A Future for Iran
An interview with pro-democracy and student leader Amir Fakhravar
Amir A. Fakhravar, an Iranian pro-democracy and student leader, joins me for an interview. He is the founder of the Iranian Freedom Movement, chairman of the Independent Student Movement, founder of the Confederation of Iranian Students, and president of the Iranian Enterprise Institute. Mr. Fakhravar is also an award winning author and journalist. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards have a shoot-on-sight order out against him. His website is located at www.fakhravar.com.
Rabkin: Amir Fakhravar, thank you so much for joining me for this interview today.
Fakhravar: It’s my pleasure Dan. Thank you for the invitation.
Rabkin: Can you start off by telling us a bit about how your life was back in Iran, especially about what happened during and after the student uprisings in 1999?
Fakhravar: I was three years old when the Islamic Revolution took place. I grew up in a middle class family with a lot of love from my parents and our close friends. In school I remember listening to our teachers telling us about how the West and the Americans were evil. The programs on TV, even the cartoons, drew a dark image of the West and how unfairly they treat other humans.
I also loved to read and write as a young child, especially history books. My father, Mohammad Bagher, who is my hero and passed away in 2004, inspired me to read and write. I also loved to paint. I think that since reading was my best friend throughout my entire life, it is what led me to feel that something was wrong with our political system.
Living life in the Islamic Republic is very tough, but I always managed to find meaningful ways to enjoy my life. I always had hope. I always looked into the window of the future.
In 1993, when I was a senior in high school, I was elected to be the student representative in the beautiful city of Shiraz. We organized the first high school student demonstration criticizing the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Then I went on to college and when I was a freshman at Urumiyeh Medical School I launched the Independent Student Movement that consisted solely of college students. This was six years before the July 9, 1999 student movement. Our group, led by my efforts, was one of the first independent voices criticizing the Islamic Republic.
My first brush with the law came when I was arrested on July 26, 1996 on the campus of Urumiyeh Medical School and was dragged by Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) agents into a car and taken to jail. After spending almost two months in incarceration, I was prosecuted for the crimes of insulting the supreme leader and of organizing a student movement against the regime. Judge Hadj Hassanlou, 4th District Revolutionary Court of Urumiyeh, presided over my case. I was found guilty and sentenced to three years in jail.
In September 1996, when Hashemi-Rafsanjani was president, the weekly government bulletin of Iran published an article saying that I created chaos at Urumiyeh Medical School and such actions must stop.
Dan, as you and your readers may remember, in 1997, a majority of Iranians, mostly women and students, voted for “reformist” Mohammad Khatami for president. We felt that the vote could be an alternative to our suffering. We thought Khatami could create a different atmosphere in our country for change. Two years later, in 1999, when the student uprising started and received no support from Khatami, we all learned that he does not have “it.”
Back to my first arrest: Since I was a student and it was my very first conviction I was “exiled” to the southern Iranian city of Bushehr to continue my education there. This city was chosen to distance me from the rest of my movement’s members. After two semesters I was kicked out and forced to serve in something called sarbazi (military service). If you attend college you could bypass some of the service with your school work. Since I was a medical student, I was allocated to the Police Medical Center of Tehran. Every college student in Iran has the opportunity to fulfill part of this military service by working in such a way. In fact, one of my close friends, Ezat Ebrahimnejad, was in a similar situation as mine and was killed the night of the July 9, 1999 student uprising. Ezat was the only student killed that the regime did announce. He was 22 years old and loved poems and literature. His last poem has a very interesting message in it forecasting his own demise at age of 22!
While on this internship one is still considered to be a student. I was on this campus when the student uprising took place. I have first hand knowledge of how many police, MOIS agents, Basij, and protesting students had been injured.
Following the student uprising, I was arrested and sentenced to eight years imprisonment for insulting the supreme leader in my book called This Place is Not a Ditch (two years mandatory), organizing an illegal student movement (five years mandatory), and interviewing with anti-revolutionary media (one year). My book was nominated for the Paulo Coelho Literature Prize and was the main cause of my arrest. The judge who handed me my eight year sentence did not deem the time sufficient so as he walked off his bench he faced me and gave a “spear chuck” to my right knee bending it backward and tearing the internal tissues apart. He smiled afterwards and said, “I am sending you to a place that you will not come out of alive and busted your knee so that you cannot run away.”
I was taken to Qasr Prison in central Tehran where there are maximum security blocks holding hard core criminals. I spent 14 months there! The judge paid me a visit after five months, using his words, to “check on me.” He was surprised when he found out that the block I was in with the hard core criminals had voted to have me as the representative for their affairs and had all agreed to have an organization structure for internal affairs such as taking turns to do chores. Needless to say that judge was angry and eight to nine months later I was transferred to the notorious Evin prison, corridor 1 (basement). Dan, you need to know that Evin is a large prison and is managed by the MOIS, judiciary, and the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence service, an entity totally independent of MOIS.
Rabkin: How did you end up in the US? What are you doing today?
Fakhravar: With the help of numerous influential American friends, especially Richard Perle and Iranian American philanthropist Manda Shahbazi, I was able to come to the US.
Just like any other immigrant, I had to learn a new language and the new culture in the US. Thomas Jefferson is one of my American heroes. It is interesting how my first apartment in DC was minutes away from the Jefferson Memorial. I used to take afternoon walks to the memorial. I kept dreaming and studying his work to learn the same kind of concepts as this great man. It is incredible that the Declaration of Independence was written so many years ago, yet this country still works because of that invaluable document.
As I was learning the culture and the new life in this country, so far away from home and my family, I started getting attacked by the leftist media and Islamic Republic lobbyists. I also started getting attacked by a small group of unintelligent and talentless Iranian opposition groups. Their only accomplishment is to deny me and my activities.
