Responses to state terror
Reflections on Iran’s prison system during the Montazeri
May 19, 2005
The original draft of this paper, titled “Perspectives
on Iran’s Political Prisoners during the Montazeri Years
(1985-88),” was presented at the Middle East Studies Association
(MESA) panel, “Responses to State Terror: Twentieth-Century
Iran’s Political Prisoners,” San Francisco, November
20-23, 2004 and then published in published in the Iran
Analysis Quarterly Vol.2 No.3, Winter 2005 (January-March).
Events of June 1981 were a turning point in the history
of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). It was during this period
the cleric-dominated faction within the ruling elite of the IRI
moved to eliminate both its opposition outside the state apparatus
and its factional opposition, commonly called the “Islamic
liberals” (led by President Abol Hasan Bani-sadr in 1981).
The period immediately following June 1981 was both one of consolidation
for the IRI under a more homogeneous cleric-dominated leadership
and one of the harshest and most violent periods in recent Iranian
history. While at war with Iraq and in a continuing confrontational
mode with the U.S., the IRI under the leadership of Grand Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini was, in effect, attempting to bring about uniformity
in its leadership and to consolidate power by eliminating all opposition.
In this context, almost the entire political opposition (be they
leftist communists, Moslem radicals, or Islamic liberals) were
taken on in an often violent, sometimes civil-war-like, confrontation.
The violence of 1981-1988 is best reflected in the IRI prison system,
where thousands, if not tens of thousands, of men and women perished.
The end of this period saw the general massacre of prisoners in
the summer of 1988 as the Iran-Iraq war came to an end, a year
before Khomeini’s demise.
During 1981-1988, a reemergence of factionalism and the role
played by Khomeini’s heir apparent, Grand Ayatollah Hosein
Ali Montazeri, had a significant consequence for the lives of thousands
of prisoners. This paper discusses the role of factionalism and
that of Montazeri during this period and examines improvements,
if any, in prison conditions during Montazeri’s tenure, as
well as the calamities prisoners faced after his removal.
Factionalism in IRI
While the attempt to consolidate the IRI was,
for the most part, realized, the hope of establishing a more homogeneous
proved to be more challenging and ultimately elusive. Shortly after
1981, and as soon as it became clear that the opposition was effectively
neutralized, the cleric-dominated coalition which had closed ranks
behind Khomeini began to polarize. By the time Khomeini died in
1989, three distinguishable factions had fully developed. The three
differed on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues.
In brief, the first was the radical/left faction, which advocated
a stronger role for the state in domestic policies and a more radical,
confrontational foreign policy, especially when it came to the
U.S. This faction generally had the upper hand as long as the Iran-Iraq
war was going on. Second was the pragmatic/moderate faction, which
advocated a lessening of the state role in domestic matters and
normalizing Iran’s foreign relations so as to achieve domestic
growth, particularly as the war years came to an end. The reform
movement of the late 1990s emerged from elements belonging to these
two factions. Third was the right/conservative faction, which advocated
a limited state role in regulating domestic economic matters, represented
the bazaar merchant class interest, advocated a strong state role
in imposing Islamic moral codes, and envisioned a more isolationist
The three factions also shared a clear contempt for political
democracy and were in accord when it came to eliminating the opposition.
Khomeini was fully aware of the factions and played them against
each other to maintain balance. However, toward the end of his
life he clearly sided with the left faction on most issues (1).
By the 1980s, Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri was
already considered an old hand revolutionary, a student and confidant
Khomeini from before the revolution, and one of the architects
of the IRI after 1979. Because of his age, his seminary education
and status as a mujtahed (learned religious scholar able to issue
independent judgments on religious subjects), and his revolutionary
credentials, Montazeri soon found a prominent place in the hierarchy
of the IRI. He was designated to become the successor to Khomeini
in November 1985, a status he held until his dismissal in March
Montazeri’s selection as heir-apparent posed some problems
and was clearly a political step. Although a mujtahed with impeccable
revolutionary credentials, he was not considered a marja’ (source
of imitation/grand ayatollah) at the time of his selection, which
was a constitutional prerequisite for becoming the leader of the
IRI (this constitutional prerequisite was removed in the summer
of 1989 after Khomeini’s death). Hence, in the months leading
to his selection, a considerable effort was made to elevate his
position to an acceptable level.
Montazeri was viewed as a person who would follow Khomeini’s
path and ensure clerical continuity in the IRI’s leadership.
But between 1985 and 1989 he came into open conflict with his former
teacher and leader, resulting in his removal.
