EYEWITNESS REPORT FROM IRAN
(Part I January)
"I openly declare that they (the ruling clerics) must be
declared criminals and terrorists..."
-Hojjatol Islam Sevved Mahmood Ghomi, in an interview
with Kayhan newspaper (Farsi), London, December IS, 1994
Editor's Note: This eyewitness account has
prepared by an Iranian student returning to his country after 14
years of studying and living in Europe. He has earned a Ph.D. in
sociology and is currently working on his thesis for a Ph.D. in
Political Science. Having been away for a very long tune. he
.spent nine months traveling the country in order to learn first
hand the renditions, the needs and the views of the people.
This report was started as a personal diary to record my
observations and feelings about my country and my people. Having
been away 14 years, I wanted to see for myself how the country had
changed, and how all this had affected the people. My analyses and
conclusions are based on nine months of intense social, economic
and political research. This realistic research did not take place
in a library. It took place on the back streets of cities and
villages of Iran, in the corridors of the government buildings, in
ordinary people's houses, in military compounds, and in the
mosques and bazaars. Since most of the general facts about the
conditions are well-known, I shall try not to repeat the obvious.
As events unfold in Iran, I shall make my periodic reports to you
in hope of shedding light on the true aspirations of our repressed
and depressed people.
It is my estimate that only about 3% of the Iranian people live
extremely comfortable and opulent lives. These include the leaders
of the regime and those closely associated with them. They have
accumulated vast sums of money and property. 1 will excuse myself
to mention a rumor about the wealth of Rafsanjani, the President.
He is said to be the fourth richest man in Asia today.
I do not think it is even necessary to discuss how this
fabulous wealth came about.
The second group comprises about 15% of the people and is made
up of professionals, doctors and businessmen. They live well and
their income is between 500,000 and 1,000,000 tomans per month,
which is equivalent to between US$2,000
to $10,000. This income is enough to allow them to live fairly
comfortable lives according to Iranian standards today.
The third category consists of mostly white collar workers who
hold at least two and sometimes three jobs by mostly moonlighting
as cab drivers. They manage to make enough on which to get by. I
have seen the head of a branch of a government bank and an Army
major use their cars to carry passengers in order to supplement
their meager salaries. [Unfortunately many girls and women have
resorted to selling their bodies to support themselves. Sometimes
they are so down and out that they will sell themselves merely for
a dinner or a piece of clothing, reminiscent of the bygone days in
The fourth category, which makes up 72 0 /v of the population,
lives in abject poverty. These include the greater majority of the
government employees, blue collar workers, much of the personnel
of the Armed Forces, the Police and other para-military branches,
retirees, and small businessmen. Because of the unbearable
economic and social conditions, the rate of suicide, especially
among young women, is unbelievably high.
What is reported in the foreign press about economic conditions
in Iran does not tell the whole story. The actual reality is far
worse than is being reported. The greater majority of the -people
live in poverty: The small professional middle class, as mentioned
above, does do fairly well, but even this sector is hindered by a
lack of personal and economic security, and is in a constant
struggle to keep what they have from being taken away by
blackmailers, racketeers, and a variety of thugs demanding
If you want to pray for someone living in Iran today, you should
pray that he or she does not get sick. Shortage of even common
over-the-counter drugs and skyrocketing medical costs have caused
the simplest of diseases to often cause death or other
disabilities. There is a government program to privatize most
clinics and hospitals, in order to remedy the situation. The
question is not whether this program will remedy the situation.
The question is what other dire consequences for public health
this action may cause, because the government does not intend to
relinquish its control over the import of medicine.
The Military, Para-Military and Other Security Officials
The most striking observation is the visible breakdown of
discipline and the seniority system among the military and
para-military forces. When two officers of different ranks
approach each other, it is not at all certain that the junior of
the two will be the first to salute. I observed this situation
throughout the system and in all branches of the forces. One
wonders as to how senior officers will be able to command their
troops in times of emergencies and crises. This actual scenario
was played out in the Mashad riots, when the rank and file failed
to carry out the orders of the commanders, and did not participate
in quelling the riots. The Basij had to be mobilized to do the
job. In Isfahan, Najafahad and more recently in Qazvin, reports of
similar incidents point to the same general break-down of the
The second amazing fact is that the number of opponents of the
regime in the Armed Forces and even in the security and
intelligence community, seem to mirror the rest of the society.
