Magazine | March 8, 2010, Issue

An Iranian’s Life

How an exile journalist has coped with the currents of his time

When Khomeini created his Islamic dictatorship in Iran, he also created an Iranian diaspora: Some 3 million Iranians now live abroad, in various countries, on various continents. Many of them do what they can to ameliorate the situation back home. They are especially interested now, as the “green revolution” mounts a serious challenge to the dictatorship. Exile journalists play an important role, in two basic ways: They inform the world at large about Iran; and they inform those Iranians they can reach about both their own country and the greater world. Iran can be an area of darkness.

One exile journalist, among many, is Manuchehr Honarmand. He operates a website called Khandaniha, found at www.Khandaniha.eu. It is a “Voice of Democratic Iran,” as the homepage says. Honarmand has had an eventful life, an all too eventful one. He spent two ghastly years in a prison of Hugo Chávez, the Iranian regime’s close friend. A Dutch citizen, he has witnessed the rise of what some call “Eurabia.” He has been caught up in some of the most daunting currents of his time.

Honarmand was born in Tehran in 1946. His father was a civil engineer. The family’s name means “artist,” incidentally. Part of the boy’s education was French: Honarmand went to a French primary school in Isfahan (home of the famous roses). His university education was in Tehran. After graduation, he worked for some French contractors, and he also did some journalism on the side: a little translating, a little writing.

When the Khomeinist revolution came in 1979, Honarmand was arrested, as so many were. “They arrested anybody who looked respectable,” as he says. They beat him up, stole his car, stole the air conditioner out of his home — and jailed him, for 15 days. Like so many others, he looked for a way to leave the country. And he eventually found it, when his wife had a medical need: They got permission to go abroad for treatment. They have never returned.

They went to France, where they stayed for a year, with Honarmand doing odd jobs. Then they went to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. There, Honarmand opened a restaurant, working 20 hours a day. After a year, they burned it down. “They”? Almost certainly agents of the Iranian government, says Honarmand, although there is no proof. The regime has a major presence in Abu Dhabi.

After the arson, Honarmand’s idea was to go to Canada: He paid $15,000 for some false visas: four of them, for his entire family, which now included two daughters. They had to travel through Yugoslavia. And, the falsity of their visas discovered, they were arrested, right there in Belgrade’s airport. But they were able to make a run for it: They ran out of the airport, leaving everything behind. And they found a smuggling contact in the city — a man who arranged to get them to Holland.

They were penniless, but they managed to start over once again. They got refugee status, they learned Dutch, they obtained citizenship. After some years, Honarmand and his wife were divorced, and Honarmand went to London: to work for Kayhan, the Iranian exile newspaper. (There is a Kayhan in Iran, controlled by the regime.) Kayhan in London was, and is, liberal and democratic, and so is Honarmand. He is a Muslim who believes that religion and government “should not interfere with each other.” He wants for Iran the kind of freedom that many in the West are able to take for granted.

The year 2000 was a brutally hard one. The Honarmands’ younger daughter, 16, was killed in a car crash. The older daughter, who has Down syndrome, lives with her mother in Holland.

It was in 2002 that Honarmand found himself in Venezuela — vacationing. Two Iranians approached him in the Caracas airport. He was pleased to chat with them, giving them his business card. They turned out to be agents of Tehran. Quickly, Chávez’s police were on him, beating him, arresting him, and making him sign something in Spanish. The relationship between the Venezuelan government and the Iranian government is a highly interesting and chilling story. Suffice it to say that Chávez has been to Tehran about ten times, and that Ahmadinejad has been to Caracas about five. The two governments work together on oil, nuclear capability, and international terror.

Honarmand was imprisoned in Venezuela for two years, on trumped-up charges of drug smuggling. His prison was an infamous one, known for depravity and murder: Los Teques. Honarmand recalls that three or four prisoners in his cellblock were killed every week — by other prisoners. They were armed with knives, pistols, other things. One evening, Chávez’s men did some killing themselves. They came in and executed a man, by beheading him. They left the body and the head in the cell, for the dead man’s wife to find the next morning.

#page#How did Honarmand survive? “By money,” he says: by paying off all who required to be paid off. He got the money from friends and family. Either you paid or you were killed: It was as simple as that. Eventually, an agreement between the Dutch government and the Venezuelans sprang him.

Once again, he was penniless, in Holland, starting over. He took a position with Radio Zamaneh, the Persian-language outlet set up and funded by the Dutch government. Things took a bad turn, however, when Honarmand found that the director was all too cozy with the Iranian regime. For example, he would fly to and from Iran, something no dissident or democrat could do. Honarmand resigned, making a big stink. A public scandal ensued. In due course, the director was fired, for myriad reasons, stated and unstated. But Honarmand did not return to the radio.

He started his website, Khandaniha — and he repeatedly had trouble from Islamists around him, who threatened him. One night, walking home from the subway station, he was jumped and stabbed by two men. Was it political? He can’t be sure. In any event, he found it wise to leave Holland, his adopted country, the country of his citizenship. He is now in a country whose identity he would prefer not to broadcast — he has had enough trouble and done enough running.

He thinks, incidentally, that Holland will one day succumb to Islamic fundamentalism. The government is too polite, he says, too worried about being thought discriminatory. And Islamists are using the freedom of Dutch society to subvert that society and make it unfree.

Khandaniha provides news, opinion — a little of everything. The site is in Persian, although it comes with a Google translator that works reasonably well. What about the name of the site? As Honarmand explains, it means, roughly, “Interesting Things to Read,” and that was the name of the publication of Ali Asghar Amirani — who was the first journalist killed by the Khomeini regime (after much torture). The site is blocked in Iran, and must be reached by roundabout ways. But some 45 percent of its readers are in Iran. Honarmand does the site by himself, with no employees. He has very little financial support. He lives, essentially, hand to mouth.

Three times, he says, his site has been hacked. Asked whether this has been done by the Iranian government, he chuckles: “Who else? I am not a bank. Who else has the interest to hack a poor website like mine?” The hacking indicates that Khandaniha has gotten under the regime’s skin; so do mentions in the official press.

The role of technology in the green revolution is “fantastic,” Honarmand says. “I am an old man, but I admire this technology, because, without it, no one could communicate.” And “the green movement has no other weapon than the Internet.” So, will the regime fall? It is impossible to tell now, says Honarmand. At the moment, the regime has the upper hand, mainly in the form of the security forces. But if the West will impose “real sanctions,” the regime will be in trouble, because it will lack the money to pay those security forces. And if Iranians in general see the government in such a bind, “they will have more courage.”

Honarmand is opposed to military action against Iran. But he favors those “real sanctions.” And he says that some money for democratic forces wouldn’t hurt, either.

The 1979 revolution was dislocating, in more than one sense, for many, many people. They have dramatic stories to tell, and, as we have seen, Honarmand has had more than his fair share of drama. “Before the revolution, I was a normal guy,” he says. “I was earning a living.” But then, everything became chaotic. The world slipped from its track. “I had gone to a French school, remember, and I had a free and liberal spirit. Under the Iranian revolution, I could not fit in for even one hour. At my age, I should be retired somewhere, walking in the park, enjoying myself. I am living as a refugee and . . .” His voice trails off. It has been an unexpected, unsought, and unwanted 30 years. But he can be assured that he is making a contribution, as his country tries to get on the track of a better life.

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