Frontpage Interview’s guests today are Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi and her husband Elio Bonazzi. Both are writers, activists and Middle East pundits.
FP: Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi and Elio Bonazzi, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted by email and in some answers, both husband and wife answer a question in unison].
Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi (BZB) and Elio Bonazzi (EB): Thank you Jamie for providing us and other Iranians whose work you post the forum to enlighten your readers to the nature and purpose of radical Islamism that has ravaged Iran and Iranians over the last 26 years.
FP: Tell us a bit about your background and your family’s background.
BZB: My father is a celebrated journalist and writer whose two main passions in life were Cinema and geo-politics. He was one of the pre-eminent champions of world cinema in Iran and Iranian cinema abroad; as a young Iranian man he advanced (without any help from anyone) in the '60's Hollywood, Cinecittà and French New Wave cinema as a film historian, critic and eye for talent... he is an almost larger-than-life kind of a character. When the revolution began, though he had plenty of job opportunities outside Iran and could have fled, he chose to stay behind along with quite a few friends and relatives in order to protect the integrity of social evolution that was occurring in light of the revolution. Now, in retrospect we all see that sadly, that was the wrong choice!
My mother who was a journalist in her youth (and met my father through the journalist circles in Tehran in the '50's) got her bachelors degree in Economics from U.S.C. in the '60's and then her MBA from NYU; She was one of the managing directors of the Iranian National Handicraft Center in the ‘70’s. This was a wonderful organization that through sales in various specifically designed cooperative stores set up by the ministry of commerce, around Iran, artisans and crafts people were able to sell their and did not have to go through the bazaars where they may have been cheated. It was a win/win situation for all. This organization did so well, that my mother was asked to open the N.Y. based headquarters in ’72. My mom turned it into a successful enterprise there too and returned to Iran in ’74 where after a serious of promotions she was advanced to managing directorship of the Iranian Customs administration. Since the revolution when she left Iran and came back to the U.S., she has been an activist. In fact we occasionally collaborate and strategize on some projects.
I'm 43, born in Tehran in May of '61...raised between Iran, the U.S. and Europe with Farsi, English and French as my mother tongues. Growing up around and in the world of cinema, I myself studied film/theater/art history and linguistics at the American University in Paris as well as L'IDHEC (the institute of advanced cinematic studies in Paris, now knows as FEMIS) as well as University of Maryland, Baltimore.
I never studied political science and whatever I know is purely auto-didactic. Having been raised by a family of politicos, I myself have been a politico all my life but the active side of me was evoked when I met Elio in Tehran in 1978. He was my junior prom's blind date! He was living in Iran with his mother who was working for the Italian Embassy in Tehran and attending the Italian school there (Elio’s father is the renowned Italian Sociologist, Giuseppe Bonazzi).
Back in those days Elio was one of the youngest and most active member of the Italian Communist group Lotta Continua. He hated Americans and spoke only French and refused to learn English (because it was the language of Imperialism!) Anyhow, being the hardcore Communist that he was and being that right around then, the whole Bader Meinhoff stuff was going on, the Red Brigade had just kidnapped Aldo Moro, etc. I took him to task at our prom date. After that, we were in love! Though he’d been in Iran for 4 years at that point and it turned out that we had many mutual friends, we only got to meet toward the end of his sojourn in Iran; he was just graduating high school and had to go back to Turin (which is where he's originally from) to start University, so we only got to spend 3 months together with the proviso that he come back to Tehran on his holidays (his mom was staying in Tehran as her mission wasn’t over). So the Christmas holidays of '78-'79 when Elio was meant to come back to Tehran, the revolution broke out and the Tehran airport was closed and all non-Iranians were evacuated. We continued writing and phoning each other from Turin to Tehran, with the raging revolution going on all around me and when in the June of '79 I finally left Iran, I called him from Greece. No matter how hard we tried, we weren't able to get together that summer and then gradually, due to life’s fickle ways, we lost touch. In July of 2001, just as I was about to marry someone else, in Amsterdam, Elio after years of searching for me, found me again through my high school’s website…after 22 years! The rest as they say is history.
FP: In what ways do you think that the West fails to understand Iran?
BZB & EB: We usually refer to the concept of “cultural imperialism” to explain the failure of most Westerners to understand not only Iran, but also the East in general. Cultural imperialism is the approach for which there is only one way of doing things; that is the Western way, which considers it to be the most advanced, the most civilized, and the most efficient. In the mind of Westerners there is only one way to engage other nations and this way usually implies some sort of economic benefit, in the best case for both participants, in the worst case only for the Western entity, be it a nation, a company or even a cultural institution. The western mentality is fundamentally based on rationality and economic utility, summarized in the notion of “homo economicus”. That notion prevented the nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, because the Russians belong to the same culture, and as the pop singer Sting so eloquently expressed it, “They also love their children.” So even when it became evident that the USSR had lost the cold war, the Russians resisted the biblical temptation of having Samson die with all the Philistines, and decided not to engage in the final conflict, which would have meant the destruction of the planet.
