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Iran: Former Revolutionary Talks About Parting Ways With Theocracy

Mohsen Sazegara (file photo) (Courtesy Photo) February 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian ceremonies marking the 28th anniversary of the country's Islamic Revolution culminate on February 11. For some, recalling the fall of the shah and the birth of the Islamic republic in 1979 is an occasion to celebrate and show support for the country's Islamic establishment. For others -- like Mohsen Sazegara, a former acolyte turned establishment critic -- the anniversary is a reminder of dashed dreams and hopes.

Sazegara used to be a true revolutionary. A student in the United States and a member of the anti-Shah student movement, he left school to join Iran's main religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in his Parisian exile. He worked in the ayatollah's press office and helped organize interviews.

"I returned to Iran with Mr. Khomeini on that flight, and in the period between February 1 and 11, I became active in Sepah's school [among Khomeini's main headquarters] in the international-relations and press section," says Sazegara, as he recalls his experience as a 22-year-old on the historic plane trip that brought Khomeini back to Iran in February 1979, after 14 years in exile.

They were days of great hope for people, like Sazegara, who strongly opposed the U.S.-backed monarchy -- for its political repression and its Western influence over their country.

Upon his return to Tehran, Khomeini took control of the Iranian revolution. Ten days later, the revolution was concluded. After a referendum the Islamic Republic of Iran was officially created on April 1, 1979.

An Islamic constitution was adopted that gave ultimate authority to unelected religious leaders. Islamic laws were applied, and Islamic hijab -- covering all but hands and face -- became obligatory attire for women.

Early Disenchantment

Critics say the revolution failed to deliver on its promises of freedom and justice.

In the early years after the revolution, Sazegara helped form Iran's paramilitary Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). He was also involved in shaping official radio broadcasts and held several government posts, including deputy minister for heavy industry.

Sazegara, and others, became disillusioned by unmet expectations. He began questioning the clerical establishment and one of its key bodies: the powerful Guardians Council, which has the power to vet laws approved by the parliament.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini arriving in Tehran from his French exile on February 1, 1979 (Fars)

"The beginning was in 1985, when I became into conflict with the Guardians Council over the budget law," Sazegara says. "In a toughly worded letter, I wrote to the then-minister of heavy industry that the behavior of this body was not appropriate."

Yet a decisive moment came when he landed in Tehran's notorious Evin prison over differences with the country's judiciary.

"There I witnessed scenes that I never imagined could happen: scuffles, use of abusive language, insults, people groaning and lamenting -- although I didn't see them beating anyone," Sazegara remembers. "But I heard the voice of a girl telling an interrogator, 'I can't endure more torture.'"

...And Prison Shock

His brief detention marked a turning point for Sazegara. He says he protested against prisoners' treatment at the hands of Evin's prison warden in a meeting with the founder of the Islamic republic.

"I said, 'Mr. Khomeini, if you agree with what Mr. Lajevardi is doing at Evin, you should tell us. If you are against it, then why don't you stop it?'" Sazegara says. "The result of this incident was that I decided to revisit the ideas of the founders of the revolution, because we had never imagined we would replace the shah's dictatorship -- which we opposed mainly because of torture and killings -- by an establishment that would do the same things, or maybe even worse."

Sazegara says he declined further government posts and pursued his studies in history. He also published several political publications that were all shut down by the judiciary.

Sazegara's candidacy for Iran's presidential election in 2001 was rejected by the Guardians Council, and he gradually became one of the most outspoken critics of the theocracy. He was arrested several times over his criticism of Iran's Constitution, which grants absolute power to the supreme leader.

Condemning 'Violent Revolution'

He says he concluded that, under the current establishment and constitution, real democracy cannot be achieved.

In 2003, Sazegara spent more than three months in prison -- where he launched a hunger strike and lost about 20 kilograms. He later traveled to London for medical treatment and then moved to the United States, where he is now a guest lecturer at Harvard University.

Twenty-eight years after Iran's revolution, Sazegara says he has come to the conclusion that revolutions do not bring democracy. The former revolutionary says "a violent revolution" is more likely to bring "a despotic regime."

He describes himself as an opponent of the current leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"If another shah came to power in Iran again, and he was a dictator, I would definitely fight against him," Sazegara says. "I am fighting against the rule of Mr. Khamenei and the legal despotism that rules the country for the same reason. But if I think back to when I was 22, [if I could do it again] I would not choose a revolutionary ideology to fight dictatorships."

He now supports democratic paths to change in Iran, including through a nationwide referendum.

"We have no other choice than to hold a [referendum] under the supervision of international organizations, so that we will be able to ask the people whether they want the Islamic establishment or not," he says. "Of course, talking about it is easy; but bringing it into practice is difficult."

Sazegara's revolutionary fervor evaporated long ago.

Some of his fellow revolutionaries remain loyal, of course. One of the most prominent among them is President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has vowed to return the country to its early revolutionary values.

The Iranian Revolution

The Iranian Revolution
Iranians demonstrate in Tehran on February 10, 1979, shortly after the return to Iran of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (epa)

THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC: Iran's 1979 revolution ended 2,500 years of monarchy and established the world's first modern theocracy. In February 2004, on the 25th anniversary of that event, RFE/RL produced a special report on how the ensuing years have measured up to the expectations of those times.

"I had been freed from jail in those days, and I hoped that the [revolutionary] forces would bring democracy and progress for the country, despite the religious leadership that caused some doubts, I hoped that the press would be free, the books would be published without censorship, [political] parties, associations and civil society organizations would be formed, and I hoped that I would be able to write freely. In fact, in these 25 years, I have not seen anything but the death and silencing of those beautiful hopes and dreams," Faraj Sarkouhi, an exiled writer and journalist, told RFE/RL....(more)


RFE/RL's reporting on Iran.

A tank bearing a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini takes up a position in Tehran on February 12, 1979 (epa)

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.