Like Khomeini, Montazeri attempted to stay above factional politics,
but even more than Khomeini, and much earlier, he tended to lean
toward the left faction, especially on foreign policy matters.
On other issues, he maintained his own independent line and was
quite vocal about it. As a no-nonsense straight-shooter, Montazeri
often offended IRI officials, including Khomeini, with his criticism.
His dismissal was due to a number of interconnected issues ranging
from his opposition to the 1986 Iran-Contra affair, aspects of
the IRI’s foreign policy, the conduct of the war with Iraq,
constitutional changes put forward by Khomeini in 1988-89, and
power struggle with Khomeini’s son and the head of his household,
Ahmad, who led a power center by virtue of his access to his father.
Another area where Montazeri came into conflict with Khomeini
was the IRI’s human rights record and the issue of freedom
of expression. Indeed, on the former he was accused of paying too
much attention to reports of Amnesty International, and on the
latter issue, of getting too close to Islamic liberals (led by
Mehdi Bazargan and considered a semi-legal opposition group in
The IRI Judiciary
Following the repression of June 1981, the IRI’s
judiciary was faced with an overwhelming number of detainees belonging
a variety of political oppositional groups. To put the problem
simply, the judiciary was overloaded, and immediate relief or improvisation
The 1981 crackdown occurred little more than two years after
the victory of the revolution and at a time when the IRI was just
beginning to reorganize the state system. If one takes into consideration
that even today, some twenty-five years after the revolution, the
IRI judicial system is still chaotic and leaves much to be desired,
one can imagine how bad the conditions were at this infantile stage.
There were two core problems. First, as an Islamic republic,
the IRI claimed to seek to bring about Islamic justice. Naturally,
here the judiciary played a central role in administering “judicial” justice.
Islamic justice meant, in part, purging the Iranian law code of
its Western influence and secular past and replacing it with Shari’a-based
laws. This process was at an early stage and no coherent and uniform
system was yet in place. By the middle of 1981, the fact that the
country was in the middle of both a civil and a foreign war, as
well as the usual post-revolution disorder, only compounded the
The second problem, closely associated with the above, was an
acute lack of competent judges to administer justice. Ideally,
in a Shari’a-based legal system, competent clerics would
be in charge of courts and administration of justice. In reality,
it had been a long time since Shi’a clerics had played any
role in Iran’s judiciary, a function they were in charge
of until the early 1930s. Hence, while Shi’a seminaries in
Iran had been training competent clerics during the fifty years
before the revolution, they had not been producing enough judges
for the task at hand. Ideally, Shi’a clerics who had become
mujtaheds would be in charge of judicial and other duties such
as teaching. Those among the clerics who were not mujtaheds would
attend to less intellectually oriented occupations such as preaching,
notarizing, managing village mosques, etc. Since no judges were
needed during fifty years of secularizing reforms by Pahlavi shahs,
fewer graduates had been produced and they attended to other tasks.
In 1981, with an acute shortage of competent judges, many non-mujtaheds were recruited to run the courts, and in the absence of uniform
legal codes, they began to issue rulings as they saw fit. The incompetence
of most judges and their revolutionary/religious zeal resulted
in catastrophe. Chaos, arbitrariness, and large numbers of executions
and numerous other human rights violations followed. The situation
got so bad that the ruling clerics took notice.
In his memoirs Montazeri mentions the problem and steps taken
to remedy the situation (2). It seems that sometime after 1983
Khomeini was approached and asked to take action regarding arbitrary
executions going on in the prisons. Khomeini in turn asked Montazeri
to look into the problem. According to Montazeri, the problem was
twofold. First, because of general disorganization and localism
of the courts, not only were arbitrary death sentences issued,
but on many occasions people who had committed similar crimes received
such different sentences as short prison terms and capital punishment,
depending on the judge (3). The second problem was more technical
in nature and centered around who would be liable to capital punishment.
The key concepts in dispute were “war against God” (harb)
and “corrupter on earth” (mufsed-e fi al-arz) (4).
Many judges interpreted any act of “war against God” as
well as any “corrupting act” as being those of a “corrupter
on earth” and issued death sentences.
It is worth noting that by the time Montazeri got involved in
this process, thousands of people had already been “administered
justice” under the above circumstances. Montazri’s
reforms in this regard were simple and swift. He issued a legal
ruling stating that not all “corrupters” are to be
considered “corrupters on earth,” thus making them
ineligible for capital punishment. He also argued, as will be explained
below, that only male, not female, prisoners found to be in a state
of “war with God” were subject to capital punishment.