In many occasions, Westerners assume that everybody in the world shares their standard behavior; basically they project their mentality onto all counterparts. And here is where, in the case of Iran, they dramatically fail. The Islamist establishment that unfortunately today governs that country is not interested in making the best possible deal with the West. Its only interest is the destruction of the infidels and their corrupt world.
While in the West the act of engagement is absolutely neutral, and doesn’t imply giving in, but simply to sit down and negotiate, in the mentality of the mullahs to engage basically means that the counterpart proposing engagement feels weak, and tries to beg for a deal from an inferior position.
That was evident during a function organized in July 2004 by the Council of Foreign Relations, where Mr. Brzezinski was proposing engagement with the Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Haa’eri (not the Ha’eri that is part and parcel of the coterie of the Mullahs and is sitting in Qom, but the one who has been defrocked and lives between the U.S. and Germany), a Shia scholar forced to exile because favors a secularized version of Shi’itism, and miraculously still alive after several attempts on his life in Germany, was among the public, and was given the opportunity to speak. Ayatollah Haa’eri strongly instructed Brzezinski and his fellow panelists that engaging the mullahs would simply embolden their aspirations to destroy the West, because in their mind they would smell a weak adversary prepared to make concessions. Among the people present to the CFR function, the Iranians understood perfectly what Haa’eri was saying, while most Westerners were smiling with an air of superiority, not believing a word of what they were hearing, convinced that Haa’eri was a bitter character, unable to extricate himself from his grudges as a defrocked Mullah. This is the origin of the deep sense of frustration that we feel when confronting cultural imperialism: no matter how loud we scream, no matter how eloquent and based on facts is our arguing that the mullahs must be confronted, not courted, Islam absolutely secularized, separating religion from state, the same way westerners aspire to live, our plea falls on deaf ears. Westerners deem to know better, even if the subject matter is our land, our culture and, ultimately, us.
Another sad example is the recent book by Ken Pollack titled “The Persian Puzzle.” Mr. Pollack shows an encyclopedic knowledge of Iran and its history, definitely he knows more than even many of the well-educated Iranians. Yet, in spite of all his knowledge, he fails to grasp the basic concept that the only way to deal with the Islamist threat is to actively pursue regime change in Tehran; anything short of that is simply postponing the inevitable showdown, which will occur sooner or later. The sooner the better for the West, which would confront a regime that doesn’t have yet a nuclear arsenal at his disposal.
Mr. Pollack, (like the journalist, Arnaud de Borchgrave) naively and unfortunately propose instead dialogue and a diplomatic solution, once again projecting their western mentality onto interlocutors that behave according to different systems of belief and standards.
FP: It is interesting that many leftists have supported Islamist terror and tyranny. The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, came out and championed Khomeini’s Revolution in 1979 – with all of its horror. What do you think attracted Foucault to such despotism and its genocide? Why do you think leftists become so intoxicated with violent revolutions that engage in mass murder and terror?
EB: As a former left wing militant, I think I can respond to this question exhaustively. I lived in Iran from 1975 until the beginning of the revolution, and having learned farsi, once I was back in my country of origin (fall of 1978), I participated actively with my Iranian friends living in Italy to the frantic revolutionary activity of support to the movement in Iran.
While Foucault was probably the most renowned intellectual to be involved in the support of Khomeini, major sectors of the European left were enthusiastic about the historical changes taking place in Iran. To understand why, a little historical background is necessary. The left had reached its apogee between 1974 and 1975, between the “Revolution of the Carnations” occurred in Portugal in April 1974 and the fall of Saigon in April 1975. The US was in that phase weak, leaking its Watergate scandal wounds, and unable to lead the Western world through a sufficiently strong leadership. The Soviet block was gaining a considerable advantage over the free world. But the first symptoms of decline for the left were appearing, first the Soviet gerontocracy that was fossilizing the once vibrant and progressive ideas of the October revolution, and then the recurring problems with the satellite states of the Warsaw pact, like Poland, where consensus towards the communist ruling was constantly diminishing.
