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Reformist Strategist: Saeed Hajjarian

08 Jul 2009 23:5415 Comments

Photo: Saeed Hajjarian and Mohsen Mirdamadi (looking up), secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Participation front. Both are in jail.

By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 8 July 2009

Since protesters first took to the streets after Iran's rigged June 12 presidential election, around 2000 people have been reportedly arrested, among them leading reformists and democratic leaders, journalists, human rights advocates, university students, and scores of ordinary citizens.

Among the well known figures in detention -- the author knows quite a few of them -- one particular person stands out, especially in terms of the deep emotions it evokes in the author. This is in part because of his heroic efforts to serve his country, and also because of the high price that he has had to pay, and continues to pay for it. He and the author also knew each other in the 197os, when both were students.

This individual is Dr. Saeed Hajjarian, a leading reformist strategist who almost lost his life in 2000 when extremists attempted to assassinate him. That was actually the second assassination attempt on his life. He survived, but never fully recovered. He can barely speak, or walk.

Human Rights Watch issued a strongly-worded statement recently, warning that Dr. Hajjarian's life is in danger. "It is bad enough that the authorities would detain a man as ill as Saeed Hajjarian in their crackdown on the protests. But, the conditions, harsh treatment, and the intense pressure to make a false confession are putting his life at risk," the report stated, apparently alluding to rumors that leading reformers are being pressured and possibly tortured to "confess" that the huge demonstrations that erupted after the election had actually been planned months in advance.

It is said that Dr. Hajjarian has been transferred to a military hospital in Tehran and remains in critical condition. It was rumored that he is in a coma (although that has not been confirmed), and that he has suffered a nervous breakdown.

What the hard-liners want or expect from this wounded patriot is beyond the author's comprehension. But the author has lived long enough and seen enough not to be surprised by anything that the hard-liners do or say. They are willing to go to any length to preserve their grip on power, and the arrest of Dr. Hajjarian, an almost crippled and deeply wounded man, is only another manifestation of their thirst for power.

Dr. Hajjarian was born in 1954 (the same year that the author was born) in Nazi Abbad, an impoverished neighborhood in south Tehran. He passed Iran's national university entrance examinations in June 1972 and was admitted to the Faculty of Engineering (known in Iran as the Daaneshkadeh Fanni) of the University of Tehran with a major in mechanical engineering. The author also passed the same national university entrance examinations in 1972 and was admitted to the Faculty of Engineering with a major in chemical engineering. In that era, the Faculty of Engineering was attracting some of the brightest students, and Saeed Hajjarian was no exception.

The University of Tehran, and in particular its engineering school, have a long and distinguished record of producing some of the best and brightest Iranian leaders, both before and after the 1979 Revolution. It has always been a very political place (which may explain why the author, an engineering scientist by training, writes about politics). That is when I met Dr. Hajjarian for the first time. At that time, all the freshmen and sophomores of the Faculty of Engineering were required to take the same courses and, therefore, the author and Dr. Hajjarian were classmates for some time. He, a practicing Muslim, was a political activist right from the beginning at the age of 18. He was very smart, very shrewd, and a deep thinker.

At the time, the students who were politically inclined were divided in two main camps: the Islamic leftists, who mostly supported the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), an armed Islamic-leftist group, and the secular leftists who mostly supported the People's Fedaaeen Guerrilla Organization (a small fraction of the secular leftists supported the Tudeh Party, the pro-Soviet Union Communist Party of Iran), also an armed communist group. Both groups were waging an armed struggle against the government of the Shah.

The author cannot recall whether Dr. Hajjarian was actually a supporter of the MKO or not.

In 1975, a communist faction took over the MKO and murdered its Islamic leader, Majid Sharif Vaghefi, a student at Aryamehr University of Technology, a leading science and engineering school in Tehran. The institution is now called the Sharif University, in honor of Sharif Vaghefi. Sharif University has an international reputation for producing some of the brightest graduate students in science and engineering.

After that event, the MKO lost considerable support among university students, especially among the pious Islamic ones, since many thought that the "communist coup" -- as the communist takeover of the MKO was called at the time -- was partly the result of interpreting Islamic teachings with a Marxist view. So, even if Dr. Hajjarian had been a supporter of the MKO before that event, the author is practically sure he was not after that point.

