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 Eastern Europe.]
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 protection money.
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 command structure.
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 anymore.
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 support.
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 counter-intelligence
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 reliable sources.
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 East.
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