The Iranian uprising was perceived by the left first and foremost as a defeat for American imperialism, which had brought the Shah to power through a coup in 1953, and considered Iran as the a puppet regime in the Middle East. That sentiment was coupled with a generic love for the idea of a revolution, no matter what the outcome, typical of the left-wing rhetoric. This romanticized revolutionary myth was entrenched in the DNA of the left, and embodied by the character of Che Guevara, whose glorified image was present in every rally and every function held worldwide, immortalized in banners and t-shirts. A commonly used metaphor of that period was the one that compared the revolution to giving birth. One should not focus on the loss of blood and the excruciating physical pain experienced by the mother to dismiss the value of the new creature coming to this world. The left was generally very forgiving of the excesses committed by revolutionary forces, as the supposed good coming from new the world brought about by the abrupt change would have justified the sacrifice of the elements of the old guard, indiscriminately killed and executed during the overthrowing of the old regime. Mao Zedong summarized this concept in the famous sentence “The Revolution is not a gala dinner!” The uprising led by Khomeini occurred concurrently with the revolution in Nicaragua. In those frantic months at the beginning of 1979, the most politically savvy left-wing intellectuals tried to conceal the deep crisis that started affecting the left by driving the attention of the left-wing public on the two revolutions, hoping that the galvanizing forces unleashed in Managua and Tehran would have postponed and possibly avoided altogether the painful realization of the several failures of the Soviet Union, which became even more evident a few months later, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan.
In addition, the initial phase of the Iranian revolution saw the participation of all leftist political forces, from the Feddayns to the Communist Party (Tudeh), from the more centrist followers of Mossadeq to even strata of society that were previously supportive of the monarchy. After Khomeini managed to centralize all power firmly in his hands, and started executing left-wing militants, the left was still prepared to defend the more anti-American aspect of the revolution, symbolized by the humiliation the US suffered in the occasion of the hostage crisis. The common analysis at that time was that, yes, there was a clerical involution occurring in Iran, but in the grand scheme of worldwide geo-politics the fact remained that Iran was no more in the sphere of influence of American imperialism. The left was always completely oblivious to the “collateral damage” provoked by the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran). European governments even turned a blind eye on the killers sent by Tehran to execute activist expatriates living in Europe, sometimes even escorting the killers to the airport where a plane was ready to bring them back to Iran in first class seats.
FP: It was Iran that inspired the great wave of Islamist terror with which the world now has to deal. If Iran helped fuel the fire of Islamic fanaticism, do you think there is hope that it can also help dampen those flames?
BZB & EB: There is nothing but disenchantment and acrimony toward the Islamic Republic’s version of Islam today in Iran (however difficult it is for Westerners to hear and accept that), especially among 70% of Iranians who are in fact under the age 30. First of all the popular rage is directed against the “Velayateh Faqeeh”, the theocratic framework imposed by Khomeini after the revolution, which interrupted the long-time tradition of separation between church and State that was typical of Shi’itism. The age range of the worshippers at the Friday prayers shows how uninterested Iranian youth is in religion, at least the official religion of the mullahs. It is furthermore important to consider that Persians are not Arabs, and that in spite of having being conquered by the Arabs and having accepted Islam, Persians still have a strong sense of identity and fiercely resist being “Arabized”, which is exactly what happened after the advent of the Islamic Republic. As a form of civil disobedience against the theocrats, Iranians today choose to name their newborns after Persian heroes of the resistance against the Arab invaders, rather than after Islamic prophets. So names like Hussein and Mohammad are not fashionable any more, while name like Kourosh (Cyrus), Darioush (Darius), Arash, et al, which are pure male Persian names, are very popular today.
Before the revolution of 1979 Iran was a nation characterized by religious plurality. The shi’ites were a relative majority, but there were also Bahais, Christians, Sunnis, Jews and Zoroastrians (Zoroastrianism was one of the first monotheistic religions of the world and the official religion of Persia before Arabs attacked, massacred and forced Persians to accept Islam). A recent phenomenon in Iran is the rediscovery of Zoroastrianism, as a way, once again, to reaffirm the Persian heritage and specificity, and to defy the Islamist zealots. Such interest is manifested in reading books about Zoroastrianism, practicing its rituals, and ultimately converting to it. When books are not readily available, in a way that is reminiscent of the Samizdat phenomenon in the Soviet Union, photocopies are circulated among Iranians interested in their historical heritage.
The net result of having been forced to accept a State-imposed religion for more than 25 years is a complete backlash against it, which will become even more evident after the mullahs are overthrown. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to achieve regime change in Iran. The message to other nations tempted to follow in Khomeini’s footsteps will be clear; after 26 years of Islamic theocracy Islam has been weakened and left with considerably less followers, while secularism and alternative religions are on the rise.