Shortly after the author graduated from Tehran University, in December 1977, (the Faculty of Engineering was closed for 18 months from 1975 to 1977 for political unrest,) he moved to the United States in March 1978, right when the Iranian Revolution was gathering steam. To the best of the author's knowledge, Dr. Hajjarian never finished his studies as a mechanical engineering student. He later changed his major to political science, and eventually received a doctoral degree in political science from the University of Tehran in 2003.

On November 4, 1979, leftist Islamic students -- who called themselves Student Followers of the Imam's Line (Imam refers to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) -- took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and seized 53 American hostages and held them for 444 days. The top three student leaders (over all, there were 11 of them) were Mohsen Mirdamadi (the present Secretary-General of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, who has also been jailed in the aftermath of the election) of Tehran Polytechnique (the present Amir Kabir University of Technology in Tehran); Ebrahim Asgharzadeh of Sharif University (who is a reformist politician and was a member of Tehran's city council in the early 2000's); and Habibollah Bitaraf of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tehran (who was Minister of Power in the Khatami administration), who was also an acquaintance of the author in that era. All three were engineering students.

The student leaders also included Dr. Hajjarian, the late Dr. Rahman Dadman, a friend of the author at Tehran University (who was Minister of Road and Transportation in the Khatami administration), Hossein Sheikholeslam (an electrical engineer whose younger brother, presently a distinguished medical doctor in Tehran, was the author's childhood friend for six years in middle and high school), and is now a Tehran deputy to the Majles (parliament), and Abbas Abdi, a leading and outspoken reformist leader.

Dr. Dadman was killed when a small aircraft that was carrying him to a northeastern province of Iran crashed. Last year, Abbas Palizdar, a hard-liner and ally of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, held a controversial press conference in Tehran during which he made allegations of corruption against leading clerics.

He alleged that Dr. Dadman's aircraft had not crashed accidentally, but that it had been bombed, because he did not go along with a demand of a leading cleric who had asked him for a big (but obviously illegal) "favor" for his son.

All this time, the author watched from afar with much fascination as so many people who he knew during his years at the University of Tehran became Iran's leading young revolutionaries. He often wonders about his own fate, had he stayed in Iran and not moved to the United States. But all contact with those old friends, classmates, and college acquaintances were lost after the move to the U.S. in 1978.

Meanwhile, in Iran, Dr. Hajjarian joined the newly-established Intelligence Ministry, where he rose to be Deputy Minister of Intelligence for Political Affairs. There was an assassination attempt on his life in Tehran in the summer of 1981, but he escaped.

When in 1989, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected president and appointed Ali Fallahian, a hard-line cleric (who has been implicated in many crimes), as the Minister of Intelligence, Dr. Hajjarian left the Ministry because he refused to work with a man like Fallahian who already had a very controversial reputation.

He founded the Center for Strategic Studies within the office of the President, and began studying what had happened in Iran in the 1980s, one of the darkest decades in the history of contemporary Iran. The nation struggled through an eight-year war with Iraq, a war that was used to justify extreme political repression, including the execution of thousands of political prisoners and activists, the elimination of all secular groups, and the destruction of the press and personal freedom.

As the author explained in a separate article, Dr. Hajjarian and other leftist revolutionaries recognized that Iran needed a political opening; otherwise, the Islamic Republic would not last. That gave birth to the reform movement, of which Dr. Hajjarian was a leading strategist. I have explained the events that led to the birth of the movement in a separate article. It was Dr. Hajjarian who developed what was known as the "pressure from the bottom, negotiations at the top" strategy, meaning that by developing civil society the reform movement can gain enough strength to not only resist the hard-liners, but also push for deep changes within the system.

When Mohammad Khatami was elected president in a landslide victory in 1997, he appointed Dr. Hajjarian as his political advisor. Two years later the Khatami administration held the first nationwide elections for city councils, and Dr. Hajjarian was elected to Tehran's city council and its Vice Chair.

The first three years of the Khatami administration were dubbed "Tehran Spring," after the Prague Spring of 1968. A relatively free press flourished, and a lot of the secrets of the political establishment, including corruption and clandestine murders of opposition figures, intellectuals and literary figures were exposed. The hard-liners were on the defensive. Not only had they lost the presidency, the city councils had also gone overwhelmingly to the reformists as well. Dr. Hajjarian founded the popular daily, Sobh-e Emrooz (This Morning), which was a leading reformist newspaper.

