisoned and tortured. This anniversary was being held against the background of the unstoppable momentum of the massive protests all over Iran in late June, following the presidential elections which were already challenging the legitimacy of the government. I needed to be back there at such a time and contribute to the organization of the planned events reviving the spirit of 1999 because on the eve of this anniversary the mass movement was being compromised by regime factions, back into the fold of strict and undemocratic laws of the Islamic Republic.
Several other members of Marze Por Gohar Party also decided to go back and participated along with millions of other Iranians, exercising their democratic rights in different cities and regions of the country.
FP: Can you give us some details about the 1999 uprising?
Farahanipour: The 1999 uprising began at one of Tehran University dormitories where several students were killed following their protests against the new press censorship laws enacted at the time. At least one student was thrown from an upper floor window following fanatical religious prayers by the plain-clothed intelligence agents who also injured many and ransacked the premises. This incident escalated into a march to the Tehran University campus where tens of thousands began to converge upon during the next morning, launching a large protest as the campus began to be surrounded by all sorts of regime security and intelligence forces. Soon other campuses in the country joined the protest all over Tehran, as the largest anti-dictatorial movement in a decade began to challenge the regime. During five days of anti-government uprising over 18 people were killed, hundreds were beaten and mutilated and thousands were arrested.
This event shattered the image of the Islamic Republic, who after years of eliminating its original generation of opponents and massacring tens of thousands of political prisoners in August and September of 1988, was trying to present itself as a firmly established regime with no opponents. Some of the traditional opposition parties were also drawn into this massive protest chief among them, the Mellat Party who following the assassination of their leader Dariush Forouhar and his wife Parvaneh just a few months before by Intelligence Ministry official agents, gave its full support to us young activists under their new leadership Khosrow Seif. As we found out later the 5 day uprising had shattered the internal stability and security illusions of the regime as hard as its external image. A whole new generation of dissidents was created in July of 1999 and now in 2009, in the middle of another mass uprising, we were approaching the tenth anniversary.
FP: What was the security situation like in Iran?
Farahanipour: The situation in Tehran and several other cities was extremely tense and dangerous as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had already declared they had taken over control of the country’s security. Major cities in the whole country had been placed under a state of siege. Dozens had been killed and thousands had been arrested. Many of those arrested were simply kidnapped to prevent them from any possible leadership role they could play; therefore, people with experience in this regard were definitely needed.
On the other hand there were two interesting developments that facilitated dissident activities precisely because of the intensity of regime deployment of forces. Firstly, regime forces were so busy with intense and concentrated security actions that we knew they couldn’t even handle either the interrogations and detentions of thousands already arrested or the control of hundreds of locations where they had to maintain their presence 24/7.
The regime’s capabilities were stretched to their limits. Secondly, we knew that thousands of regime forces had divided loyalties whether across factional regime lines or due to their sympathy for the very people they were ordered to suppress. Already some of our people arrested during previous street protests had been quietly let go (by authorities that happened to be acquaintances or sympathetic) and information was leaking (sometimes pouring) out of the most “secure” sections of security forces indicating a serious factional rivalry. Ironically the more forces the regime deployed, the more anti-regime, neutral or pro “reform” elements would be put in charge of suppression. We also knew that even many highway security outposts were now manned by inexperienced young militia members.
Based on the information we had and historical precedence, I knew this was precisely the best opportunity for a known dissident like me and some of my colleagues to go back to my occupied country.
FP: So how did you manage to get into Iran and back out?
Farahanipour: Obviously, known dissidents would be arrested, possibly tortured and perhaps executed upon arrival at the Tehran airport. Contrary to article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the Iranian government is a signatory, the Islamic Republic routinely forces people into exile or prevents their return to their own country. So what are we to do?
Many get used to permanent exile and dream of going back or strive to practice their democratic rights from abroad. I could not continue watching the uprising on TV as long as I had a chance. I had to go back even for a week or two if I could. Moreover, I had promised my colleagues in Iran that I would return in a situation like this. Could I hear about them being arrested and about all those young people being killed without at least doing my small part in all of this?
I have to add that the 1979 Iranian revolution had forced millions of Iranians, regular folks, mothers, children, old and young to escape their country for their survival, for freedom or for their children through free borders. Iranians who experienced the revolution, its devastating aftermath and an 8 year war with Saddam, are used to these hardships. Iran not only has thousands of miles of rugged borders with other countries or on the shores of open seas but has millions of people along these borders who freely travel back and forth for the simplest of reasons (i.e. seeing their family members on the other side, marrying someone and etc.)
These people are readily available to help others cross back and forth. This is really not as big a deal as an outsider might think. Why should some people, including some lazy long time Iranian exiles think this is impossible? Why should we falsely aggrandize and advertise the “absolute” control by a regime that can hardly control its capital city and demoralize the younger expatriates, condemning them to a permanent state of mind of an old worn-out exile?
FP: Where you in real danger at any time?
Farahanipour: Of course such trips are dangerous, not only because of the situation but because of environmental problems as well; however, like millions of women and children who had passed through the free borders, such matters were manageable for me and my friends as well.
Without getting into details I just say that with the help of my fellow countrymen, and in the course of many days, I re-entered my country without regard for the dictatorial laws of the Islamic Republic, which we consider a foreign occupier, and after accomplishing part of my obligations, I got out safely again.
I could see regime patrols sometimes within hundreds of yards and we had to bypass road patrols at other times. In the cities, movement was possible but very dangerous, since even if they weren’t looking for me, one could have been routinely arrested for other reasons. Since I had announced my intentions publicly, all they could do was to surround the locations and the homes of people they thought I would visit, places which I put off limits to myself anyway and people whom I had not even contacted, for this very same reason.