Furthermore, in 1983 Montazeri suggested and led the way to establish
a central court in Qum called the Sublime Court (dadgah-e ali)
to review most capital punishment cases. This process resulted
in a decrease in capital cases as the Qum court was under Montazeri’s
influence and did not issue execution sentences for many women
prisoners, the youth, and those who did not have a direct hand
in assassinations (5).
IRI Security and Prison System
The IRI’s prison system faced overload problems similar
to those mentioned above, only here the situation was much worse.
According to Hosein Musavi-tabrizi, the Revolutionary Prosecutor-General
1981-83, not only were there not adequate facilities to house thousands
of newly arriving prisoners, but many prisoners disappeared and
were killed even before court hearings, some not even being registered.
In addition, torture and long captivity without any judicial process,
or continued captivity after serving one’s sentence, had
now become the norm. (6)
According to Tabrizi, in September 1981 when he took office,
following the assassination of his predecessor, both the security
forces and the prison system were in a dire condition. As far as
the security forces were concerned, the problem proved easier to
solve. Apparently, according to Tabrizi, various security forces
(including the IRGC, police, revolutionary Komitehs, security forces
associated with the Prosecutor General’s Office, and other
branches) acted independently of each other, at times competing
with each other or even shooting each other mistakenly during street
patrols. This problem was solved by establishing a central command
for coordination, as well as taking other steps. This process eventually
led to the 1984 establishment of the Intelligence Ministry of the
IRI and consolidation of all police forces in one national organization
under the State Ministry (sometimes interpreted as Interior Ministry)
in the 1990s.
A solution to the problem of prisons proved to be more elusive.
As with the security forces there was no central coordinating organization
in 1981. What existed was a collection of prisons left from the
shah’s time, each controlled by a different security organization.
The person in charge until 1985 of the IRI’s largest prison,
Evin in Tehran, was Asadollah Lajevardi, by any measure a brutal
administrator with a special security squad under his command operating
out of Evin. Lajevardi was himself an ex-political prisoner and
a person closely associated with the right/conservative faction.
His control over the most important and largest prison facility
pointed to the right faction’s dominance over the fate of
most political prisoners.
Tabrizi notes that in the midst of near-civil war conditions,
the problem of dealing with the opposition was compounded by arbitrary
arrests and killings done on Lajevardi’s watch. The situation
got so bad that reports reached Khomeini, who appointed three parliament
members to look into the problem. Their advice and that of Tabrizi
was to remove Lajevardi. Apparently the right faction managed to
convince Khomeini not to go ahead with the dismissal, but he did
ask Tabrizi to watch over Lajevardi (7).
Montazeri and the Prison System
This was the general situation
in which Montazeri took on overall management of IRI’s prison
system by appointing his people to run it, a process that in part
led to his confrontation with
Khomeini. The office of Montazeri, the heir-apparent, soon became
a place which people who were not otherwise able to reach authorities
and seek justice, flooded with complaints. Even many officials
who were unable to approach Khomeini for a variety of reasons sought
Montazeri’s intervention. Montazeri intervened on many occasions
by writing letters to officials, by appointing his people to oversee
duties, and by directly approaching Khomeini and discussing the
problem in a no-nonsense manner.
According to Montazeri, he approached Khomeini with the complaint
that many excesses were going on in the prisons even years after
the opposition had been effectively neutralized. These included
continued summary executions, torture (in the guise of Shari’a
punishment or ta’zir) for information, but more commonly
as a form of punishment and for repentance, long unnecessary sentences,
and refusal to release prisoners after the end of their terms (8).
Another topic the two men discussed was execution of female prisoners.
Montazeri believed that according to the Shari’a only those
women who had been directly involved in killing were liable to
capital punishment. He proposed reducing sentences, and not implementing
capital punishment, for those women who were deemed to be in a “state
of war with God” but had not been directly involved in any
Interestingly, Khomeini, who would order the general killing
of prisoners in the summer of 1988, apparently agreed with all
of Montazeri’s suggestions and asked him to take charge.
Montazeri had been paying attention to prison conditions years
before he became heir apparent. It appears he had been collecting
information on prison conditions and trying to restrain brutalization
of prisoners even in the heat of conflict with the opposition.
