Iran Giving Voice to Freedom
Tehran's intellectuals won't keep quiet
By Christopher Dickey
Newsweek International, February 22, 1999
His father said he was just going out to buy some groceries for dinner.
Mom was away for the evening visiting friends. Sohrab, 13, went back to
reading his book as the light faded on the north Tehran high-rise apartment
blocks. But now it was dark, and Papa wasn't back. Sohrab called his older
brother. He called his mother at her friends' place. And still his papa
hadn't come back, and couldn't be found.
Nearly a week passed before the body of Sohrab's father, Iranian essayist
and poet Mohammed Mokhtari, was found and identified. He had been strangled
with a leather strap. No one knew, or would say, who had done it. Then,
the night Mokhtari's death was confirmed, as fellow writers gathered at
his apartment to console his family, a phone call came from Sima Pooyandeh.
Her husband, Mohammed Jafar Pooyandeh, best known for his translations
of French literature and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, had
gone missing that afternoon. His body was found two days later. He, too,
had been strangled with a leather strap or belt.
The December killings sent a shudder through Iran's intellectual community.
Word of the deaths came only a few days after the stabbing of an elderly
couple who had long peacefully opposed the government. Iranian academics
and authors knew that any of them might be marked for death; several anonymous
hit lists began to circulate. In the months before the attacks began President
Mohammad Khatami's efforts to give Iranians more freedom and improve relations
with the West had suffered one setback after another; the attacks looked
like the start of a new wave of secretive terror sanctioned by his enemies.
Then, suddenly, Khatami staged a political coup. He forced the country's
intelligence agency to admit some of its men carried out the murders-and
last week forced Iran's spy chief to resign. If the intent of the murders
was to intimidate the voices of reform, the effect was exactly the reverse.
"My husband and Mr. Mokhtari were killed for the sake of freedom of
expression," said Pooyandeh's widow, a 36-year-old nurse. She won't
be satisfied, she said, until the killers are brought to trial, "and
not only the executioners, but those who gave the orders."
Even six months ago that would have seemed an impossible demand. For
exactly two decades Iran has been one of the world's most unpredictable
and politically dangerous nations, capable of repression as surreal as
anything imagined by George Orwell. This is a country where the dreaded
intelligence agency is officially called the Ministry of Information. Last
week at a rally marking the revolution's 20th anniversary, Khatami proudly
cited improved relations with the West; from the same podium, his rivals
led chants of "Death to America." Yet Iran's intellectuals feel
as if they may have enough room, just, to transform society. They say they
ousted the shah 20 years ago to win their freedoms, that they've been waiting
ever since and that they won't wait any longer.
"I was an Islamic leftist, a Revolutionary Guard, and I worked
at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance," says Akbar Ganji, editor of
a political weekly, New Way, that was recently banned by the government.
"We wanted to change everything. We wanted to create new kinds of
human beings. I can tell you I don't have any desires like that any more."
Ganji's calls for peaceful, democratic reform recently landed him in jail
for three months. "This is the price you have to pay to achieve a
modern democracy," he says confidently. "For every paper or magazine
that is shut down, two or three appear." If the political atmosphere
is frightening, for some it is clearly exhilarating, too.
Khatami came to office as a symbol of peaceful change. A cleric himself,
he was elected in 1997 with more than 70 percent of the vote after campaigning
for greater freedom of expression and the rule of law. But Khatami, even
with a tremendous popular mandate and an impressive title, is just one
player among the politicized high priests who rule Iran. Others, just as
powerful, despise his notions. The Constitution subordinates him to Spiritual
Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who oversees the military, the judiciary and
the secret police. While Khatami struggles for reform, his rivals intrigue
Last year the right-wing Parliament impeached one of his key ministers.
The ultraconservative head of the judiciary embarrassed him by sentencing
a German businessman to death for adultery, condemning a newspaper editor
to death for espionage and convicting Khatami's ally, the mayor of Tehran,
of corruption. (None of the sentences has yet been carried out.) Zealous
thugs attacked a bus used by visiting Western tourists and businessmen
invited by Khatami. Pro-Khatami newspapers were shut down, or bombed, and
their editors beaten.
Yet Khatami keeps pressing, backing the reformers publicly when he can,
more quietly when he cannot. After the killings at the end of last year,
high-ranking officials in Khatami's government met frequently with some
of the writers leading the reform movement. The officials told them they
have three options: if they want to seek asylum in Switzerland, that can
be facilitated. The offer has been declined. "The people who want
to kill me-they are the ones who have to go seek asylum," says novelist
Hushang Golshiri. Or bodyguards could be assigned to them. The writers
turned down that offer, too. The last option, the one the writers chose,
was to stay in the country and be careful about their personal safety.
"We were officially told not to open the door to strangers,"
says Golshiri. "We were told not to get in the car with the official
police-to resist, even if they tried to arrest us-and we were told not
to make appointments by telephone." But they were not told to stay
quiet, and they won't.
Mokhtari and Pooyandeh were under attack by the secret police because
they and four other authors called for a general meeting of the long-banned
Iranian Writers' Association. That meeting was canceled last September,
before the murders. It's been called again for next month. And Golshiri
and others are demanding that the deaths of a half dozen other writers
and opposition figures dating back to 1994 be investigated.
"This case is ending," says economist Fariborz Raeisdana of
the Mokhtari murder. "This particular case. But another one may begin."
Indeed, almost certainly one will. Violence can come from any quarter at
any time. But if the reformers continue to fight for peaceful change, supporting
Khatami and supported by him, then the modern freedoms dreamed of by most
Iranians when they waged their revolution two decades ago might have a
chance, at last, to become realities.