“Yes, we are reactionaries, and you are enlightened intellectuals: You intellectuals do not want us to go back 1400 years. You, who want freedom, freedom for everything, the freedom of parties, you who want all the freedoms, you intellectuals: freedom that will corrupt our youth, freedom that will pave the way for the oppressor, freedom that will drag our nation to the bottom.” – Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini
Dr. Abolhassan Bani Sadr was Iran’s first President after the 1979 Revolution. He initially was close to Khomeini, but gradually distanced himself from the Imam as the latter amassed more and more power and decreed that the Velayat-e Faqih principle was divinely ordained. Dr. Bani Sadr was educated in France at the Sorbonne in finance and economics. Jailed twice under the Shah, he had been active in the student movement. In 1979, he went back to Iran and briefly served as minister of finance until he was elected as President of the Republic on January 25, 1980. After the hostage crisis, having become a staunch critic of the policies of the Islamic Republic, he left Iran clandestinely and was impeached in absentia. He is the co-author of a book, My Turn to Speak: Iran, the Revolution and Secret Deals with the U.S. He has been a vocal critic of the regime ever since. He is also the editor of the journal (now a website) called Enqelab Eslami.
You were one of the first people who left Khomeini’s side or gave up on him and formed the National Resistance Council and wanted to form a united front in fighting the Islamic Republic. But ever since, you have not been very active in this goal. Why not?
I did not leave Khomeini per say; I pointed out to him what I thought was unjustified. I opposed the idea of the absolute rule of the jurist (Velayat-e Motlaqeh e Faqih). I believed in the rule of the people. I never believed in one-man rule. He, by contrast, showed his real self when he spoke of Velayat- e Faqih. He made promises but he did not live up to them. Eventually, he changed his mind. This was an important experiment in Iranian history, and it proved that a blend of religion and state is doomed to fail. We see the results clearly today.
In my political career, my ideas and practices have run on parallel tracks. I always wanted to have different political tendencies get together and form a united front once they agreed upon the goal of an independent and free Iran. During the Shah I did the same. After returning to Iran, we tried to do that. We drew up an invitation which was signed by Ayatollah Taleghani, Ayatollah Montazeri, and myself. We asked all others to join in one united front. That didn’t happen because of opposition from the Hezb-e Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Islamic Republic Party). When I left Iran, I tried to do the same by forming the National Resistance Council but we know what happened. Mr. Rajavi destroyed it by going to Baghdad. The Council remained in name but basically it is just that group (Mujahedin) and everything fell through. From then on, I have continued in my efforts. I go to different European cities; I have participated in Iranian gatherings talking about the need to form a united front and have spoken in detail about my own view of how such a front should be formed. Before such a front can be formed, though, the ground must be ready. People in Iran from different tendencies inside the society must be ready as well. In Iran, whenever a movement emerged, be it the Constitutional Movement, the struggle for oil nationalization, or the 1979 Revolution, different tendencies were always involved but it did not take very long for a government to be replaced by tyrannical rule. After three revolutions, I hope that a democratic government which is based upon the rule of the people can evolve.
Why is it that if you believe in the separation of state and religion, your bi-weekly newspaper and website is still named Enghelab Eslami? Isn’t there a contradiction in term?
I have talked about this in different articles. It is well documented on our website. There was a revolution in Islam; that is really the essence of the title and content of my website. It does not mean that the Iranian people had a revolution that turned Islamic. Fifty years of study has convinced me that Islam has become weak when it comes to expressing itself. Just as the government must be separated from religion or any other ideology, in order to have a prosperous democracy, religion must also be an expression of freedom. If religion does not develop to coexist with democracy, it would be difficult to establish a democracy. In the West, you cannot find a country based upon democratic values where religion does not also accept human rights and democracy. The idea of Enghelab-e Islami (Islamic Revolution) is a development in Islam because in my opinion it has not been able to express itself and it therefore must change from within to express the ideals of freedom and democracy. But this doesn’t mean that it should meddle with the structure of the government because the state is a reflection of power and religion is in the heart of the people. They are two different entities.
As you know, islamists who embrace modern thinking have gravitated from the IRI in the last ten years, and their ideas seem closer to yours. Why is it that they have not come closer to your idea of state and the role of religion?