The following episode is telling: after the fall 1981 assassination
of a top cleric named Ayatollah Dastghaib in Shiraz, prison guards
stormed the prison quarters of Evin. Their presence was unusual
in that they all looked angry, were in large numbers, and carried
their weapons with them. Prison guards apparently did not normally
carry their weapons among the prison population for fear of being
disarmed. The above circumstance gave the appearance that prisoners
were going to be shot en masse at any moment. But then a live broadcast
from Montazeri over radio pleaded for restraint, after which things
began to calm down (10).
On another occasion, a political prisoner on a hospital bed in
Evin was surprised when a member of the Revolutionary Guards approached
him in late 1985 asking him about prison conditions. When asked
who he was and why he was asking a prisoner such questions, he
said that he worked with the office of Montazeri and that they
had no access to the prisons and did not know what went on.
In 1985 Montazeri took charge by ordering a halt to execution
of women prisoners who had not been directly involved in any killing,
and appointed a council of amnesty to look into cases which were
eligible for release. He also initiated the creation of the IRI
Organization of Prisons and began to appoint his people to oversee
running of the prisons, starting with the dismissal of Lajevardi.
The latter apparently left his post after executing close to twenty-five
hundred prisoners who had already repented and were cooperating
with him (11).
According to most accounts, the general condition of prisons
began to improve from 1985 to the summer of 1988. Among measures
taken were: sharp reduction in executions; release of many prisoners;
general improvement of prison conditions (recreation, availability
of books, family visits), and reduction in solitary confinement;
lessening of torture as a form of punishment; abolition of compulsory
A positive change in the condition of prisons throughout Iran
had begun to take shape. More than a few ex-political prisoners
have suggested that their lives were saved after Montazeri took
over (12). There have been over a dozen memoirs written by former
political prisoners of these years. While some authors either do
not mention the changes in prison conditions or dismiss them as
cosmetic, others have taken notice. After acknowledging the changes,
Shahrnush Parsipur, a prominent woman novelist and ex-prisoner,
wrote: “Hence, it became clear that recent [prison] reforms
had occurred under the supervision of Ayatollah Montazeri’s
office. I am not well versed in factional infighting among these
gentlemen, but during the last year to year-and-a-half of prison,
when these people took over, the conditions of prison changed one
hundred eighty degrees” (13). Another female prisoner, Monireh
Baradaran, also acknowledges the difference Montazeri made (14).
Thus, Montazeri’s domination of the IRI judiciary and prison
system signaled a period of visible and significant relaxation
of, but not a complete end to, terror in IRI prisons. His attempt
was to set the stage for creating institutions, cultural imperatives,
and a legal context to serve Islamic justice and protect the revolution
at the same time. Those who were guilty were to be punished and
then be sent on their way. This period ended when he lost his control
over these institutions, resulting in a swift return of terror.
By the summer of 1988, Montazeri was out of the picture as far
as the prison system was concerned. Following the end of the Iran-Iraq
war, in the summer of 1988, orders were issued to execute those
prisoners who were guilty and beyond redemption and to free others.
In the coming months, more than 4,500 prisoners were killed. A
majority of these had already received prison sentences and/or
had served their sentence and were eligible for release. Probably
another 15,000 prisoners were eventually released (15).
Different people in Iran began to actively oppose the executions
and voice their concern. One such group was the Liberation Movement
of former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, who had been out of favor
and marginalized by Khomeini. Montazeri joined these voices by
sending messages and writing letters to Khomeini. He was accused
of being naïve, of collaboration with Bazargan, and of being
too impressionable and under the influence of foreign human rights
groups. In one of Khomeini’s last speeches in March 1989,
he attacked those who have been fooled by the liberals and the
hypocrites (the latter a standard IRI reference to the Mojahedin),
a clear reference to Montazeri and a popular line of attack on
him from this point on (16). Without Montazeri’s intervention
and objections, the extent of the terror going on in the prisons
probably would not have become internationally known. The end result
of this process was the March 1989 “resignation” (or
removal) of Montazeri and the beginning of his marginalization
and house arrests.
Why did Montazeri act the way he did?
After all, he was a staunch supporter of the revolution and an
architect of the IRI constitution,
a defender of the repression in 1981, a father who had lost a son
to assassins, and a close confidant and student of Khomeini. In
his last letter to Montazeri accepting his “resignation,” Khomeini
referred to his former protégé as “the fruit
of my life,” pointing to the painful rift between the two
At the point of his dismissal Montazeri was one of the most powerful
men in Iran, with impeccable political and religious credentials.
As Khomeini’s heir apparent he could have kept quiet until
he had become the all-powerful leader of the IRI.
