An Interview with Mohsen Sazegara
January 23rd, 2009
Only a short time had passed since the seizure of power by the revolutionaries who claimed to defend freedom when, in the wake of Ayatollah Khomeini’s command, the wave of arrests of political activists, ban on the independent press and the banishment of intellectuals and other-thinking individuals began. From the start, this move had been designed to smother the desire of Iranian people for freedom, democracy, and human rights. In the name of Cultural Revolution, universities were closed and all experienced managers and professors were dismissed so that the revolution could continue on its destructive path. The incidents that unfolded immediately after the revolution’s victory were considered by observers and political analysts as the normal corollaries of the revolution, but there are questions that remain unanswered: why, with the passage of time, as the flawed and destructive character of most revolutionary policies and strategies became clear, did the country’s leadership not try to amend them? Why, when the reform movement was born with the decisive support of people in the third decade of the revolution, did it run into full scale opposition by the Supreme Leader and his followers? And why a return to the bankrupt slogans of the revolution-replaced reformists? We put these questions to Mohsen Sazegara who, by dividing the post-revolutionary era into four republics, believes that Iran is moving toward the fourth republic, a trajectory which is irreversible.
Sazegara was a Muslim revolutionary and an activist of “Iran’s Freedom Movement” outside the country when, along with some other members of the “Islamic Association of Iranian Students in the United States and Canada,” he joined Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris. He then continued his collaboration with his revolutionary colleagues by serving in key positions as Deputy Prime Minister and director of the “Development and Revamp of the Country’s Industries.” After relinquishing his government posts in the late 1990s, Sazegara, along with some other religious intellectuals, created the “Kian Circle” and tried, as a reformist, to improve the country’s political, economic, social, and cultural structures. As this project failed and after bearing months of imprisonment, Sazegara, who had become disappointed in reforms, left Iran and took up residence in the United States. He is now the director of the “Research Institute for Contemporary Iran” in Washington.
When did deviation from the Islamic Republic’s ideals begin? What were the roots and consequences of this deviation?
In response to this question, we have to take a closer look at the revolution’s ideals once again to see whether any deviation from those ideal has really occurred or not. Then we can examine its roots and consequences. To understand the revolution’s ideals, it is essential to know the views that the founders of the revolution held and the slogans they employed. To appraise these views correctly, we should go back to the Constitutional Revolution when, for the first time, the theory was put forward that religion could solve all problems, including the problems that existed between Iran and the modern world. In a nutshell, this theory asserted that, by returning to Islam and according to the principles of figh (Islamic jurisprudence), we can find the answer to all the riddles of history, including the constitutional rule.
If we wanted to single out a turning point for the theoretical genesis of the Islamic Revolution, we should return to the 1960s, the period when the views of Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers converge. In this decade, the nationalist character of the Shah’s regime experienced theoretical defeat as it was replaced by revolutionary thought. During this juncture, the intellectuals present the revolution as the only tool for changing the status quo. At this point, they believe that Iran’s discontented people, tired of the society’s materialism, are in desperate need for revolution and alteration of prevailing conditions. Revolutionism, hostility to Western civilization and the necessity of a return to one’s roots dominate not only the works of writers such as Jalal Ale-Ahmad, Ali Shariati, and Ehsan Naraqi, but overwhelm all aspects of the country’s cultural production, including fiction-writing, poetry, cinema, and theater. To catch up with this sweeping movement, the Shah also calls his reforms the “White Revolution” and criticizes the West.
In the 1970s, the decade to which I also belong, nothing is added to the theory of revolution. Instead, Iranian youths try to put into action the predominant views of the 1960s which finally triumphed during the revolution. Inspired by these views, the revolutionaries begin to create and propagate a range of idealistic views, which in those times seemed justified. These ideals, which the revolutionaries pursue fiercely in the months before the revolution and the early post-revolutionary years, are the following:
1. Revolutionism: according to this ideal, all facets of society should tumble down and all social relations should be overturned.