There are two problems here: the first one is that the reform-minded Islamists want to work within the framework of this regime, with the existing constitution. They think it is possible to work within the system with a few changes here and there. I say a totally different thing. I believe that this regime cannot be reformed. It is beyond repair or reform. If this regime were open to reform, why would someone like me be in exile? We would all be working towards a better and more progressive society. Even the Iran-Iraq war would not have taken place. And even if it did, it could have ended in June 1981. A ceasefire was going to take place with Iraq but those who staged the coup d’état managed to prolong the war; that was one of their goals because war equaled tyranny or the establishment of tyranny. The regime of Velayat e Faqih can only be reformed by abolishing it. How are you going to reform a system which forces its jurisdiction upon everyone else, people’s livelihood, their means, and their everyday existence? The reformists acknowledge that what I say is desirable but not feasible. They advocate the same constitution without any changes or minor ones. Either they are not telling the truth or they don’t know what they are saying. This constitution fosters totalitarian rule; a big chunk of the leader’s power is grounded in the culture of the Iranian people, which involves traditional religion. The second issue is that if they distance themselves from the period of Khomeini’s rule, which they claim was a golden period, they will find credibility. In any event, how can you call that period golden when the eight–year war killed an entire generation of young Iranians or when more than 10,000 individuals, many whose names are listed were killed (executed or otherwise). Khomeini’s reign was marked by terror, both inside and outside Iran, theft of money, 105 billion dollars (5 billion+ a year) which disappeared from the treasury, and clandestine deals with Europeans and Americans. October Surprise and Iran Gate are good examples. Do you honestly think that people and especially the youth want to return to that period? If they acknowledge that this was a dark period indeed and that they were partly responsible for it, a lot of things will change. They must ask for forgiveness. If they show courage, and express it openly, much can be resolved. The society has the potential to forgive and it should. Self criticism is the best means to cleanse yourself from your past mistakes. It is a kind of ethical revolution within oneself which is ultimately helpful for the sanity of oneself and the Iranian nation. I believe that once this is done, a united front can be formed.
What are other issues in your opinion when it comes to the Green Movement? Do you see yourself as a potential ally of Mr. Mousavi, Mr. Karroubi or Mr. Khatami, the leaders of the said movement?
There is a third problem. It involves the notion of a united front or of one front. The Green Movement is one front. Iran is not just one color. Iran is full of different ethnic minorities, even religions. There are also different political tendencies; we can’t ignore them and say that they don’t exist. We can’t say they are all one color and that color is green; this is problematic. By the way, we have tried different colors before, green (sabz jameh), a different green, white, black, yellow and red. None has worked. Let’s say that in our history we haven’t had good experience with the different colors. If freedom is our ultimate goal, we must make this movement reflect all of Iran, the rainbow that Iran is. It embodies all colors except the color of being dependent on foreigners. Everyone can participate in this colorful movement.
Why do you think the regime undertook such violent measures against Iran’s civil society, particularly women and students, why so many arrests, torture, long jail sentences, and so on?
What we tried to do in that first experience was to make them a minority. When we came to Iran, the referendum was said to be fraudulent as well. But there was a majority who did say yes to Khomeini, or at least it is claimed that 98 percent said yes to an Islamic government (Jomhuri Eslami). In June 1981, Khomeini announced that even if 35 million say NO and I say Yes, my vote is what counts! This is the meaning of force: one person vis-à-vis everyone else. In terms of philosophy, force is defined this way: one person against the will of the rest. He repeated this three times. In a letter to Khomeini by Ayatollah Behesthi, dated Esfand 1359/February-March 1980 he stated that among the cadres and in institutions we are in the minority. From then on we tried to keep these people in the minority. Two times, they were given the chance to leave the minority rule, once during the Khatami administration in 1376/1997 when people went and voted–but that regime did not appreciate the vote of the majority– and again in 1384/2005.