Dan, from our previous conversations, I think that you understand how unfair these attacks are. But for your readers, I must say that these groups have been away from Iran for many years and unfortunately hadn’t learned that the art of lobbying in the US had turned so bitter.
Also, the sad reality, Dan, is that a number of Iranian opposition groups, and some young individuals who left Iran, turned the events of July 9, 1999 into an advertising machine and business. The real meaning of the student uprising in Iran was forgotten. Now, a number of non-Iranians and non-students want to claim a piece of this movement.
Rabkin: Are the Iranian people satisfied with the current regime? If not, why hasn’t there been regime change yet?
Fakhravar: The Iranian people are NOT satisfied with the regime. There have been so many arrests and executions that young Iranians are afraid to take major action against the mullahs. At the same time, there are many brave Iranians inside the country that are constantly fighting and trying to make small differences. But as you know, this is a brutal regime that wants to wipe Israel off the map, that is the leading state-sponsor of terror, and that is a financial backer numerous terrorist groups including Hamas and Hezbollah. Due to this, the people of Iran need the international community to change the regime.
Also, the teaching of democracy is a process and our people need to learn that. The best way is through the outside media broadcasting to Iran, since there is no freedom of press in the country. Unfortunately, Voice of America, the most important diplomatic tool for this, is not doing the job.
You also asked me what I do these days. Part of my job is to follow, research, and write reports with my outstanding and distinguished team who volunteer their time for this cause. The Voice of America Persian News Network (VOA PNN) received millions of dollars of funding to broadcast into Iran. Unfortunately, a small group of opportunistic, money-hungry, and power-driven individuals are doing a horrible job and wasting US tax dollars.
I have to take this time to extend my sincere thanks to Senator Tom Coburn and his outstanding staff for investigating the Voice of America Persian News Network.
Rabkin: What can the West do to assist the Iranian people in removing the mullahs from power?
Fakhravar: Simply, give them the right information. The West is getting information from sources that have either not been to Iran at all or left Iran 30 years ago. Some so-called scholars even write many books that work towards promoting the Islamic Republic in this country. A lot of these “scholars” spread rumors about me. So a part of my job and my organization is to learn about the Islamic Republic’s lobby here and to try and educate and warn lawmakers about these actions.
There is so much we can do. Everyone can help. What the Iranians need more than anything is hope. The West must put extreme economic and political sanctions on Iran. Moreover, we need to educate the Iranians inside on how to combat dictatorship and only free media can help in that.
Rabkin: It seems like we are inching closer and closer to conflict with the mullahs over Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its nefarious activities in the region. If military action was taken against the regime, would you, personally, support this action, and what effect would it have on the region and the Iranian people?
Fakhravar: I have always said that I don’t want war - I want regime change. At the same time, I am not an official in the White House making those types of decisions.
The best thing my group and I can do is to educate and provide correct information to the lawmakers and decision makers in DC. Personally, I think that if we do have to strike the Islamic Republic, the people of Iran must be ready.
Rabkin: What do you mean by “the people of Iran must be ready”?
Fakhravar: The readiness that I am talking about is what people need to do afterwards: The Iranian people need to be ready and organized to take charge.
How can that happen? Media such as VOA and the millions of dollars in its budget is one way. Iranians need to learn how others have stood up for their rights and come up with a way to stand up for their rights. VOA Persian Service can accomplish this task. However, there is no plan - other than wasting Americans’ tax money filling the pockets of certain managers.
People like me who stand up to this waste end up, not just being boycott by the media, but also having our character’s assassinated. This has happened to me and every other member of the Confederation of Iranian Students. These tactics by VOA Persian Service managers also threaten many others who question them. Senator Coburn of Oklahoma has bravely stood up to this waste for the past two years and, after many investigations, has sent an open letter to President Bush and his National Security Advisor, Mr. Stephen Hadley, stating that VOA Persian Service is using American money and, at the same time, serving the Islamic Regime in Iran.
Rabkin: Although, personally, you are not “an official in the White House,” you have met with the likes of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and numerous other top officials to discuss Iran. From those meetings and your personal knowledge of the atmosphere in both Tehran and DC, how do you see things playing out with respect to the mullahs’ meddling in the region and their nuclear weapons program?
Fakhravar: The mullahs are certainly after the nuclear bomb. A letter from Khomeini was published in September 2006, 18 years later, in which he is directing the top officials of the regime to secure nuclear and laser bombing capabilities. His directives have a lot of weight and are considered even higher than the constitution.
Attending schools in Iran under the Islamic Regime has not left any doubt in any student’s mind that Israel and all Jews must be destroyed and killed. When facing this type of regime, unlike liberal minded people, I accept the reality that FORCE is needed for the removal of the mullahs from power.
Rabkin: I understand that the Revolutionary Guards have a shoot-on-sight order out against you. Why you of all people? And how does it feel to live under such a threat against your life?
Fakhravar: Many are under the same threat as me in Iran - I am not the only one living under such danger. I still get threatening phone calls and my family inside Iran are constantly harassed. The latest incident was two weeks ago when my sister was arrested and questioned. They even called me and told me to mind my own business if I care for my family.
Dan, I have long ago said that the 70,000,000 (Iranians) are my family and need me to fight for them. For Iran and Iranians I have long been accustomed to much torture, abuse, and spent years of my life in solitary confinement - I am beyond the point of return and have no regrets.
Rabkin: My friend, stay safe and continue with your struggle on behalf of Iran’s millions. Again, thank you for joining me.
Fakhravar: Thank you Dan. It is always a pleasure talking to you.