2. Hostility toward Western civilization: this ideal fed on the assumption that Western civilization was deviant and corrupt to such a degree that Sayyid Qutb had called it “the twentieth-century ignorance.” The defenders of this view claimed that the world needs a new vision, a vision whose rallying point is hostility to the West.
3. Return to one’s roots: of course, with the dominance of the Islamists during the revolution, this ideal metamorphosed into a return to Islam as the most potent negation of Western civilization. The gist of this ideal was the return to Islam as an encompassing and comprehensive creed which would cure all diseases and solve all problems.
4. Belligerence toward the capitalist world, and above all the United States: this ideal, which was more the result of an influence that Iranian leftists had exerted, intended to bestow a new identity on Iranians.
5. Justice based on just distribution: form this standpoint, the main task was the establishment of equality among humans and not the creation of equal opportunities. A socialist orientation and the attempt to nationalize the country’s resources, industries, banks, insurance companies, and factories were considered a revolutionary value and all these enterprises were carried out with the aim to secure justice in society.
6. Industrial self-sufficiency: this ideal, which was inspired by the thought of Jalal Ale-Ahmad, renounced dependence on Western technology as a way of overcoming backwardness. This idea revolved around the assumption that, if we produce everything ourselves and, as Ale-Ahmad had put it, seal up the demon of the machine in the bottle, our dependence on the West would end. Of course, what the advocates of this view neglected was whether or not this kind of industrial self-sufficiency is economically feasible.
7. The flourishing of rural areas: the return to rural life and the redress of the sighs and complaints of the rural literature of the 1960s was another ideal that assumed concrete and real dimensions by the creation of “Jahad-e Sazandegi” (Construction Jihad).
All of these seven ideals were derived from the theory of revolution whose various aspects were put into practice by the Islamic Republic on the morrow of the revolution’s victory. This was particularly true of the Islamic Republic’s first decade of existence that stretched from the formation of Bazargan’s government (1979) to the death of Ayatollah Khomeini (1989). I call this decade, which was accompanied by the revolution and war, the “First Republic.”
But I think the most pivotal ideal of the revolution was embodied in the slogan of “Independence, Freedom, and the Islamic Republic.” Your explanation has focused more on the religious faction that took part in the revolution while religionists were only a part of the larger revolutionary whole which included all groups and political forces, including the leftists, the Marxists, the “Tudeh Party” and the “Motalefeh Party.” The ideal of freedom, at least for “Jebheye Meli” (the National Front), as one of the main participants in the coalition of revolutionaries, was vital. If we suppose the change of the regime as the final goal of all these groups, freedom, independence and republic were other common grounds.
This is a crucial point which you rightly emphasize. The central slogan around which various oppositions to the Shah had converged was “the Shah should leave”; people voiced this demand during street demonstrations by shouting “death to the Shah.” People believed as long as “the Shah is not buried in his grave, the country will never be a country.” And by staunchly clinging to this slogan, Ayatollah Khomeini turned into the most powerful embodiment of this demand. In fact, this was the revolution’s most prominent slogan and it brought together all the critics of the Shah. If we consider this slogan as the revolution’s overthrowing slogan, we should designate the slogan of “Independence, Freedom, and the Islamic Republic” as its consolidating slogan. The notion of the “Islamic Republic” in this slogan was its vaguest part for people and political groups. No one had any clear idea what an Islamic Republic or velayat-e faqih (the rule of the Islamic jurist) entailed. Even at the stage of compiling the preliminary draft of the Constitution in Paris by Dr. Habibi, the problem of velayat-e faqih had been overlooked. I remember when Ayatollah Khomeini commissioned Dr. Habibi to write the draft of the Constitution in Paris, Dr. Soroush, who then lived in London, came to Paris. He once asked Dr. Habibi about the character and peculiarities of the Islamic rule which the latter was expounding in his draft of the Constitution. Dr. Habibi responded that the Islamic rule was based on the teachings of fiqh and, if on any occasion it became necessary, they could resort to ejtehad (interpretation of Islamic laws by Islamic jurists and their adaptation to current affairs). At that time, Dr. Soroush warned Dr. Habibi about the complications that a newly born state would face if it was defined within the confines of fiqh.
