April 11, 2010

Challenging Iran, With YouTube Views

The Saturday Profile

“We should learn to oppose the regime, how to paralyze them, how to wear them out, but not to be killed, not to be arrested.”
Mohsen Sazegara
Published: April 9, 2010


MOHSEN SAZEGARA recognizes that nonviolent protest is a tough sell for most Iranians, given that bloodshed is a part of both their long history and their faith.

But Mr. Sazegara ticks off a couple points in its favor. First, the Islamic Republic has disenchanted a wide section of the population. Second, he believes that Iranians harbor a mystic tradition that could be channeled into the kind of nonviolent tide of dissent that bends history.


This, by the way, comes from one of the architects of the Revolutionary Guards, the military spine of the government.

“In Shiism, we always talk about blood, about sacrificing your blood,” he said over tea and sohan, flat candy concocted from pistachios and saffron. Like most invariably long conversations with an Iranian intellectual, this one winds around to Rumi, a celebrated 13th century poet and theologian. “The ideas of some mystic like Rumi is based on love, is based on loving everybody, to be kind with everybody,” he said.

Trying to supplant martyrdom with mysticism, and boiling the ideas down into the 10-minute videos he beams into Iran nightly, has been Mr. Sazegara’s quest since anti-government riots erupted in Tehran last June over the widespread sentiment that the presidential election had been rigged.

Mr. Sazegara, 55, who makes frequent appearances on Voice of America’s Persian language News Talk, is trying to bring down the system he helped create. When the protests first erupted, with demonstrators turning to him in droves for guidance on confronting the government on the streets of Tehran and other cities, it sometimes seemed as if he might inspire an entire new movement.

Thirty-two years ago, he was studying physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago when he got a call saying Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini needed him in Paris. He was there by 9 a.m. the next day, going to work as a press aide.

That led to a series of other jobs, including helping to draft the memo to create the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. He headed the state radio. He led a sprawling government-owned industrial conglomerate, and served as a deputy prime minister for political affairs. But along the way doubts began to gnaw, so he left the government in 1989 to spend three years re-reading the books written by various revolutionary patriarchs.

“It goes back to the theory of the Islamic Republic,” said Mr. Sazegara, a short man with thinning white hair whose ideas spill out in fluent, if occasionally choppy, English. “The problems are not accidental; they are essential. It doesn’t make any difference who are the people. It is the structure.”

It took another decade for him to swing around 180 degrees and agitate against the Islamic Republic, eventually founding several opposition newspapers. The government shuttered each in turn. He was thrown into Evin prison four times, twice in the 1980s and twice in 2003 after he wrote an open letter implying that the supreme leader was a dictator. After his last, nearly four-month stint, he chose exile in January 2004 with his wife and two grown sons.

In the basement of his faux colonial town house here, Mr. Sazegara is updating a ploy from Ayatollah Khomeini’s playbook on overthrowing the despotic Shah. The cleric dispatched jeremiads via cassette tape that spread throughout Iran. Mr. Sazegara lacks the same stature, but he records nightly videos about opposing the Iranian government that are flung out into cyberspace through YouTube, Facebook and his own Web site.

THE broadcasts were born of frustration. Mr. Sazegara is a regular Friday commentator on the Voice of America show. When they barred him from encouraging the post-election protests on the air, he quit briefly, then turned to YouTube.

He has broadcast virtually every night since June 25, making the transition from a borrowed camera and a stiff manner to dashing off short versions with his laptop while traveling.

“Our strategy is nonviolence, so we should learn how to protest but not to be killed,” he said. “We should learn to oppose the regime, how to paralyze them, how to wear them out, but not to be killed, not to be arrested.”

Two important lessons he says he took from the 1979 revolution were that elevating only one leader is likely to lead to dictatorship, and that arming everyone only brings bloodshed.

Gauging his impact is difficult. Combining some 26,600 fans of his various Facebook pages, uneven hits on YouTube and his own Web page, he claims to reach 300,000 to 500,000 people inside Iran. But his YouTube numbers have fallen recently, with some videos getting zero views compared with the 55,441 for his first post.

Iran analysts said that in the beginning he fed a real hunger for basic lessons in protesting. But as the killings, arrests and torture mounted, a backlash developed.

“Our people are still in jail,” a viewer inside Iran identified as Nahid Haddidi commented on one of his posts in March. “They are being executed, they are being sacrificed. Why? How can they decide for us from outside the country, and what is going to happen to all these people in jail?”

Mr. Sazegara turns slightly defensive on this point, saying he is not trying to lead the protest movement, only amplify what he harvests from myriad contacts inside Iran.

HE does not lack for critics among the diaspora, for whom he is something of a lightning rod. Royalists find him insufficiently contrite for helping spawn the 1979 revolution, especially its initial wave of executions.

Some critics accuse him of encouraging a military attack on Iran through his links to groups they say push war, in particular the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is blamed for providing ammunition for government accusations that the protests are a foreign plot. Some say he is out of tune with the current generation, trying to rewrite his own 1979 revolution rather than to address current issues.

Mr. Sazegara brushes it off. He has acknowledged past mistakes, he said. He says he opposes any military action against Iran.

Even those who question his wider impact admire that he tends to drive the government crazy. It mobilizes a large security presence whenever he mentions a particular protest venue, said one political organizer, speaking anonymously because he wanted to travel back to Iran.

Fans find him accessible, down to earth and providing a much needed boost to Iranians who think their cause is being forgotten.

For a typical recording in his basement, he stands in front of a green felt backdrop — the color of Iran’s protest movement — and a line of Persian poetry that reads “Green means resistance until spring.” He interprets it as suggesting that patient protest will eventually blossom into real change.

He starts by rattling off half a dozen of the day’s headlines involving Iran. Iranians, he said, are desperate for independent news sources. Then he breaks into a lesson. He is mad for numbered lists: the six most frequently asked questions about the Green movement; the four main roots of the protest movement; the three ways to grow the movement.

Among those frequently asked questions, of course, is when and if the Green movement can succeed. “When the balance switches depends on too many factors, and nobody can see an exact date,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 10, 2010, on page A9 of the New York edition.