FP: André Glucksmann, one of France's most renowned philosophers, has stated that the terror war today is one between the forces of civilization and nihilism and that, in many respects, this conflict manifests itself most clearly in Iran. Could you talk about this?
BZB & EB: Mr. Glucksman has summarized it very perceptively. The direction taken by the Islamist ruling of Iran is clearly towards nihilism. After the Islamic Revolution the country experienced a demographic expansion that almost doubled the population, from 37 million to 70 million people in 26 years. Iran is therefore a young country with an ancient culture and millennia of history; this is something in which people take pride! The consensus towards the Mullahocracy among the youth is effectively nil. The unemployment ratio is also extremely high, especially youth unemployment, which favors phenomena like drug addiction. And that is exactly what the government has done to control the alienated youth; it has induced massive drug abuse, especially opium and heroin, which have a debilitating effect on the mental health of the young addicts, who lose any will to rebel and be active against the establishment. Drug addiction now affects millions of young Iranians, and is a well-known problem between UN and DEA officials. The ability to control hostile masses through drug addiction is reminiscent of the policies devised by the British Empire in the 19th century, which kept subjugated Indians and Chinese nationals inducing opium addiction and even going to war twice against China to force the Chinese emperor to allow the import of opium.
A by-product of massive drug addiction is the increased number of HIV/AIDS cases, mainly due to needle sharing, which occurs regularly in Iranian prisons.
Public executions and stoning, which are on the rise, complete the nihilist picture internal to Iran, which is also very active in exporting nihilism overseas. The Islamist theocracy is the main sponsor of suicide bombers, who are financed through Hizbollah and Hamas, and take place in Israel and, more recently, in Iraq. And of course, they vehemently spin their viciousness through shameless media outlets like the laughable Al Manar TV, which is there to brainwash and recruit impressionable people to do their dirty work for them.
Stoning, public executions, massive drug addiction, a growing number of HIV/AIDS cases, together with suicide bombers and terrorist activity have all in common self-destruction and death, the essence of nihilism. Also holding sex slave auctions of Iranian children (between ages 4 and 24 to Arab and even European buyers, believe it or not) has become another form of demoralization and devastation of our people. Islamism is a culture of death, which clashes with civilization, as we know it. That is why André Glucksmann is absolutely right in pointing his finger to Iran as the main engine of nihilism; the Islamic Republic is the main threat to the values of civilization today.
FP: You have discussed how one of the weaknesses of the movement for liberty in Iran is that the fragmentation within the intelligentsia. Could you illuminate this phenomenon for us?
BZB: Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it fragmentation because every group in exile has its differences if you will; however, the fact is that we are making headway in bringing people from various ideological groups together for discussions and conflict resolution. There has to be a national reconciliation across the board and that is in fact happening, however slowly.
The thing that concerns me is that some American scholars and policy makers are falling for the spin that the MEK (Mojahedeen Khalq) who are also known as MKO or National Council of Resistance of Iran should be taken off the State Department’s terrorist list (and we all fear) as possibly the replacement the Mullahs. The MEK/MKO/NCR is a group driven by an ideology that merges Islam with Leninism. The Mojahedeen supported Khomeini, and just before the revolution they organized guerrilla warfare aimed at fighting American presence in Iran, killing four Americans. They participated in the summary executions perpetrated in the first 2 years after the revolution and enthusiastically supported the hostage taking at the US embassy; furthermore, let’s not forget that until the fall of Saddam they were backed by the Baathist regime. Khomeini as a tool to achieve absolute power used the Mojahedeen, but they were later marginalized, which is why they turned on Khomeini and his version of an Islamic Republic. In the summer of 1981 they were banned and started a fierce fight against the regime. Part of their leadership went into exile in France from where, capitalizing on the support of the leftist intelligentsia, organized a coalition and a war against Khomeini's regime. Their tactic was to have as many victims as possible among their followers in order to claim popular legitimacy. This use of their own people as sacrificial arsenal illustrates their contempt for human life and rights.
