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Comment | Parviz Sabeti and the Murder of Political Prisoners under the Shah

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

04 May 2012 19:13Comments

Remembering Bijan Jazani and other victims of the SAVAK.

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Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a columnist for Tehran Bureau and contributes regularly to other Internet and print media.

[ comment ] One of the most controversial figures in the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was Parviz Sabeti. In the 1960s and 1970s, most Iranians were not familiar with him by name, though they were exposed to many of his statements, attributed simply to a "high-ranking security official." But he was despised by the opposition to the Shah, among whom his name was synonymous with torture and death. Born on March 25, 1936, in Sangesar in what is now the province of Semnan to a Baha'i family, Sabeti received a law degree from the University of Tehran and joined the SAVAK, the Shah's dreaded security apparatus, in 1957. He quickly rose to become the acting director of the SAVAK's so-called third division -- its political directorate -- and was eventually named to the post on a permanent basis.

After the Shah banned all opposition political groups, in the mid-1960s two armed organizations formed to oppose his rule -- a development Mehdi Bazargan had predicted after he was expelled from his professorship at the University of Tehran amid a series of opposition purges. One was the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO); the other was the Organization of Iranian People's Fadaian Guerrillas. Both began carrying out assassinations of high-ranking military and government officials of the Shah's regime, as well as attacks on government offices, banks, and other facilities; the MKO also targeted U.S. military advisers inside the country.

The Shah's regime responded violently in kind, establishing the infamous Joint Committee to Fight Terrorism, which was headed by Sabeti in practice, though it always had a military officer as its figurehead chief. "By 1970," writes Dr. Abbas Milani in The Persian Sphinx, Sabeti's "power permeated all facets of Iranian life." Torture, beatings, show trials in military courts, executions, and even extra-judicial killings were all normal modes of operation for the SAVAK and the Committee. For example, Mehdi Rezaei, an MKO member, was arrested in April 1972 and executed that September at the age of 20, after enduring horrific torture. Ali Asghar Badizadegan, one of the MKO's founders, was forced into an electric oven according to his comrade Lotfollah Meysami. He was burned so badly that he became paralyzed, and the SAVAK refused to turn over his body after he was executed in May 1972. As Ali Gheissari writes in Iranian Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century, under Sabeti the Committee was also "responsible for the arbitrary detention, interrogation, and torture of many university students during that period."

Two classmates of mine, Mohammad Ali Bagheri, a pious Muslim, and Hamid Arian, a secular leftist, were lost to the political violence of the era. We were all students at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran, having been admitted in 1972 after passing the national entrance examination, or concours. Bagheri was executed by the regime, while Arian was killed in an armed clash with the SAVAK. Four other good young men that I personally knew, all secular leftists, who were a year or two ahead of me in the engineering department, were also killed: Mahmoud Vahidi and Saeed Kord were poisoned in the notorious Evin Prison, while Mansoor Farshidi and Mahmoud Namazi were killed in an armed clash. Numerous other students, including many friends in the engineering department, were imprisoned, beaten, and given long jail sentences.

To comprehend the atmosphere of terror that dominated the political arena at that time, consider the following. The house of a student friend of mine was raided by the SAVAK, and an engineering book was found there that he had borrowed from the engineering department library. In those days, the borrower's name would be written on a card attached to the back of the book. One of the students who had previously borrowed the book was Nastaran Al-e Agha, an engineering student and a major figure in the Fadaian who was killed on June 22, 1976, in an armed confrontation with the SAVAK. Because the book had been borrowed previously by Al-e Agha, my friend was held in jail for months, just to make sure that there was no connection between the two. Such was the state of terror in the days when Sabeti was at the helm of the Committee and the leading figure in the conflict between the opposition and the Pahlavi regime. His name was identified with a host of brutal acts. He would appear on national television and talk about what had happened every time the regime declared a "victory" against the opposition, and in particular the "terrorist" MKO and Fadaian.

As the revolutionary movement began to gather steam in 1978, Sabeti wanted the Shah to declare a state of emergency, dismiss the Majles, close the U.S. and British embassies to protest the West's role in the protests against the regime, and use an iron fist to put down the demonstrators. But the Shah was weak, and the Revolution was vastly popular. Sabeti left Iran and now lives in Florida in exile, where he has been active in business.