Most of the problem, I believe, is financial in nature. Lack of
adequate income or availability of affordable housing are the two
most important underlying factors. As an example, 1 can cite the
case of one police officer who was transferred to a provincial
town. He tendered his resignation on the grounds that he could not
afford housing in that town. (He had been living in his father's
house.) He was given two choices: A fine of 3,000,000 rials and a
dishonorable discharge, or the acceptance of the order to
transfer. He reluctantly accepted the transfer.
Many within these groups had been housed in confiscated
dwellings of the Iranians who had left the country. Many of these
Iranians have returned and have succeeded in retrieving their
confiscated assets. This has created a huge headache for the
government: one which will not be remedied by halfhearted measures
As illustrated, morale is most definitely a problem within all
branches of services. To add to their woes, because of their
association with the security arm of the government, they are
looked down upon and denigrated in the society. This lack of
respect has become quite unbearable for many in the Armed Forces.
They will go out of their way to prove that they are not lackeys
of the mullahs, but a part of the people.
In many Iranian cities, anti-government graffiti, specifically
slogans against Khamenei and Rafsanjani crop up on walls all the
time. A specific incident is quite illuminating. I saw the slogans
"Death to Khamenei" and "Death to Rafsanjani" painted on the wall
of a building which housed the Pasdaran headquarters in a
provincial town. Even though the gate was guarded around the
clock, and the guard had full view of the wall at all times, the
slogans had been painted on in very bold letters.
To me this proved that the guards and probably the other
personnel as well shared the sympathies of the people, and had
allowed the slogan to be written, and had not taken any measures
to erase or paint over it. It is apparent that the regime cannot
even rely on its "Revolutionary Guards" - the Pasdaran - for
Causes For Lack Of Security
The financial problems facing all government em ployees in
general, and security forces in particular, has caused rampant
corruption. There is hardly any problem that cannot be solved with
the right amount of bribe. And of course, no matter what you need
to do, there is always a problem which has to be solved first. One
face-saving device used is by asking for donations for the
families of the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, or for the repair of
the police station or the office building and the like.
The abhorent conditions of the judicial system has helped
greatly in undermining the social fabric of the country. It is
noteworthy that almost all the legal texts being taught at the
Universities in Iran decry the judicial system and are extremely
critical of the inadequacies of the present laws that require the
Judge and the prosecutor to rely on the Islamic common law and
Hadirh - the various rulings and hearsay handed down through the
1,400 years of Islam by theologians and recounted by some
religious historians - in their interpretation of the present
laws, and in their decision making process. The problem is that
there are so many contradictory rulings on similar cases, that the
system is swayed by the political as well as monetary rewards that
may ensue from the rulings.
At the same time, the defendants' right to appeal is encumbered
with so many pitfalls and problems, that, for all intents and
purposes, it might as well not exist. On the walls of prison
cells, almost all the scribbling by the ex-inmates convey the same
message: that they are innocent.
The chaotic state of the judiciary along with the break-down in
law and order and the resulting graft and bribery and the general
corruption of the officials, has instilled a total sense of
insecurity in the general public. Even the groups that had a
special place and special relations with the regime, i.e. the
disabled veterans of the war, have become disaffected. The Shiraz
riots were started by these same veterans in wheelchairs. And
there is an untold story of a greater tragedy: of the forceful
rape and sodomy of the very young volunteers by the mullahs and
some "commanders" of the irregular forces.
I conclude this section by stating that I found roughly the
same proportion of disaffected and disenchanted among the police,
the military, the Pasdars, and the old members of the Komilehs.
The notable difference was that the latter two groups, because of
their "revolutionary" backgrounds felt less inhibited in voicing
their opinions in public. They knew that they could not he branded
"anti-revolutionary" as easily.
The Intelligence Departments Of the Regime
Most of the bureaucracy is controlled through the "Islamic
Committees". The most important section of the intelligence
operation of the system is the intelligence and
of the Pasdaran. But unlike the popular perception, their power
is neither as pervasive as the opposition and the general public
believes it to be, nor are they totally inept.
The first point that attracts one's attention is that they seem
to be well informed about some very minute and inconsequential
details of some obscure opposition groups abroad, while not
possessing the basic intelligence about the workings of these
groups. In discussing such problems with the present members of
the intelligence community as well as some of the former members
of the Savak, 1 concluded that their main deficiency was lack of
In general, most of their sources do not seem to he well
placed. When they do penetrate an organization, it is generally in
the lower echelons. They also get some information from returning
Iranians who for reasons of their own, want to get back in the
good graces of the regime, and therefore, offer them information
which for the most part is neither accurate nor up-to-date. They
have not been able to successfully plant agents, except in rare
cases such as Boveir-Ahmadi, one of the assassins of the late Dr.