The answer seems to be in his personality, the place he envisioned
for himself in the revolution, and his perception of what an Islamic
society should look like and how an Islamic state should behave.
Montazeri was not a power-hungry political activist who would
sacrifice all else for the sake of holding on to power. That is
a malady that has gripped many revolutionaries, and the Iranian
revolutionaries were no exception. Montazeri was and is an idealist
for whom power is for the sake of justice, fairness, and morality
in an Islamic context, as he envisions it. If the reality of the
revolution was telling him otherwise, then it was the revolution,
and not his perception of Islam -- his principles -- that had to
It is true that he supported the repression of the early 1980s,
but he also began to oppose what he considered the excesses of
the revolution from an early stage. Perhaps only a few revolutionaries
in history, or perhaps many, reach this pivotal crossroad. Hunger
for power or the old craving for your principles -- which one would
As a well-placed and important pillar of the revolution, Montazeri’s
office was soon flooded with complaints from all those who had
nowhere else to turn. Montazeri in effect became a path through
which these excesses were brought under a degree of control. His
removal reinstituted terror and nowhere can this be seen more clearly
than in the prison system.
His perception of Islamic justice ran counter to those who insisted
on deepening the repression. His tenure represented a relative
pause in the terror. To Montazeri, terror was permissible not to
seek revenge but only to save the system, administer justice, clear
the innocent, and move on. Mass killing of prisoners, killing those
who had been given light sentences, use of torture and demands
for repentance, and making life miserable for prisoners were not
part of his vision of Islamic justice.
Perhaps there is another aspect to this problem. Institutionalization
of illegality, of arbitrariness, and of terror can ultimately serve
to damage revolutionary ideals. Under such circumstances, the prison
wardens of today could easily become the prisoners of tomorrow.
To prevent this, institutionalization of legality is an imperative.
One can clearly sense an attempt by Montazeri to establish the
rule of law (based on Shari’a) as he tried to prevent excesses.
Finally, it is not surprising that Iran’s reform movement
today is closely identified with Montazeri. It is true that none
of the factions of the 1980s within the IRI even mentioned civil
society, individual freedom, freedom of expression, and democracy
as they are known in the West. But it is also true that faint voices
from among the ruling factions, demanding and insisting on the
rule of law and an end to arbitrariness and terror, began at this
Maziar Behrooz is assistant professor of Middle East history
at San Francisco State University and author of Rebels
with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran. See
homepage and features in
1) For more on factional politics in the IRI see Mehdi Moslem, Factional
Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran (Syracuse, NY, 2002).
2) Hosein Ali Montazeri, Khaterat [Memoirs] (Tehran, 2000), 311.
3) Ibid., 308.
4) Ibid., 298.
5) This was the assessment of a former political prisoner, Reza
Fani-yazdi (interview with author, Berkeley, CA, November 13, 2004).
6) Interview with Ayatollah Sayyed Hosein Musavi-tabrizi, Chashmandaz (Tehran), No. 22 (September-October 2003), 41.
8) One former political prisoner, who has to remain anonymous,
told this author that when he asked his captors what were the criteria
for implementation of ta’zir (i.e., beating prisoners), the
answer was that it was implemented when a prisoner lied about a
certain question; of course, as I was told, that was only one criterion
among many (anonymous, telephone interview with author, Berkeley,
CA, March 29, 2005).
9) Montazeri, Khaterat [Memoirs] (Tehran, 2000), 309, 378.
10) Anonymous former political prisoner.
11) Ibid. This is the source for both the account of the encounter
with the guard in Evin hospital and the rough estimate of those
executed by Lajevardi.
12) Both the anonymous former political prisoner and Reza Fani-yazdi,
as well as another former prisoner, Hamid Karamyar (interview with
author, Berkeley, CA, January 29, 2005), attested to this observation.
13) Shahrnush Parsipur, Khaterat-e Zendan [Prison Memoirs] (Sweden,
14) Monireh Baradaran (M. Raha), Haqiqat-e Sadeh [Simple Truth]
(Hannover, Germany, 1997), 163.
15) The number of executed prisoners is based on a list provided
by a number of exiled political opposition organizations. See Anan
keh Goftand Na [Those Who Said No] (Paris, 1999); the number of
freed prisoners is a rough estimate based on interviews conducted.
16) The text of Khomeini’s speech can be found in the following:
Mohammad Mohammadi-reyshahri, Khaterat-e Siyasi 1365-66 [Political
Memoir 1986-87] (Tehran, 1990), 289.
17) Ibid., 292.