I don’t deny that they too have paid a very heavy price in the fight against the Mullahs (thousands were massacred at Khomeini’s command in 1988), but they’re Islamic Socialists and Iranians, as we’ve reiterated time and time again, want nothing to do with Islam as a rule of law anymore. This group is indeed well organized and has been known to often (not always) provide accurate information about the nuclear development in Iran. The fact is that many westerners think that because this group is “organized” that somehow they are the answer to 26 years of havoc wreaked by the Islamic Republic. They’ve learned to talk the western talk and walk the western walk and they have been known to take advantage of western “credulousness” to blur the fact that other major opposition exists! But it’s not the answer to our 26 year long misery and we expect that anyone who wants to see democracy in Iran would not go to bat for this or any other group per se by prescribing a replacement regime for us. That is up to the Iranian people. Up until now the State Department has resisted the pressure to remove the Mojahedeen Khalq from the list of terrorist organizations. Iranian seculars expect that the State Department put conditions on them should they consider releasing them from that list. The MEK must come up with an open self-criticism of their advocating the killing of foreign advisers during the Shah, their support of summary executions and violation of due process during the first years of the Islamic Republic, as well as the U.S. embassy hostage taking. They also must clarify their plans for the future of Iran and submit to the democratic mode of transition. They must renounce the titles of President (Maryam Rajavi, their leader) or any other political title and consider themselves as a political party. They must accept that in Iran there are constitutional monarchists, republicans and many other different political choices, all legitimate and of which they are only one and finally they must clearly profess their belief in International human rights instruments, with no reservation or exceptions.
You see a part of how the Mullahs operate is waiting for the U.S. to make one false move and then the psywar with the people of Iran begins. They will do anything to make the U.S. look incompetent and dictatorial and as a result, they’ll tell the Iranian people that the U.S. has once again turned on them by backing the one force that in fact will not be bringing the democracy Iranians are hoping for.
Also, any movement that has been started by our opposition both inside and outside Iran has been violently squelched by either the Revolutionary Guards (inside Iran) or their assassins (outside). So, if you look at the people who have been killed in Iran (like the murders of Iranian students, intellectuals, free-thinkers and artists inside the country), you’ll see that nothing in that sense has been allowed to succeed because the Revolutionary Guards simply find the activists and either assassinate them or take them to their dreadful prisons (like my father) where dissidents are regularly tortured, in some cases to death.
Then the opposition outside the country…Since 1980 the Mullahs have had their agents assassinate almost 150 of our finest activists; people like the great Dr. Shahpour Bakhtiar, Mr. Abdorahman Boroumand, Mr. Fereydoun Farrokhzad, Reza Mazlouman and the list goes on (to know more please refer to http://iricrimes.org/lr_int.asp). Though only one Iranian ex-pat was assassinated in the U.S., dozens more have been killed in Europe and though in almost every case the European secret services (French DST, Italian SISMI, MI6, Swiss police and Turkish secret service) caught the assassins, they turned around and put them on first class flights back to Iran in order to keep their relationship on the up and up with their Mullah oil baron buddies! By the way, Iranian activists living in Europe still fear for their lives because it is a known fact that the Europeans will safeguard none of us, fighting the Mullahs as long as the Mullahs’ assassins roam the continent freely.
I’d just like to expound on the story the only Iranian assassinated in the U.S. in the early years of the revolution. Mr. Akbar Tabatabai (Iranian Press attaché to the embassy in DC during the Shah) was murdered in his home in Bethesda, Maryland in 1980 by the American David Bellfield, who posed as a mailman and shot him point blank at his door. Bellfield who had become an eager “Moslem” was naïve enough to have allowed himself to be “recruited” by an Iranian fellow, agent of the Mullahs, who incidentally still lives in the DC area and runs an Islamic school. After the assassination, Bellfield, a native of Long Island, New York (who now calls himself Dawud Salahuddin) got in his car and drove directly to Canada. By the time the news hit the airwaves, he was in Canada and then immediately on a flight to Switzerland, where he would be prepped for travel to Iran to sit at Khomeini’s feet. Now Bellfield, who is stuck in Iran for the last 25 years and has an Iranian wife and kids, (because here he still has a warrant out for his arrest) condemns the Mullahocracy in Iran as saying that there are two forms of justice in Iran; one for the Mullahs and their hierarchy and the rest for the rest of Iran (read Ira Silverman’s article about him in the New Yorker Magazine. Issue of Aug. 5th , 2002)
FP: Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi and Elio Bonazzi it was an honor to have you here. All of us here at Frontpage have tremendous respect for you. You are truly noble and courageous people and you are fighting a priceless and heroic battle. Thank you.
BZB & EB: We're glad to have allies like you and are grateful for every opportunity you give us to impart the facts to you and your readers. The Iranian issue and it's cancer-like spread is paralyzing the Middle-East and people here must realize that there are viable and lasting solutions that will not be prescribed by so-called pundits who have the pulpit given to them by traditional media. Those media outlets erected ideological barriers which prevented us to convey the voice of the people of Iran. The two of us have tried to link the "voice" of the people inside Iran and the "ears" of the truly unbiased and humanitarian westerners; Frontpage Magazine has provided us with a forum to finally get the facts out into the open.
William F. Buckley Jr.
Richard Perle and David Frum