Six intellectuals and opposition figures were murdered under mysterious circumstances in the summer and fall of 1998. They were Dariush Forouhar, Secretary-General of the Nation of Iran Party, and his wife Parvaneh Forouhar (Eskandari); Mohammad Mokhtari; Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, a writer and translator of literary works; Dr. Majid Sharif (a friend of the author in the late 1970s, when he lived in Los Angeles), a journalist who published in Iran-e Farda (Tomorrow's Iran), a weekly published by the Nationalist-Religious Coalition; and Pirouz Davani, a leftist political activist. While the bodies of the first five were discovered, Mr. Davani's body has never been recovered.

On January 4, 1999, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence, issued a statement in which it admitted that 15 of its agents, led by Saeed Emami (Eslami), the deputy Minister for security, and his subordinates, Mehrdad Alikhani, Mostafa Kzemi and Khosrow Basati, carried out the murders of the six dissidents. According to official accounts, Emami committed suicide while in jail (though many people do not believe the official version), and others were put on trial and given prison sentences of up to 15 years.

It was Hajjarian's newspaper, Sobh-e Emrooz, which first brought this, what investigative journalist Akbar Ganji called the "dark house of the ghosts" [where decisions for the murders were made and people were killed], to light. Ganji, and another courageous investigative journalist, Emad Baghi (who is now a leading human rights advocate), published a series of articles in Sobh-e Emrooz and revealed many secret aspects of the killings and named the people behind them.

As it turned out, in early 1988, when Dr. Kazem Sami, the Health Minister in the first revolutionary government, was murdered by an ax, at least 79 intellectuals and opposition figures had been murdered in this fashion. Ganji implicated Ali Fallahian in the murders, the same person who Dr. Hajjarian had refused to work with, and on whose account he had left the Ministry of Intelligence. Ganji spent six years in prison for this, and Baghi three.

In March 2000, the reformists won an overwhelming majority in the elections for the 6th Majles. That provoked the hard-liners to take strong actions. In two days in early March 2000, 16 reformist newspapers were shut down, including Sobh-e Emrooz. But, the worst was yet to come. On March 12, 2000, Dr. Hajjarian was shot in the face and neck in front of Tehran's city council building. He escaped death, but was left semi-paralyzed.

Seven people were arrested for the assassination attempt: Saeed Asgar, 20, who was apparently the ring leader; Mohsen Morteza Majidi, 30; Mohammad Ali Moghaddammi, 22; Mehdi Rowghani, 23; Mousa Jan-Nesari, 23; Ali Pourchaluei, 24 (the one who shot Dr. Hajjarian), and Saeed Golounani, 19. They were members of the Basij militia, a paramilitary group controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

The same group had also participated in the mob attacks on the dormitories of the University of Tehran in July 1999, where students were protesting the closure of a reading reformist newspaper, Salaam. During his trial, Asgar stated that he and his group considered Dr. Hajjarian the main "culprit" behind the reformist movement and therefore decided to "eliminate" him. All the assassins were convicted. None spent any significant time in jail though.

In fact, what Asgar said was true of what all hard-liners thought. During that era, the hard-liners blamed Dr. Hajjarian for the many successes that the reformists enjoyed. They considered him the brain and the leading strategist of this phenomena. Since he had worked in the Ministry of Intelligence, he was despised by the hard-liners for turning against them. His newspaper, Sobh-e Emrooz, was a leading voice of the reformists, and played an important role in their electoral victories.

Nine years later, though never fully recovered from his wounds, semi-paralyzed, and according to his wife Dr. Jila Marsoosi (who is also believed to have participated in the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979), taking a large amount of medication every day, he was still one of the first reformist leaders to be arrested last month.

He is deeply despised by the extremists. Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejehei, the Intelligence Minister, once said, "If I were a judge, and Hajjarian's case was before me, I would give him a death sentence." It is said that Mojtaba Khamenei, the Supreme Leader's son and a hard-liner cleric, also blames Dr. Hajjarian for the rise of the reformist movement.

According to Dr. Marsoosi, when she visited her husband in the notorious Evin prison, he wept, because of the fraud that took place in the election, and its aftermath.