But unlike the vague term of the “Islamic Republic,” the term of “Independence” was a national demand and transparent to all. The assumption was that the Shah was a puppet who would not move a limb without the United States’ approval. All revolutionary forces considered the Shah as a puppet of the United States. That is why the formation of a state independent of foreign powers was the ultimate goal of all political groups. However, this slogan caused quite a bit of damage because it found currency among the Iranian intellectuals at a time when the whole world was shedding its skin to enter into a period of globalization. In retrospect, we can now see that our intellectuals were lagging behind the world by at least a decade and, while the phenomenon of globalization had begun in the world, we were engaged in constructing an independence that relied solely on traditional methods.
But we should consider “Freedom” as the most abused term of the revolution’s rallying slogan; it was a merely words and always remained so. When people demanded freedom they meant that tyranny, censorship, “SAVAK,” oppression, the media headlines dictated by the state, and a subservient press, should no longer exist. But in the sphere of praxis, all political groups simply neglected freedom and democracy and viewed it as irrelevant in their agendas. Not only was democracy, in its liberal form based on “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” considered a superfluous concept, it was also labeled as an anti-value. When Bazargan’s critics and adversaries wanted to discredit him, they would call him a liberal. In sum, if we look carefully at the practical slogans and ideals of the revolution, we will see that freedom and liberalism were entirely discarded and no political group adhered to them. Even during the ratification of the constitution, no one could be troubled over freedom and democracy.
The clash over power began immediately after the Shah’s ouster because the criterion for distribution of power was not democratic. Since no group had advocated democracy, it was not possible to distribute and manage the transition of power democratically. The religionists who had seized power were particularly intolerant of the participation of other groups in the configuration of power according to the principles of democracy. Because their view of religion did not embrace any kind of pluralism (and still, excepting a small number, most religious intellectuals think this way), they considered the monopolization of power as their right. As such, they regarded the prevention of other-thinking individuals from sharing political power as their religious duty, a belief that they still hold. In this way, the battle for the seizure of power was set in motion and, backed by an unwavering belief in revolution that sanctified violence, ended in a bloodbath. The violence in the aftermath of the revolution, more than anything else, has resulted from a lack of belief in democracy.
What impact did the eight-year war with Iraq exert on the existing conditions in the revolution’s early years?
Certainly, the beginning of the war on September 22, 1980 contributed to the intensification of militarism in Iran’s political atmosphere. Within this atmosphere, violence erupted, the elimination of adversaries and critics was carried out, and more liberal-minded elements were driven away from the arena of power. Power was now completely seized by those who did not attach any value to democracy and freedom. In fact, the war gave leverage to the efforts that pressed for a close society, dictatorship, and a more violent state.
What fundamental changes did the transition of power from Khomeini to Khamenei bring about in the management of the country? And to what ends were these changes directed?
f Ayatollah Khomeini had lived longer and had seen the chaos and inefficiency of the prevailing views and policies, it is probable that he would have changed his behavior; after all, he was more intelligent than Khamenei and possessed the charisma and the power to alter the situation. Khamenei seized power at a time when he was not considered the country’s first choice. At that point, while the institutions of power were beyond the limits of Khamenei’s authority, Rafsanjani had emerged as the country’s primary figure and had greater access to the sources of power. If, at this juncture, you had placed Khmanei on one side of the scale, he would not be heavy enough to occupy even the place of the second or third political personality in the country. Khamenei was not even a marja-ye taqlid (source of emulation) to carry weight with the “Elmiye Religious Seminaries.” For this reason, he could not count on the clergy, and that is why he strived to transfer the power from the “Elmiye Religious Seminaries” to military forces. I call this gradual transfer of power from the clergy to the military the “Second Republic.” Of course, Khamenei was able to take control of all the institutions of power, including “Sazemane Seda va Sima” (the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting), “Bonyad Mostazafin va Janbazan” (Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled), the “Revolutionary Guards,” the army, the security apparatuses, the judiciary, and, finally, various cultural institutions such as the “Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance” and Keyhan and Etelaat newspapers.