Again, the fraudulent elections that took place during the first term of Ahmadi Nejad brought him or the minority to power. A year and a half ago, in 1388/2009, in the second elections, the minority took power again. In reality, if a free election had taken place this group with the minority vote would have never won. The Iranian society has experimented with this ruling minority. When a minority rules, it uses violence to silence people; how could they rule without violence? Violence and crisis define this regime. It has always been the case. This is what the current regime has inherited from the past. From hostage taking, from the unwanted eight- year war, from the nuclear power to sanctions, it has used violence to survive. It is important to note one thing that in only one year that is from the beginning of 1360/1981 until the end of that year, nearly 2000 people were executed. Imprisonment, torture are another matter. During Khomeini’s tenure, 10000 people died. In comparison with those years, the recent crackdown is relatively mild. Not that this regime is not a violent regime but the struggle of the people and the atmosphere is different within the society; it has had its impact on the regime’s reaction in general. Iranians’ struggle around the world and inside Iran is now taken a different turn and has made a huge difference. There is also a general sensitivity to what goes on in Iran and world public opinion plus the incapability of the regime to overcome people’s everyday problems especially economic problems. It has made the regime quite vulnerable. There is now a good opportunity for the young people of Iran to stick to their guns (literary) and continue with the struggle in the right direction.
How do you see someone like Ahmadi Nejad, what makes him who he is today? Is he going to end his tenure without problems?
Ahmadi Nejad is the byproduct of this regime. You cannot say that about Mr. Khamenei or Mr. Rafsanjani. Their ideas and characters were formed while they became leaders of this regime. Tyranny gave rise to people like them and it helped them to become who they are, to show their true self. But Ahmadi Nejad was a youngster then who went to the University. He is the product of this regime. A regime that produces someone like Ahmadi Nejad is doomed for failure. Even regimes that produce better people sometime fail to remain in power. De Toqueville, the father of democracy, said that one should be careful because democracy is also fragile and will always be vulnerable. Look at its record, since last June until today, this regime has only been able to ratify one law in the Majlis, yaranaeha (subsidies), and it has not been able to implement this law; they don’t know when it will be actually implemented and no one knows what the result will be. It’s hard to tell whether he will finish his tenure. Power will not cease by itself. It would depend on a lot of different factors. When it reaches the point of falling down, it might collapse. If in this process the people‘s struggle does not force this fall, it will not happen automatically. What have they done with the enormous revenues from oil? Have they answered any of the economic problems with 40 billion dollars? They have used it to stay in power. But once there is a popular movement in a large scale, this regime or any tyrannical regime is bound to fall.
Do you think that the new sanctions will work? It seems that the regime is becoming much more susceptible to the sanctions by Europe and the US. It is that case?
What the Obama administration has done in pointing fingers at eight people as human rights abusers in Iran is the type of sanction that is constructive and works well because it targets the regime itself. This kind of sanction has psychological implications. If this type of sanction became serious, affecting the leader himself and his cronies, it would have more impact. Sanctions should also target people responsible for the recent violence. Once they are in place, the regime and its officials will be confronted around the world thereby making it impossible for them to make deals under the table.
On the other hand, economic sanctions can have a backlash, potentially benefitting the regime. In this case, the regime can blame the U.S. for the malaise in Iran and drag its problems into the society at large. Those who are benefitting will be pocketing the money whereas the bulk of the society is left impoverished. By the same token, the US must also show respect for human rights outside its borders, when it comes to Guantanamo, Iraq, the CIA kidnappings, or the unscrupulous bombardments in Afghanistan and Pakistan which tarnish the idea of respect for human rights by the U.S. administration. In the Islamic world, this is viewed as double standard.
What do you see as the role of Israel in all of this? What about Ahmadi Nejad’s statement regarding Israel and what he said at the UN about the U.S? This actually emboldens Israel to take a tougher stand against Iran, even to the point of declaring by some neo-cons in the U.S. that attacking Iran is justifiable.
