If I Confess...
06 Aug 2009 21:43
A statement for the times.
By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 6 Aug 2009
Mehdi Bazargan, Iran's first prime minister after the 1979 Revolution, is one of the most respected political figures in contemporary Iran. In fact, except for Iran's national hero, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically-elected prime minister overthrown in a 1953 coup engineered by the CIA and Britain's MI6, Bazargan enjoys more respect than perhaps any other political figure in the past 60 years. He died on January 20, 1995.
He was certainly one of my idols. I first heard about him in 1963. My late father worked in the Tehran Bazaar -- the capital's commercial center -- for decades. Every year, during the first ten days of the Islamic month of Moharram, the part of the Bazaar in which my father worked would be shut down (as it still is) and people working there would mourn Hossein, the Shiites' third Imam, who was slain in the famous battle of Karbala (in present day southern Iraq). This murder took place on Ashura (the tenth day of Moharram), October 9, 680 A.D. (The Islamic calendar is based on a lunar year, which is shorter than a solar year.)
In 1963, the first ten days of Moharram were in late May and early June. On June 5, 1963, my father took me with him to the Bazaar to participate in the mourning rituals of Imam Hossein. That day there was a huge uprising in Tehran and other major Iranian cities because the Shah's government had arrested Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a fierce opponent of the Shah. I still remember vividly that the demonstrators were chanting, Yaa marg yaa Khomeini (either death or a [freed] Khomeini), as we approached the Bazaar. Needless to say, we barely escaped arrest by the security forces that were attacking the demonstrators, even though we were not chanting.
Every Thursday evening my father would go to Ray, a city on the southern edge of Tehran, where the shrine of Shah Abdolazim was. Shah Abdolazim was a fifth-generation descendent of Imam Hasan, the Shiites' 2nd Imam. He would say his evening prayers at the shrine, and would then come home. During the summers, he would take me with him. My father was highly political. He was opposed to the Shah and well informed. Although he was a pious man, a practicing Muslim, and deeply religious, he was also suspicious of most clerics.
About two weeks after the uprising, he took me with him to Ray on a Thursday evening. After the prayer, we left the shrine to head back home to Tehran. There was a large crowd outside, which reminded me of the June 5 demonstrations. So, I asked him about the demonstrators that we had seen that day. What had happened to them, and did we had to run again? He paused for a moment and then suggested having dinner at a kabob khaneh -- kabob restaurant -- before going home. I was happy; I loved kabob.
While awaiting our kabobs, which were served with warm and delicious bread, my father began to criticize Ayatollah Khomeini. "Do you remember what people were chanting on that day?" he asked. I nodded. "Khomeini is an akhound [cleric]. Most akhounds cannot be trusted. Their place is not in the government, anyway. Khomeini is making trouble for everybody." (Years later, at the peak of the 1979 Revolution, he repeated the same thing to my three sisters and two brothers many times in order to persuade them not to participate in the demonstrations against the Shah. By then, I was in the United States.)
I was only 9, but very curious. Besides, I was hungry and listening to my father helped make me forget the time until our kabob would be served. So, I was listening to him attentively. He then told me -- and I still remember every word -- "I like people like Bazargan. He is a modern practicing Muslim. He wears a tie [Bazargan always did, even after the Revolution when wearing a tie was deeply frowned upon], and is an intellectual who talks about Islam the correct way, not the way these corrupt akhounds do." I had absolutely no idea who Bazargan was or what he had done; I was too young. It was as if my father was talking to himself, venting out his frustrations. But, his words were carved into my brain. I would never forget that name, Bazargan.
Years later, while I was attending the engineering school at Tehran University, I began to learn about Bazargan. In fact, he had taught at the same school, and had been its first dean after the school had been founded in 1934. He was an engineer who had studied at Ecole Centrale Arts et Manufacturers in Paris. After his arrest and imprisonment in the 1960s, he had been barred from teaching there, but he was highly popular among the politically-inclined Islamic leftists. He had been the first head of the National Iranian Oil Company after Dr. Mosaddegh nationalized Iran's oil industry in 1951, and was a member of the National Front, Dr. Mosaddegh's political group. Politically-inclined Islamic leftists like me loved the fact that Bazargan had tried to interpret Islamic and Quranic teachings in modern terms.
In 1961, Bazargan, Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Taleghani (a progressive leftist cleric, and a revered figure of the 1979 Revolution), and Dr. Yadollah Sahabi, another close aid and friend of Dr. Mosaddegh and a professor of geological sciences at Tehran University, broke away from the National Front, and formed their own political group, the Freedom Movement (FM). In the first statement that the FM issued, the group declared that, "We [the founders] are Muslim, Iranian, nationalist, and constitutionalists," implying that they respected Iran's Constitution and wanted to oppose the Shah peacefully and within the Constitution's framework.