According to her, Saeed Mortazavi, Tehran's notorious Prosecutor General, has told her that Dr. Hajjarian's main offense is his membership and activities in the Islamic Iran Participation Front (the largest and most important reformist party in Iran). This is obviously a bogus charge. Not only has he been too ill to be an effective member, but his views have been different from those expressed by the IIPF. Aside from that, IIPF is a legal political party in Iran and so participating in its activities is not a crime.

Continuing the propaganda against him and other reformists, IRNA, Iran's official news agency and controlled by the government, claimed that Dr. Hajjarian has stated that, "Velvet revolutions are a way of achieving democracy." This is also preposterous. No source was given for this statement, and it is against what Dr. Hajjarian has long stood for.

In fact, Dr. Hajjarian has always been loyal to the political establishment founded after the Revolution, the one Ayatollah Khomeini said would bring freedom and democracy to the Iranian people. When he underwent fundamental changes in his thinking in the late 1980s and 1990s, he arrived at an interpretation of Ayatollah Khomeini's political thinking, according to which the Islamic Republic founded by Khomeini will eventually lead to a secular system. According to Dr. Hajjarian's thinking, the basis for this is the Expediency Council, founded by Ayatollah Khomeini. The EC arbitrates over disputes between the Majles and the powerful Guardian Council, which vets candidates for most elections and interprets the Constitution. Most members of the EC are not ayatollahs or even clerics. Thus, the thinking goes, because a Constitutional body with such a composition has more power than the powerful Guardian Council, it will eventually help evolve this into a secular system.

Dr. Hajjarian has stated many times that Ayatollah Khomeini always emphasized the supremacy of national interests over any other considerations, and that such interests allow the Supreme Leader to suspend even the primary teachings of Islam. The primary teachings are those that cannot be changed over time, such as believing in God and Judgment Day; believing that the Prophet Muhammad was the last prophet sent by God. He has always stated -- correctly -- that Ayatollah Khomeini emphasized that the interpretations of Islamic teachings must be dynamic. As he famously said once, "If we were to live according to the interpretations of the Islamic teachings of 1400 years ago, we would have to live in caves."

Dr. Hajjarian is one of the most important intellectuals and political thinkers of Iran over the past few decades. He is a great national asset. The young Hajjarian the author remembers was not only courageous, but likable and humble as well.

Dr. Marsoosi has asked government officials, "What do you want from him? He is semi-dead. He often mostly cries, and laughs very rarely." This is an excellent question. Given what Dr. Saeed Hajjarian has done for his nation, he and his family, and indeed the Iranian nation, deserve an honest answer.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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"When he underwent fundamental changes in his thinking in the late 1980s and 1990s, he arrived at an interpretation of Ayatollah Khomeini's political thinking, according to which the Islamic Republic founded by Khomeini will eventually lead to a secular system."

Ah. Now I understand why the hard-liners hate him.

"If we were to live according to the interpretations of the Islamic teachings of 1400 years ago, we would have to live in caves."

It is the same with Christian fundamentalists in the USA. Thankfully, they are a small and dwindling group.

skylights / July 8, 2009 10:16 PM

I cannot stop wondering that many of these Iran's ill that now Dr. Hajjarian is a victim of it plus many of his so-called reformist friends discussed above, are result of all their initial support of a government system that was based on flawed thinking. Which is religion and state can be combined, support of that flawed constitution, support of an unelectable Supreme Leader, or unelectable Clergy as guardian of constitution, taking of innocent people as hostages which destroyed Iranian National image, allowing killing of Shah's supporters without due process, etc... The time for them to fight was then but either blinded by faith, hate, ignorance, or opportunistic reasons created this beast that cannot be easily undone years later. It is truly sad for them and this nation....

observer / July 8, 2009 11:29 PM

Please also mention the name of Late Dr. Majid Sharif that was murdered by this rejim about 12 years ago. He was a graduate of Sharif University .


Masud Torabi / July 9, 2009 12:09 AM

More information for Late Dr Majid Sharif. He was murdered by this rejim.


Masud Torabi / July 9, 2009 12:15 AM

It's over. The battle has been won. The articles, the names, everything is futile. Moving on...

The World / July 9, 2009 12:30 AM

Dear Masud:

I have mentioned Dr. Majid Sharif. He was a friend in the late 1970s. But, he was not a graduate of Sharif University. The late Majid Sharif Vaghefi was a student at Sharif (Aryamehr) University, and murdered. I also mentioned that. But, the two are not the same.