During my trip to Iran, many regime agents in Iran and in Los Angeles had been trying very hard to find my location. Many people in cities where the regime thought I would be were questioned and placed under surveillance and traps were set. There were even rumors about me visiting ancient parts of Iran and I guess a lot of regime energy was diverted to those provinces.
Upon my return, one known agent who had called from Iran to my family and had asked about my location, appeared here in Los Angeles and asked: “How the hell did you get out? We were looking for you everywhere.” One of the several locations where we had stayed was raided many days later demonstrating the predicted inefficiency of the regime’s intelligence during times of turmoil. Many people, whom I did contact and worked with for the anniversary events, have remained safe and free, emphasizing the same fact one more time.
FP: How did you communicate during all this time?
Farahanipour: Again, with no details, I can say that I stayed completely away from any systems connected to Iranian communications networks. Even publicly available but expensive equipment which we acquired by maxing out our credit cards can apparently elude regime systems. Needless to say, even Iranian networks can be used for many purposes if proper techniques are used. All said, in times of turmoil, all such systems for surveillance, detection, monitoring and etc. fail. My trip showed not only that borders can be crossed but regime capabilities can easily be stretched to the breaking point.
As they warn children on TV: “Don’t try this at home”. None of these can be accomplished without preparation, practice, coordination, caution and experience. And by the way: Thank God for Google Earth.
FP: Tell us about the July 9th events in Iran. Did everything go as you had predicted?
Farahanipour: Our predictions were leaning towards smaller scale, sporadic and mobile street protests rather than huge rallies like back in June. Already we knew that the regime had deployed massive forces around major universities and in particular the Tehran University, hundreds more potential leaders had been arrested and the Moussavi faction, instead of respecting the anniversary of the uprising, had told its supporters to go and pray inside mosques.
In effect, Moussavi had boycotted the event. We found out later that the effects of a massive dust storm in Southwesters Iran was used as an excuse by the government to close down schools, offices and many services in Tehran and to exaggerate the health risks, resulting in the migration of hundreds of thousands of Tehran residents to Northern provinces. Tehran was practically shut down and placed under occupation; a bizarre scene to be sure. Other major cities were also under similar controls. I have to admit that by July 8th I was even having doubts about even those kinds of protests which we were predicting.
In spite of all said, the youth of several cities and particularly Tehran, waged a heroic hit and run campaign of civil disobedience protests against the regime. Such were their mobility and tactics that the concentrated forces around Tehran University for example (as around universities of Tabriz, Shiraz, Mashad and particularly in Esfehan) could not pursue the demonstrators too far from their deployment areas which would have risked other demonstrators moving in once they had abandoned the original location. These tactics resulted in zero deaths among the demonstrators.
It is noteworthy that tens of thousands of regular folks used the situation to wage neighborhood and local demonstrations in smaller streets and allies, far from regime concentrations. The participation of tens of thousands showed us that many of the activists within the Moussavi camp indeed ignored his calls and many whom the media characterized as Moussavi supporters were indeed of a different breed calling for an end to the Islamic Republic and the Supreme leader (in not so polite terms).
In spite of many attacks by security forces and hundreds of arrests, we could say that the scope of the July 9th tenth anniversary events was beyond our expectations but within the predicted form. Our youth and indeed our own activists learned a lot of experience for future engagements in the ongoing democratic and non-violent movement that you can still see on TV.
FP: What now? What should we expect in the future?
Farahanipour: Certainly this popular movement is deeply rooted but we shall see it evolve in lows and highs. People cannot demonstrate in the streets for weeks on end. The shapes and forms of protest will differ according to the situation. Mass rallies, mobile demonstrations, strikes, passive resistance, education and propaganda will continue because the fundamental conflicts have not been resolved.
The energy of the people has not been depleted and their humiliation has been ongoing by the Supreme Leader and his gang. The internal and factional conflict within the regime is deepening as their statements and activities gets nastier by the day, focusing on the removal of the Supreme Leader himself which is far ahead of contesting the elections fraud, just several weeks ago.
Finally the international scope of this conflict, such as major issues between the US and Iran (Nuclear, Israel-Palestine , Terrorism, Iraq …) has not changed; if anything has become more difficult to approach since even President Obama cannot approach Ahmadinejad and his Supreme Leader for quite a while, after the whole world has witnessed the protests and the crackdowns in Iran.
July 30th will be the fortieth day of the killing of the international heroine of the Iranian revolution Neda and several others that were killed on or about the same day. Neda, who according to her family, was neither a Moussavi supporter nor had she voted in the show elections of June 22nd, has by her tragic death at the hands of regime assassins, been able to rally the support of all who oppose the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei camp and her fortieth day (traditional Muslim mourning period) will be a potential mass event, as the families have called the people to rally around the grave sites at the Beheshteh Zahrah cemetery which with its millions of graves has become a gruesome symbol to the murderous and incompetent legacy of the Islamic Republic.
Early in August, Ahmadinejad, whose domestic image has been terribly destroyed by the elections fraud and whose new second term is a humiliating reminder of all the events of June and July, will be inaugurated by the Supreme Leader as the new president. Quite possibly this will be a day and more likely a week of massive uprising with unpredictable scope. Everyone is organizing and preparing for these two events which may well be fused into one.
The MPG party is endorsing Neda’s fortieth day rally and is hoping that the July 9th seeds will bear fruit in early August in another massive strike against the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic.
FP: Roozbeh Farahanipour, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview. You are truly a noble and courageous warrior for freedom.
Farahanipour: Thank you.