Another attribute of the “Second Republic” under Khamenei’s leadership was its employment of assassination and other methods to physically eliminate its opponents. In one decade under his rule, around 300 individuals were assassinated inside and outside of Iran. At the end of the “Second Republic,” Khamenei’s supremacy as the country’s first power was clearly established. Not only did he checkmate Rafsanjani, he also brushed aside all those groups that had played important parts in the first decade of the revolution.
After the elections of the fifth Majles, one could sense that society was pregnant with new incidents. During this time, a large segment of religious intellectuals distanced itself from revolutionary thought. By assuming a reformist stance, the members of this new trend adopted the idea of “minimal religion” instead of “maximum religion” and developed connections with secular intellectualism. As a result, the embracement of liberalism was also reinforced. In fact, the debacle of the theory of revolution in the first decade and the ineptitude of the slogan of construction in the second decade gave rise to a new theory among the intellectuals that was evolved into the form of a non-violent revolution and social movement. This movement reached its full potency with the election of Mohammad Khatami as president on May 23, 1997. The dominant rhetoric of this movement revolved around human rights, democracy, the growth of civil society, and reconciliation with the world. We can call this era the “Third Republic.”
If we suppose that the revolution was intrinsically bound up with destruction, why did not Khamenei and other officials of the Islamic Republic try to reform and rectify the situation, especially since the passage of time had exposed many flaws and shortcomings of the system? What is the most important obstacle in self-reform?
This is a fundamental question and not only Khamenei, but also all our colleagues in those periods should answer it. When will they accept that the real problem lies in the core of the theory on which this regime is constructed and that, with the change and replacement of individuals, the situation will not improve? In my view, Khamenei is incapable of admitting that this system is flawed in its very essence because his thought emanates from religious ideology; he is convinced that his religious understanding mirrors the word of God, which is infallible.
Another problem is related to the fact that Khamenei, through the transfer of power from the clergy to the military, has led a number of people—with naked power and weapons—into the arena of politics. This is a move that he cannot simply reverse.
The third problem has to do with Khamenei’s obstruction of free circulation of news and information-relaying activities, a scheme that has backfired and entrapped him. Instead of receiving the news from independent and free media, Khamenei relies on a system of bulletin-writing. Therefore, he only acquires the news that he desires and chooses. We should also understand that, like all other dictators, Khamenei does not personally manage all the affairs of the state; rather, he is tangled in the coil of a cluster of institutions and individuals who control and direct him on many occasions.
If Khamenei wants to introduce some reforms, he should accept that the theory of “maximum religion,” which merged with fascism during his leadership, is not a viable solution. Khamenei should accept that he is not a second Khomeini and allow his power to be dissolved in democratic institutions. But, since he could not tolerate any curtailments of his power, he could not come to terms with the reform movement. Instead, he depicted a laughable caricature of the reforms by claiming that real reforms should focus their attention on the fight against poverty, discrimination, and corruption, a pronouncement whose only intention was to evade the issues of human rights, democracy, the growth of civil society, the end of Iran’s political isolation, and compatibility with the world in the era of globalization. All these issues were the central concerns of the reform movement. Even if Khamenei believed in uprooting poverty, discrimination, and corruption in any serious way, he would inevitably end up embracing the slogans and programs of the reforms.
Since Khamenei did not believe in his own slogans deeply and earnestly, he assailed the reforms with all his might by means of a repressive machine and the appointment of judges such as Saeed Mortazavi. Khamenei drove people to despair and disappointment and, by instilling the idea into people’s minds that they are too weak to withstand the assault of his followers, succeeded in strangling the reform movement. Of course, the theoretical and practical weakness of our reformist friends also contributed to this defeat.
Do you think the reforms would have prolonged the life of the Islamic Republic if Khamenei had not resisted them so tenaciously?