As more crimes were committed by the Islamic Republic, some began to rewrite history to fabricate a more positive image of the Pahlavi regime, and even of Sabeti. In his book Eminent Persians, Milani claims that Sabeti was a "hardheaded realist" with "an unabashed belief in the salutary use of force, even authoritarianism," who believed that "the source of unhappiness [with the Shah's regime] among the Iranian people was not the absence of democracy or free elections.... [They] support an authoritarian king so long as the regime is free from corruption and is moving the country in the right direction." According to Milani, the Iranian people "prefer bread and security to freedom and want." The conclusion is that the crimes committed by Sabeti were due to his "realism."

What brought Sabeti's dreadful crimes to the fore again recently was an interview he gave to the Voice of America in February (see here, as well). In the interview, Sabeti denied that torture, beatings, and other forms of violence against political prisoners was systematic and rampant in Iran's prisons before the Revolution. He attacked national hero Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh -- as do many Iranian monarchists -- calling him a deluded demagogue, and he did his best to rewrite the political crimes committed by the Shah's regime and his own role in them. The interview prompted a huge wave of protest among Iranian political activists, particularly those who had suffered under the Shah, but also among practically every strata of Iranian society, both inside the country and beyond. See here, here, here, and here, for example. Two political prisoners, engineering students Esmail Khataei and Manouchehr Mokhtari, who had been tortured by the Committee provided vivid accounts of what had happened to them. One hundred and ninety-eight former political prisoners who had witnessed the tortures during the Shah's reign issued a strongly worded statement.

The anniversary of one of the most horrendous crimes committed by the SAVAK during the era of Sabeti's dominance passed recently, one that highlights a defining characteristic of the last years of the Shah's regime: his absolute resistance to any political opening. Many political activists, such as the outspoken reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh, who is currently in jail, have publicly stated that the Revolution would not have occurred if the Shah had loosened the stranglehold he maintained over legal political activity in the country.

On April 19, 1975 (30 Farvardin 1354), nine courageous political prisoners -- Ahmad Jalil Afshar, Mohammad Choupanzadeh, Bijan Jazani, Mashoof (Saeed) Kalantari (Jazani's maternal uncle), Aziz Sarmadi, Abbas Sourki, Hassan Zia Zarifi, Mostafa Javan Khoshdel, and Kazem Zolanvar -- who had been convicted in the Shah's military courts were murdered by the SAVAK. (In that era, the civilian courts refused to stage trials of the Shah's political opponents, unlike today when they are a central tool of repression.) The first seven were members of the Fadaian; the last two were members of the MKO. Jazani was serving a 15-year sentence, Zia Zarifi a life sentence, and the rest ten years each, of which four to seven years had already been served.

Born in 1938 in Tehran to a middle-class family, Jazani was first arrested for his political activities in December 1953, a few months after the CIA-sponsored coup that deposed Mosaddegh. Claiming that his name was Hossien Mahmoodi, he was able to post bail and was released after three months. Arrested in May 1954 at a political gathering (disguised as a wedding ceremony), he again gave a false name and was released. That fall, he was summoned to court over the previous year's case and served a six-month prison term. After his release, he was not allowed back in high school, so he enrolled in Kamal al-Molk's art academy. With a friend, he subsequently founded the Persepolis Advertising Company, which created paintings for local merchants. Jazani was the head painter. The company made good money, and Jazani had a comfortable life.

In 1959, he resumed his studies and received his high school diploma. He also began publishing Nedaa-ye Khalgh with the goal of uniting the opposition to the Shah, but was soon forced to shut down the periodical. The next year he was accepted to the philosophy program at the University of Tehran, and in October 1960 he married his childhood sweetheart, Mihan Ghoreishy. They had two sons, Babak and Mazyar.

Iran was in severe economic straits during that era, due in large part to the Shah's policies, which included extravagant military expenditures. When in the spring of 1960, Iran asked for financial assistance from the United States and the World Bank, the latter demanded the regime reduce salaries and revise certain economic plans in order to receive $35 million. The Kennedy administration also demanded political and economic reform in return for $85 million in assistance. The Shah announced that the elections for the 20th Majles would be open to all parties -- while that did not materialize, the announcement itself indicated that the regime could be forced to retreat. The Second National Front movement was launched and a series of protests organized by university students began, of which Jazani was a leader. He was arrested on May 22, 1965, and incarcerated for nine months. After his release, he organized his group again with Zia Zarifi. Jazani and many other members of the group were arrested in January 1968. This time, he was imprisoned until his murder.