Shapour Bakhtiar. It is very hard for their agents because most of
the opposition groups are tightlyknit entities, and consist of
people who have known each other or of each other for a fairly
On a personal note, I would like to detail my own experience
with the security department. I was detained and interrogated
because my name appeared on a list of people barred from leaving
Iran. (As it turned out, it was a case of mistaken identity.)
Initially, I was blindfolded, and led to the interrogation room. I
was kept blindfolded throughout the ordeal, except for short
periods when they stopped for lunch or to use the facilities.
During these intervals, the agents or other staff whom I did see,
were extremely apologetic and kept repeating that they were only
conscripts, and had nothing to do with the system. In comparison,
in the pre-revolutionary days the agents of the Savak were, for
the most part, actually quite proud of their positions. It is
quite apparent that even the intelligence officers of the Savama
feel insecure enough to have taken the precautionary steps of not
being recognized in the event the regime falls.
Moderate and Radical Clerics?
The Western media insists on categorizing the mullahs into
radical and moderate groups. As far as the Iranian people are
concerned, this differentiation simply does not exist. It is
generally believed that the only dif ference between mullahs is
one of means, and not of the end. The people also believe that the
mullahs are very much united in their joint endeavor, and have
always been united towards a common goal, i.e. retaining power.
Any perceived difference among them is one of personal style or
taste, and at times it is role-playing to keep the opposition and
the foreigners guessing.
It is generally believed that the presence of any cleric in any
regime automatically disavows any possibility of reform and change
in the government. The mullahs believe that their antiquated
theocratic system is based on the "laws of God", and thus are
inviolable. This refutes any Aotims of reform by anyone or group
among them. The power structure is such that it precludes its
collapse as in the case of the old Soviet Union. Also, the
individual history of each of the clerical leaders in power today
proves their unity of goal and intent. In short, one must
write-off the probability of reform from within or any voluntary
action by the mullahs that would undermine their authority or
bring about their downfall.
But signs of the feeling of insecurity by the leaders of the
regime are also seen in many of their actions. The month of
Moharram, according to the Islamic lunar calendar, is a very holy
and somber month for the Shi'ites. It is the anniversary of the
martyrdom of their third Imam, and is celebrated with many public
processions and gatherings. The old regime was severely criticized
for limiting these processions to certain areas in the bazaars.
Now, the Islamic regime is doing likewise! Even though the
perception is that these processions are general reflections of
religious sentiment as well as a show of support for the Islamic
regime, the regime does not feel secure enough to allow this last
bastion of its support to freely gather and perform its rituals.
Again a comparison to the pre-Revolutionary days. During the
first 10 days of Moharram, the Martyrdom of Hossein was celebrated
with huge public gatherings and processions in all the mosques and
other places of worship. Crowds of 20,000 to 30,000 participants
was only normal. Last year, 1 could not find gatherings of more
than 3,000 people.
Religiously, Iranians seem to be divided into two distinct
groups: a minority which still strongly believes in adhering to
the tenets of the religion, but has distanced itself from the
regime, and does not consider the regime or its actions as a
representation of Islam; and the greater majority which has become
so disillusioned that, in some cases, it has gone as far as
ridiculing some of the religious practices of the mullahs, and to
show further disgust, drink bootlegged liquor on religious
holidays, when drinking has been traditionally tabooed.
Popular disillusionment is widespread. I came across a
Hezbollahi (one who still supports the Islamic regime), who had
recently returned from Europe. As he put it, he had delayed his
return as long as he possibly could, by prolonging his studies. He
had earned two BAs, two MAs, and a Ph.D., and was in a position to
get a very good post, because his brother was a chief mullah in
some town. This man had decided to return to Europe, where he knew
he had to go back to his menial job at the bakery in order to earn
a meager living. Even he could not trust the regime he supported.
This is graphic proof of the erosion of confidence even among the
staunchest of the regime's supporters.
The Friday Prayers
The mullah leadership attached a great deal of importance to
the turn-out of the Friday prayers. They could show the world
their popular support, they could use peer pressure to get the
people to attend. The prayers were held at the football field at
the University of Tehran, and in the early months of the
revolution entire streets around the University became lined with
the faithful. So the regime went as far as building special public
water spigots around these streets to enable the faithful the
ritual washing before the prayers. Today, they can hardly fill the
football field, and the spigots have been sealed and abandoned.
Tehran has a population of some 10 to 12 million people. Even in
the capital, the mullahs cannot entice more than 5,000 to attend.
