Politics & Policy

Darkness in Tehran

A loyalist discovers the horror of the regime.

Mohsen Sazegara was one of the youngest figures near the helm of Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979. Serving first as a press attaché to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in his exile command center outside of Paris, Sazegara went on to hold a series of high positions in the early revolutionary government — chief of national radio, commander of the Revolutionary Guard, cabinet aide, and head of the Industrial Development and Renovation Organization — all while still in his twenties. However, he got caught in the wheels of internal power jockeying and was accused falsely of being a secret agent of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an Islamo-Marxist group that lost out to Khomeini for control of the new regime. Trying to clear his name, he agreed to surrender for interrogation.

Mohsen arrived early at Evin Prison, where he was blindfolded, although not handcuffed, and . . . led by the hand down a long and wide corridor. He could see from under the blindfold, and what he saw was “a very sad scene.” As they passed various interrogation rooms he heard shouting, and the corridor was lined with young male and female prisoners awaiting their turns. The young women looked particularly pitiful.

#ad#These frightened prisoners reminded him of the baby chicks he had raised in boyhood “when they get cold or become ill and they don’t move.” He recalls the feeling that came over him:

That was a turning point of my life. I said to myself, what is going on? Is this what we wanted to create — these prisoners, this atmosphere, that interrogator? I knew that I would be released because of pressure outside Evin. But what about these young people?

I had heard several things about tortures, killings, executions. I had told myself that the opposition groups exaggerate. Lajevardi [the warden of Evin] is cruel but not that cruel.

Now he wondered if all the terrible things he had heard were indeed accurate. Then he witnessed something that chilled him to the bone:

While I was looking at that sad scene, an interrogator came out from one of the rooms and shouted, “Guard, come take this [bitch] to be beaten more; more lashes.” She was young and blindfolded, and she started to cry. I heard her say, “I cannot bear more lashes.” And the interrogator said . . . “Hah, you cannot tolerate a few lashes in this room? How can you tolerate the God’s eternal punishment? In the next life you will be in hell.” And they took her away.

Mohsen recalls, “That really shocked me. I asked myself, ‘Who persuaded this interrogator that he is an agent of God?’ A person who believes he has a mission from God can easily torture, kill, or do anything.”

That evening one of the interrogators told him that he was going to be released “because your friends have lied to Imam Khomeini, but rest assured you will be back here. We’ll be waiting for you.” He was turned over to a guard who led him outside the building, where he was allowed to remove the blindfold, and suddenly roles seemed to revert to normal. As they waited for a car to the prison gate, the guard said, “Mr. Sazegara, I know you are the head of the automotive industries. I’m trying to buy a van. Can you help me?” Mohsen declined.

The next morning, Mohsen went directly to the office of Minister Nabavi, his friend and patron, to review the previous day’s events. Nabavi told him that he had enlisted the help of Ardebili, the head of the Judicial Authority, and that the two of them had won over Ahmad Khomeini, the usually hard-line son of the Imam, who in turn went to his father and secured an order for Mohsen’s release.

Mohsen told Nabavi of the disturbing things he had seen and heard in Evin. “I have to tell Ayatollah Khomeini what is going on,” he said. Nabavi phoned Ahmad Khomeini and asked if they could come to see his father, and somewhat to their surprise, they were given an appointment for later that morning at the Ayatollah’s home in Jamaran, a northern suburb of Tehran (where he had moved from the holy city of Qom).

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They sat on the floor of a small drawing room. Mohsen was not on personal terms with him, but the Ayatollah remembered the devoted young man on his staff in Neauphle-le-Château. Mohsen recited his experience at Evin, stressing the words of the interrogator who acted as if he were God’s deputy. Mohsen felt tense and he thought that Khomeini, who listened carefully, seemed to grow tense, too. Then, as Mohsen reconstructs it, he concluded with a bold albeit respectful appeal: “Imam, I have followed you from Paris. If you agree with what Lajevardi is doing, please tell me. Then I will know that I made a mistake and I will resign my position and ask God to forgive me. And if you do not agree, why don’t you remove Lajevardi?” Khomeini did not respond. . . . 

As they left, Mohsen and Nabavi shared their astonishment that Ahmad had gotten them the meeting with his father so promptly, since they believed Ahmad was Lajevardi’s sponsor. Apparently something was in the wind. Ardebili, the head of the Judicial Authority, had grown unhappy with Lajevardi. Ardebili was close to Khomeini, and Mohsen heard later that he had brought some other former prisoners to tell their tales to the Imam. A week or so later, Lajevardi was removed from his post.

#ad#This, however, was not enough to make Mohsen feel whole again. After what he had seen in Evin, Mohsen says:

Something was broken inside me, and I was not the same person. Put it this way: You have raised a child and you like him very much. But one day, you see that he is doing something very bad, a crime. Something will break inside you. Still, you love him; this is your son. But you do not like what he is doing. I had such a feeling. I still loved the revolution. I was about 30 years old. I had spent so far 13 years of my life from early morning until late at night on it. And I really loved the movement that we made, that great victory. But now, I did not like that face of the revolution, the face of this new child.

Now, I began to believe many things that I had heard. Before that, I told myself, “No, they are exaggerating.” But now, I believed everything.

Mohsen . . . submitted his resignation, . . . signing on as an adviser to a few companies. Altogether this work required about 25 hours a week, and most of the rest of his hours he spent reading, or rather rereading. He began with the works of Ayatollah Khomeini, at the center of which lay the theory of Velayat-e Faqih, the rule of the religious jurisprudent. Mohsen recalls:

When I read that book the first time, I was 20. I did not notice the main idea of Ayatollah Khomeini. What was wonderful for me was his language against the U.S., the Shah, and Israel. This time, I did not care about the slogans. I was looking for the main ideas. And I said to myself, “Wow, what kind of political philosophy is this? So much authority for one person without any control, and a divine mission. This is despotism.”

It was, moreover, a despotism whose scowl Mohsen realized he had seen with his own eyes on the face of the heartless interrogator who thought he was acting for God when he ordered more lashes.

The preceding is an excerpt from The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East, by Joshua Muravchik, just released by Encounter Books.

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