Muhammad Sahimi / July 9, 2009 9:38 AM

In our country, it is obviouse that the hard-liners, specially Khamenei & Ahmadi nejhad are just power thirsties. So, the secularism for them means a disgusting death. For these middle-aged followers the religion is just a tool for dictating their thoughts to people.

In this case the most dangerous thing would be a logical and well-organized idea which Dr. Hajariyan let it form. So in their view Hajariyan has been a dead meat since many years ago.

But there is a thing that hard liners did not pay attention:

Maybe they can assassinate Dr. Hajariyan, but they never can execute or assassinate his theories and ideas.


God be with you DR. HAJARIYAN. love u .

Marziyeh / July 9, 2009 2:55 PM

today was wonderful but we can hardly carry mobile or take photo they throw out tear gas among people and their army .they are animals.but there was a mass.

bahare / July 9, 2009 3:44 PM

I have been reading many articles, blogs, etc. lately to educate myself about Iran after 1979 and after Iran-Iraq war. What amazes me and disgusts me at the same time is that the crimes committed by this regime especially by the hardliners and their followers are so unthinkable and so vast that I am surprised not enough attention was paid to them or not enough was done earlier. I have lived abroad for many years now and I was disconnected politically from Iran and did not know that ,for example, so may people were assassinated through the years and that number of massacares took place which one of the most horrific ones happened in 1988 and they say up to 30,000 were killed but no one knows for sure. What is happening now is the continuation of all the crimes committed from the 1980's. This regime has a lot of experience and practice in repressing people in the most inhumane and unlawful ways. For them, it seems, it is business as usual. However, this time everyone is watching them. Anyways, I pray for Mr. Hajarian and his family and it breaks my heart to see anybody who is severly crippled to be held in any prison especially the Evin Prison.

Minoo / July 9, 2009 11:28 PM

Please tell us about the massacare in 1988 that Minoo just said. I do not know any thing about. I am waiting...

Marziyeh / July 11, 2009 8:44 AM

Marzieh, if you search for it in the internet, you'll get a lot of hits. I believe in July of 1988, they massacared all opposition but especially the Mojahedin and the leftist groups. The grave site was accidentally faound couple of years later. This was ordered by Khomeini and carried out by the goverment officials at that time. Khomeini believed that the only righful owner of the 1979 revoluation were the Islamists.

Minoo / July 11, 2009 11:14 AM

Dear Marzieh:

Right after the ceasefire with Iraq in July 1988, over a period of two months, close to 4500 political prisoners were executed in Iran. They had already been given jail terms, not death sentences, and many of them had already finished their sentences. They would be asked two questions: Do you believe in Islam? If the answer was no, they would be executed right away. But, if yes, they would be asked, do you still believe in what you believed in when you were arrested, and if the answer was yes, they would be executed.

Muhammad Sahimi / July 11, 2009 11:31 AM

Dear friends;

Thank you so much for paying attention to my concerns. I will defenately search the web for more infomation about the executions.


Marziyeh / July 13, 2009 6:27 AM

Very edifying indeed. For all of us who did not have a god handle on the background of Mr. Hajarian. Thank you.

Yet,while the article is an informative piece and we all value it as such, it does at the same time seem to have been a vehicle for self promotion for the author. Humility has been brushed aside here. Just look at the following two paragraphs:


The author also passed the same national university entrance examinations in 1972 and was admitted to the Faculty of Engineering with a major in chemical engineering. In that era, the Faculty of Engineering was attracting some of the brightest students, and Saeed Hajjarian was no exception.

And again in a later paragraph


The University of Tehran, and in particular its engineering school, have a long and distinguished record of producing some of the best and brightest Iranian leaders, both before and after the 1979 Revolution. It has always been a very political place (which may explain why the author, an engineering scientist by training, writes about politics).

Wow! Modesty has certainly taken a back seat as the author repeatedly calls himself one of the Brightest students and later Leaders/politicians!

Humility is a virtue that is rare. Blowing one's own horn on the other hand is a common characteristic of most politicians.

Petrous P. / July 19, 2009 6:23 PM

Ya Hussain !

Every day is Ashura and every place is Kerbala (imam Sadiq)

one can only say that after reading the account. if a paralyzed person cannot be spared; then one should doubt the beliefs of the captors.

Naqi Akbar / November 26, 2010 10:15 AM