The lack of security felt by the regime is further demonstrated
by the fact that they feel compelled to show raw power. On
highways around the country, bands of 20 to 50 heavily armed men
stop traffic randomly, making believe they are on a security
detail, and are hunting down a specific person in a specific
vehicle. Such crude show of force is used as intimidation as well
as to create an aura of being in control.
In discussing the future of the leaders of the regime with the
people, I was amazed to find out that many had lists of leaders
and other public officials they would like to see severely
punished once the regime is toppled. 1 think the only way the
present leaders and officials could survive a public lynching
would be for them to be lucky enough to be arrested and kept out
the hands of the mobs by whoever comes to power.
What is interesting is that the regime, in order to bolster its
position with the people, is trying to create the illusion that it
has the indirect support of the West. A building is under
construction in the Velenjak area of north Tehran, where most of
the embassies are being relocated, and it has been rumored that it
is the future embassy of the U.S.!
What is striking from the moment one lands in Iran is that in
almost all public groups and gatherings such as in taxi cabs or
whatever queue one has to wait in, vociferous opposition is heard
constantly. This ranges from the personal animosity towards gov
ernment officials, to outright denunciation of the govern ment.
And this opposition comes from all sectors of life: from the
unemployed and other groups on the fringes of society, to
businessmen, the well-to-do, and the educated. I do not think I am
exaggerating when I say that fully 95% of the people oppose the
regime in one form or the other. The common demand is the
replacement of the regime with one that would give them freedom,
that would respect their basic rights, that will provide them with
security and the rule of law, and that would bring them a
democratic system in which their voices and opinions are heard and
respected. Most importantly, they would like to see the new gov
ernment deal with their economic woes.
Iran today is like a pressure cooker. Intense economic pressure
and excessive political repression have brought the population to
the verge of uprising. As mentioned earlier, the government cannot
count on the Armed Forces or even their own security forces to put
down any rebellion. When the uprising occurs, it will not take
long for the government to collapse.
Opposition groups and leaders do not need to control any air
waves or publications to tell the Iranian people the gross
shortcomings of this mullah regime. What is needed is to organize
and channel this great energy, to coordinate the people and the
groups, so that they can make a united stand, and take united
action to make their voices and feelings heard the world over.
In order to get some real "news", most of the Iranians tune in
to the Farsi program of the VOA [Voice of America], the BBC, and
Radio Israel. Unfortunately, most of the news they hear about Iran
is a rehashing of the official press of the Islamic Republic. On
occasion, these radios do air short interviews with some
opposition leaders. There too, the questions are normally quite
tame and non-controversial. This is perceived by the Iranian
public as a de facto support for the clerical regime.
An example of the inadequate attention paid to events in Iran
is the reporting of the enormous and splendid demonstrations in
Arak, Mashad, Shirai, and other cities. These spontaneous popular
outpouring of feelings were hardly reported, and when mentioned,
were almost deprecated. The participants and observers of these
demonstrations were amazed and dismayed by the lack of adequate
The radio programs of the opposition groups over the years have
aired so many half-truths, exaggerations and out-right lies that
they have lost all credibility with the people. Nonetheless, they
still have an audience.
The Iranians living in Iran do not need to be told what the
conditions are. They are living in those conditions. They do not
need to hear political analyses of the regime's human rights
violations. They are suffering under it. The best use of the air
waves would be to teach the people the effective ways of resisting
and countering the pressures of the regime, and the ways and means
of organizing in preparation for a mass uprising. They also should
air actual new events about the resistance and the struggle taking
place against the regime in Iran today, not just the mythology of
our brave forebears from our beloved Shahnameh. They should start
making history not just recounting it.
Contrary to the general perception created by the regime's
foreign adventurism and high dollar support for "fundamentalist"
groups world-wide and assassination of opposition leaders at home
and abroad, it
is really a paper tiger ready to be blown away. Any
organization, regardless of its size, but with the ability to
mobilize the masses by convincing them that the Islamic Republic
does not have the support of the west in general and the U.S. in
particular, can precipitate this change. The regime has lost the
popular mandate it once had.
The Iranian people know, and the world should know, that the
only way to end international terrorism is to help end the regime
of terror of the clerics. That would be the first step, and the
beginning of the end of the threat of "international
fundamentalism". That would dry out the financial, material and
moral support, particularly to these movements in Egypt, Algeria,
Jordan and Lebanon. Their end would mean that for once in
contemporary history, real peace may have a chance in the Middle
It is enough to pay attention to the open letter and interviews
of the retired General Amir-Rahimi, once a staunch supporter of
and participant in the regime, but now imprisoned because, having
seen the true nature of the regime, called for its peaceful
relinquishment of power.