Iran’s reform movement had the range and capacity to transform the current theocratic system into a democratic system peacefully and with the lowest possible cost. Unfortunately, the stratagems of Khamenei, and the practical and theoretical weakness of the reformists, prevented the realization of this goal.
One of the focal slogans of Ahmadinejad has been to return to the ideals and slogans of the revolution. To what degree does his behavior embody the demands of the revolutionaries?
Marx quotes Hegel as saying that history is always repeated twice: first as tragedy and then as farce. In my view, what took place during the 1979 revolution was a tragedy and what Ahmadinejad is doing today by following Khamenei’s directives is the repetition of the same event in a comic manner. The revolution of 1979 was the result of two decades of theoretical and intellectual work and was backed by unprecedented popular support. But Ahmadinejad’s maneuvers, which are supported by some of the chiefs and personnel of the “Revolutionary Guards” and the “Basij” through the mediation of Khamenei, have returned to the slogans of the revolution’s early years at a time when those slogans and the views they express have become completely devoid of meaning. This movement lacks a calculated and goal-oriented theory. If the revolution was the product of a revolutionary generation whose leaders and cadres could direct it toward victory, the colleagues of Ahmadinejad resemble the defeated generals of a lost war. Many of them do not even have the experience of fighting a war; instead, their accomplishments originate from attacking women, students, workers, and other segments of the society, with chains and clubs during the past decade.
When a revolution fails or its consequent reforms fall through, its leaders assume that the theories and policies they have clung to are not carried out properly. Therefore, they try to experience the same views and policies with new people. But the real problem is not the people, it is the very theory behind the revolution. Khamenei has made the same mistake. He thinks that, by turning to new, submissive individuals, he can solve the problems. Khamenei believes that revolutionaries like us, who now criticize the revolution and its attendant system, have betrayed our beliefs and principles or are deceived by the enemy. That is why he supposes that if he employs the services of people who display a sturdier faith and a more resolute revolutionary attitude, the words, slogans and ideals of the early revolutionary years will solve all complications. When revolutions fail in reforming themselves, they have no alternative but to concede to new changes.
Today, whether Khamenei admits to it or not, we have entered the “Fourth Republic.” The transformations within the Iranian society, and the revolution itself, have given birth to this fourth stage. This republic is no longer the Islamic Republic. But, as is the case with many other revolutions, the political leaders would rather revive the theory and views of the revolutions’s early years than all the emergence of a new period, a new republic. This phenomenon has precedence in other revolutions as well. That is why, in my view, we are passing through a stage of transition between the period of the defeat of reforms and the birth of a new regime. However, we should try to complete this transition without violence and with the lowest possible cost.
Taking a brief look at three decades of the Islamic Republic’s life, how can we utilize the experiences of this revolution and system to create democracy? Does this regime possess the capacity for yielding to democracy, freedom, and human rights in a fundamental way?
Once, in a gathering at “Shahid Rejaee University,” I told an assembly of students that, unfortunately, they cannot count on my generation to bring about any change. The majority of the revolution’s first generation have proven themselves incapable of breaking out of the closed circle of their minds. The most important thing that this generation can do is transmit the experiences of this revolution to the third generation (the youths of the third decade) in a candid and transparent way to prevent them from committing our mistakes. (I call the war generation, who were children and teenagers during the revolution, the second generation). The third generation has to learn from our mistakes and dispel the temptation to reject the whole foundation of Western civilization with a few worn out, empty slogans. It should learn from our generation that it cannot rule a country with ideology; the way to save the country and solve the problem of catching up with the modern world is not to shout and brandish antiquated slogans.
To facilitate the transition to democracy and establishment of human rights, we must be patient and get to know the theories that support and expound these concepts. We should accept that the new rationality is the essence of the modern world and human rights; the new democracy, humanities, and sciences are all products and manifestations of this critical rationality. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic and the theory that lies behind it have no relation with modern rationality and this has become the most bothersome obstacle before the country’s transition to democracy. To pave the path to democracy, freedom, and human rights, we have to remove this obstacle.
 The National Intelligence and Security Organization under the Shah.
 A prosecutor known as the “butcher of the press.”