But the Shah outlawed the FM (and the National Front) after the June 5, 1963, uprising and jailed its leaders. During the show trials in the Shah's military court [civilian judges and prosecutors at that time would refuse to prosecute political activists, as a show of their opposition to the Shah], Bazargan declared that, "We [the FM] are the last group that talks to you [the Shah] peacefully. The next confrontation will be armed." He was correct. By 1965, the Shah had closed the door to all political dissent. Both Islamic and secular leftists took up arms to fight the Shah's regime.
On February 5, 1979, at the suggestion of Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini (who was assassinated shortly after the Revolution), Ayatollah Khomeini appointed Bazargan as the Prime Minister of the provisional government that was emerging (the Shah's regime was toppled a week later). But, almost right from the beginning, Bazargan was constantly clashing with the clerics, and even with Ayatollah Khomeini himself. He once said, "I am like a Volkswagen, but the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] is like a bulldozer," meaning that he could not be like the Ayatollah, destroying everything of the old regime.
In another speech, when he mentioned the Ayatollah's name, the crowd chanted a Quarnic verse that praises the Prophet, his family and descendants. This is a tradition in Iran to chant this when the Prophet is mentioned. But, not only did the crowd chant the verse for the Ayatollah, but they did so three times, whereas it is chanted only once for the Prophet. Bazargan got angry and said, "Come on! This is done only once for the Prophet, but you do it three times for the Imam? What is going on?"
Bazargan was opposed to the summary trials (and often summary executions) of the Shah's officials, including the officers and commanders of the armed forces. He tried to save as many lives as he could. It is believed that he helped Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah's last Prime Minister and a personal friend of Bazargan, escape to Europe. There was a joke about it in Iran: "Bakhtiar escaped through the Bazargan border," alluding to both Bazargan and a town with the same name on the Iran-Turkey border. (Bakhtiar was later assassinated in Paris in 1992.)
Both the Islamic and secular left criticized Bazargan constantly. I confess that I was a critic myself, even though he was my idol. I loved the man's honesty, integrity and bluntness, but thought that Iran needed a revolutionary leader. He had been labeled a liberal, which was considered bad and almost insulting at that time, because liberals were thought of as being anti-revolutionaries, and being receptive to an opening with the United States.
Just a few days before the Islamic-leftist students occupied the American embassy in Tehran and took 53 people hostage, Bazargan and his Foreign Minister Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi (who now leads the FM) met with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, in Algeria. The Islamic-leftist students were virtually certain that Bazargan was reaching an accommodation with the United States and "selling Iran out," which was, of course, nonsense. But those were revolutionary times, and everything was interpreted in the most extreme way. After the U.S. Embassy was overrun by the students, Bazargan immediately resigned.
Bazargan was elected as a Tehran deputy to the first Majles (parliament). He was an outspoken deputy, the way he had been all his life. In 1982, in an open letter to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was the Speaker of the Majles at that time, he wrote famously that,
What has the ruling elite done in nearly four years [after the Revolution], besides bringing death and destruction, packing the prisons and the cemeteries in every city, creating long queues, high prices, unemployment, poverty, homeless people, repetitious slogans and a dark future?
He also said in a speech,
The greatest threat to Islam in Iran since the Revolution has been the experience of living under the Islamic Republic [of Iran].
Bazargan wanted to run for president in 1985, but the Guardian Council (a Constitutional body that vets the candidates) disqualified him. He and his FM party persistently opposed the continuation of Iran-Iraq war after Iran's forces had pushed back Iraq's forces to the international borders by summer of 1982. He was constantly threatened, but continued his outspoken criticism of the Islamic Republic. On January 20, 1995, he died of a heart attack on his way to Switzerland. He was 87.
One of the most important statements that Bazargan made, which is completely relevant to what is going on now in Iran, is the following. In the last session of the first Majles on May 1, 1982, he said,
In two days, the first Majles, of which I was a member and enjoyed some rights, including parliamentary immunity [from persecution], will end. Beginning with the day after tomorrow, I, like the people that I represent [in the Majles], can be arrested and prosecuted. For this reason, and taking advantage of the opportunity that the Speaker of the Majles has provided me with, I declare that if I am arrested in the coming days, and then with much propaganda and noise they [the government] announce that in order to explain and clarify certain issues, I will appear on television, [if that happens] and you see what that person [the Bazargan that has appears on television] is saying is against what I have been saying yesterday and today, and repeats everything like a parrot, you must know and be aware that that person is not Mehdi Bazargan.
In essence, Bazargan confessed before he thought he would be forced to confess, except that his confession in the Majles was about the political state of affairs.
The statement perfectly applies to the jailed reformist leaders now, the Stalinist show trials in progress, televised on national television. The same people who have been struggling for decades to push and move Iran toward a democratic path, to make their country a better place to live, and to offer the nation's children a better future, have, after spending a few weeks in jail, recanted and retracted everything that they have believed in. How credible is that? How much more likely is it that they have been tortured and forced to repeat what they have been told, like a parrot?
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau