Politics & Policy

Message From Underground

A conversation with Amir Abbas Fakhravar.

Iranian Amir Abbas Fakhravar is a hunted man. A former medical student and journalist for the now-banned reform newspapers Moshareka and Khordad, Fakhravar came to prominence with the publication of his book This Place Is Not a Ditch, in which he criticized Iran’s rulers and called on the Iranian people to reject the mullahs’ regime. For doing so, he was sentenced in 2002 to eight years in prison. His status as a political prisoner and his mistreatment while incarcerated–he was reportedly denied medical care, and suffered frequent physical attacks–brought international attention and demands for his release. The mullahs proved less than accommodating, but they did allow Fakhravar occasional prison leaves in order to visit his family and take his university exams. In May of this year, while on such a leave, he decided he had had enough, and ran. He has been a fugitive ever since, and moves about Iran in an effort to escape the authorities.

Fakhravar’s decision to run and his pesky refusal to keep quiet have put his life in danger. An Iranian tribunal informed his sister earlier this year that Iran’s anti-riot police have a standing order to shoot him on sight. But the threat of death appears not to have intimidated him, and he continues to devote his energies to the cause of Iranian democracy.

He does this by communicating with Iranian students, whom he characterizes as deeply hostile to the rulers in Tehran. It is a strange commentary on the extent to which Iranian speech is suppressed–and on the peculiarities of the Internet age–that among the best ways for Fakhravar to reach his audience is by speaking with American journalists whose work finds its way to the Iranian underground.

Fakhravar wants to talk to National Review Online in order to encourage Iranians to mark their country’s student day–this Wednesday, December 7–by protesting the appointment of Amid Zanjani, a hardline cleric famous for his work as a religious prosecutor, to the chancellorship of Tehran University. “This man has never been in a university,” Fakhravar says of Zanjani. “Students are very agitated that he has been appointed to head a university with a very sophisticated academic society . . .”

Here, our telephone connection crashes. This will become a frequent occurrence throughout the interview, and Fakhravar will rarely be able to answer more than a single question in a continuous stretch of conversation. At first I am inclined to take these difficulties as a manifestation of Iran’s poor telecommunications infrastructure, but our interpreter doesn’t think so. “This happens all the time when Amir Abbas talks to journalists,” she says. “The government cuts him off. They don’t want him to talk.”

When we succeed in calling Fakhravar back, the conversation moves beyond Zanjani and turns to the character of the Iranian people. Fakhravar is eager to convey what he perceives to be Iranian goodwill toward the United States. “Over two decades ago, the students of Iran were giving Iran a bad name following the seizure of the U.S. embassy. We don’t want the world to think of us like that.” He emphasizes that this is the view of a majority of “all sectors of the population,” not just the student community.

Fakhravar believes the theocracy has failed in its efforts to inspire hatred of the United States and Israel: “For two decades, they have been teaching us that the U.S. and Israel are our enemies. But we think the people who live in these countries are our brothers and sisters, and if they try to do anything in Iran in the near future, we know it is solely to help us get rid of this regime.”

That is a striking characterization of a people whose government sponsors terrorists, pursues a clandestine nuclear-weapons program, and threatens–in the words of its president–to wipe Israel off the map. It has become something of a commonplace that Iran’s rulers are more hostile toward the U.S., and more traditionalist in their conception of Islam’s role in society, than the people they rule. But Fakhravar crystallizes the point. If his words are correct, Iran is indisputably a place where democracy promotion serves our interests, no matter what can be said about other Middle Eastern states whose peoples may be less favorably disposed toward us.

At times, Fakhravar’s plea for aid becomes explicit. “Iran’s situation is like [the former] Yugloslavia’s,” he tells me. “Europe tried to help and couldn’t achieve anything, and finally the U.S. came to rescue Yugoslavia from a horrible regime. We are now asking the help of the United States so we can get rid of our regime.” Fakhravar is not opposed in principle to the idea of military intervention: “Every sector of the population believes, as Bush has stated, that all options should be on the table–because we all absolutely hate this regime.”

But he is optimistic that change could come at a lower cost. Opposition to the theocracy is so intense, he feels, that “it is going to be much easier and cheaper and involve fewer casualties if the U.S. supports democratic movements in Iran. The way to do that could be a lot of things, from financial aid to support for communication from the outside”(a reference to pro-democracy satellite T.V. broadcasts from Iranian émigrés).

I come away from the conversation with a sense of Fakhravar’s irresistible optimism. This optimism is in part an expression of his personal aims: He will continue, he vows, “to reorganize and strengthen the infrastructure of the student movement” and to be the voice of his “friends and opposition leaders who have been captured.” But he also voices a kind of national optimism, a sense that the world is not indifferent to the plight of his countrymen. “Until a few years ago, the forces of the Western world were not stationed around our country. Iran was forgotten. Now we are hopeful that Iran is not so isolated.”

We too should hope–both that Fakhravar is right, and that America and her allies will keep his voice from being silenced.

Jason Lee Steorts is an associate editor of National Review.


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