Jazani was a leading leftist intellectual. Through his books The Thirty-Year History of Iran and How Armed Struggle Becomes Popular and other writings, he contributed greatly to the theoretical and practical discussions about how to confront the Shah's regime. In the former book, written in the 1960s, Jazani predicted with remarkable accuracy that if a revolution did topple the Shah, it would be led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To read more about Jazani and his comrades, see On the Life and the Work of Bijan Jazani, a Collection of Essays (Khavaran, Paris, 1999).

Zia Zarifi was a lawyer. Kalantary was a radio and TV technician. Sourki was a student of political science and an employee of the Central Bank. In 1959, Sourki had formed an opposition group, Razm Avaran, that merged with Jazani's organization in the fall of 1966. Choupanzadeh and Sarmadi were both day laborers. Jalil Afshar joined the Fadaian when he was still in high school. I am almost certain that he was my classmate in ninth grade, though the passage of time means I am not 100 percent sure. I say this because I remember that, about a year after the killings, a high school friend told me about a classmate of ours who had been killed by the SAVAK. Both Khoshdel and Zolanvar were major figures in the MKO.

On March 3, 1975, the Shah announced a ban on all the legal political parties. There were three at that time, all loyal to the monarch: along with the dominant Iran-e Novin (New Iran), there was also Mardom (People) and Pan-Iranist. A joke went that Iran-e Novin was the party of "Yes, sir," while Mardom was the party of "Absolutely, sir." The Shah ordered the establishment of a single new party, Rastakhiz (Resurrection), and declared, "Anyone who does not like this system can get his passport and leave the country."

The Shah's announcement was broadcast on television live throughout the country -- I watched it at home -- including in Evin Prison. It has been reported widely that when the Shah announced his decision, Sourki told his comrades, "They will kill us all." After only seven weeks, he was proved correct.

The executioners were led by Reza Attarpour -- a notorious SAVAK agent under the alias Dr. Hossein Zadeh, he escaped to Israel after the Revolution -- and Colonel Vaziri, Evin's warden. Another SAVAK agent who was involved was Bahman Naderipour, known as Hossein Tehrani, who throughout the 1970s was responsible for savagely beating and torturing many political prisoners. After the Revolution, Tehrani would describe on national television how he had committed torture under direct orders from Sabeti. Here is an excerpt from his first-hand account of what happened on that day, originally published in Kayhan on May 24, 1979:

We took the prisoners to the high hills above Evin. They were blindfolded and their hands were tied. We got them off the minibus and had them sit on the ground. Then Attarpour told them that, just as your friends have killed our comrades, we have decided to execute you -- "the brain behind those executions...." Jazani and the others began protesting. I do not know whether it was Attarpour or Colonel Vaziri who first pulled out a machine gun and started shooting them. I do not remember whether I was the fourth or fifth person to whom they gave the machine gun. I had never done that before...

He went on to describe how Sadi Jalil Esfahani -- another SAVAK agent, known as Babak -- then shot the prisoners in their heads to make sure that they were dead. It was announced that the nine men had been killed as they were trying to escape, while being transferred from Evin (Kayhan, April 19, 1975). I vividly recall reading the official story in Kayhan. The doctor who examined the nine corpses recorded that the bullets had entered through the victims' chests, not their backs, as would have been the case had they been attempting to flee. The SAVAK, of course, did not allow the doctor to question the cause of death in his report.

When Amir Asadollah Alam, the Shah's long-time confidant and Imperial Court minister, asked why the men had been murdered, the Shah answered, "We had no choice. They were all terrorists, and would have escaped, which would have been worse" (The Alam Diary, edited by A. Aalikhani, Maziar Press, Tehran, 2003, volume V, p. 69). From Eminent Persians:

Easily the revelation most damaging to Sabeti's career came after the revolution, from one of SAVAK's star interrogators. During his trial, he revealed what the opposition had known for many years. At the height of terrorist activities, one of the groups had killed a prominent leader of SAVAK. Nine leading figures of the opposition -- all already tried and convicted on different charges -- were taken to the hills outside Tehran and shot in cold blood.... In the course of the revelations, the interrogator made clear that while Sabeti did not directly participate in the act, he was not only informed but was the mastermind.

In his VOA interview, Sabeti repeated the claim that the nine men were killed during an escape attempt.

Just like the Islamic Republic, the Shah's regime adhered to the philosophy expressed by Joseph Stalin: "Death solves all problems. No man, no problem." The graves of the nine courageous men and many others who were executed in the 1970s are in Section 33 of Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran's main cemetery.

One can try to rewrite history, but facts always shine through even the thickest fog of propaganda and lies.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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