It has been thirty years now that Israel has had a love/hate relationship with Iran. There are the events like the October surprise and Iran Gate. Recently there is talk of a second Iran gate where a former Russian arms dealer by the name of Viktor Bout (also known as the Merchant of death), a former Russian pilot in the Soviet Air Force, has been selling missiles to Iran. This was approved by Dick Cheney, the former VP. Upon examination, many of these deals- be narcotic, arms or money laundering- seem sketchy. They are dealing with one another in different capacities and even with some terrorist organizations. It is alleged that Victor Bout was also instrumental in dealing with Al Qaida and the Taliban. He was selling arms to them and bringing narcotics from the other side. In public, it seems that they hate each other but in effect they feed off each other, they are opposites that attract. The right wing faction of the Israeli government and the fundamentalists of Iran are in bed together. Even the right wing parties of some European governments are buddies with the Iranian regime. It is interesting to note that in France, someone like Le Pen goes to the Islamic Republic embassy and he is treated like a dignitary. He is quoted in some French newspapers as saying that “I never feel as much at home as when I go to the events at the Iranian embassy.” Khamenei and Ahmadi Nejad are instrumental for someone like Netanyahu to become PM in Israel. The former PM of Israel, quoted in Haaretz, said to Mr. Netanyahu that if he didn’t have A. N. what would he do? He is their capital. In his recent trip to the U.S., Ahmadi Nejad was even questioning the existence of the only super power. Thus, the forces on the right on all fronts are elevated. And war and violence remain on the top of the agenda which is beneficial to all parties. The regime in Iran and its military/mafia apparatus needs such rhetoric in order to stay in power.
But is he doing this on purpose?
Of course he is doing it on purpose. They want the right wing and the Republicans to take over. They made the deals with Reagan, not Carter. It is alleged that they spent money for Republicans to win. Even the former Minister of intelligence, Fallahian said that we know Republicans will win; of course, he was wrong. Clinton won. They want the Republicans to win, there is no doubt.(*)
What do you think of slander and name calling in our culture? Do you not think that deceit is embedded in our society especially in the last thirty years ever since the emergence of the Islamic Republic?
I don’t believe that slandering is embedded in our society. Some political parties in Iran advocated it in order to get ahead, especially during the Mosaddeq period. It was really the Tudeh party which began this slandering business. And since then, the Mullahs have continued on the same path. But the clerical regime is not even ashamed of God or the people of God. Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Rafsanjani do not know what truth is, they have forgotten what truth is; they lie all the time, especially if they want to attack someone. Mr. Mousavi was this regime’s PM for eight years; all of a sudden he becomes an agent of the US. How is this possible? Everyone has become America’s agents. The language of this power elite is deceit and more deceit. It is how they have ruled. Tyranny’s language is always lies, but when you seek freedom, you must utilize the language of truth. The Pahlavi regime also lied but never to this extent. People used to have shame or be more careful because of their beliefs in religion. Now that doesn’t exist anymore either. It is become common in our society.
In this respect, some people claim that Mr. Qotbzadeh, the former foreign minister, was an agent. Is there any truth to this?
It is nonsense. He stood up and fought and gave up his life in order to tell the truth. Those who make such false claims, should refer to read Mr. Hamilton Jordan’s (President Carter’s aide) book. Qotbzadeh was no agent. He believed in the Imam and when he saw the injustices, he spoke out and because of that he was executed. I remember during the hostage crisis I criticized him because at the beginning he supported the take -over of the American Embassy. He changed his mind because we knew that this will only hurt Iran in the long run and will isolate it and that is exactly what happened. Sadeq Qotbzadeh was a martyr of this Revolution and he must be regarded as such.
What is your message to Iran’s young generation?
Political ethics is more important than anything else. There is no need to live with lies or accept lies. Once you accept to live with ethics, you will be on the correct path. Live with integrity and remember that justice will prevail. We may have a long road ahead of us; all I can say is that darkness will eventually lead to a bright day in the horizon. Do not doubt that this regime is doomed to fail. There is no alternative but democracy. As we say in Persian, “bar koushesh biafzayeed, be jonbesh koushesh konid.”
The entire persian text will be available on a different website. This interview was translated from the original persian by Fariba Amini.
(*) Dr. Bani Sadr said in a later interview, “the reason Khomeini changed his mind when it came to the hostage take over was that it gave him leverage in both domestic and foreign policy. By the same token, he could take charge of direct negotiations with the U.S. because it was not only the Carter administration who contacted us but also members of the Republican Party were openly contacting high government officials in Iran. In the spring of 1980, in Germany, Reagan people contacted one of my colleagues wanting to meet with me. They had also contacted Khomeini’s office. I did not accept to meet with them because I knew who Reagan represented plus they were not official government reps. The Reagan people found the other party more amenable to discussing the matter. Khomeini gave the go ahead for these negotiations to Mousavi Khoeeniha (now a reformist) and Ahmad Khomeini. Mousavi Khoeeniha was the brain behind the hostage taking and there is some new evidence that he may have had orders from other places.”