The Persian Night author Amir Taheri on why Iran is the way Iran is.
HH: You know I have a tradition on this program of bringing you extended conversations with authors of books which are vital to your understanding of the world in which we live. I’ve just finished one, a rather remarkable book, a book that taught me so much more about the Islamic Republic of Iran than I had ever known, and I have done a lot of reading on that area. But The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution, is one of those books which I think has a potential to change a lot of people’s understanding of what we’re up against in the Middle East. And joining me to discuss it this hour and next, its author, Amir Taheri, Mr. Taheri, welcome to the program, great to have you on the program.
AT: Well, thank you for having me.
HH: I’d like to start by asking you to kind of give the audience your background as a newspaperman in Iran, and what you have been up to since the fall of the Shah’s regime.
AT: Yes, well, I’m an Iranian journalist. I started my career in 1968 after returning to Iran from my studies in Britain. I worked on an English language newspaper in Tehran for four years. Then I shifted to the Persian language newspaper, and I became editor of Iran’s largest newspaper, daily newspaper, Kayhan, for seven years. I resigned after the Islamic Revolution because our paper was taken over by somebody close to Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Ayatollah said he is going to break the pens that do not conform with his vision of Islam I had to go into exile. I went to Paris, and started writing for the International Herald Tribune there. Then I started writing for the London Sunday Times. I became their Middle East editor. And then I edited a French magazine especially specializing in Africa called Jeune Afrique, and I’ve been writing books. I have published 11 books so far, and writing for many newspapers including some newspapers in the United States – the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, and many others. And I also write a syndicated column which appears in many newspapers throughout the world, including the Middle East.
HH: Now The Persian Night is a comprehensive volume that has both got Iranian history as well as Islamic history as well as theology, but most importantly, the history of the Khomeinist revolution and its dominance in the last three decades, a very ambitious project. When did you sit down, how did it come to be?
AT: Well, you know, the Islamic Revolution in 1979 changed my life. You know, I was living in my own country, I was happy, I was contributing in my very modest way to Iran’s progress. And I thought things were going well. Suddenly, of course, came the Islamic Revolution, and I’ve seen my nation suffer over these thirty years. So I began to ask myself why. And this question led to many other questions. I found out that my people have been engaged in a kind of a struggle between themselves, a kind of schizophrenia, if you like, on a nationalist scale for the past 14 centuries ever since the Arab invasion of Iran and the introduction of Islam to our country. We never quite decided who we are. And this struggle sometimes assumes a very acute form as it has done in the past thirty years, tearing us apart, preventing us from behaving normally. So I saw that Iran has become two Irans: One Iran as a symbol of the Islamic Revolution, and another Iran as a nation, as a state. And of course, the two behave differently. Their interests do not always coincide. And this is the root cause of why our nation is facing so many tragedies inside while it is having so many problems with the other countries outside.
HH: Do you sense a crescendo towards a confrontation with the West coming soon, Mr. Taheri?
AT: Well, the confrontation started in 1979 with the Revolution itself. Everybody remembers the seizure of the American Embassy and the holding of the American hostages. But people forget that many other Western embassies were also attacked, and many Westerners that also were seized as hostages, although not as long as the Americans. For example, the French Ambassador in Tehran, Guy Georgy, was also seized as a hostage. The Italian Embassy was raided, the German cultural attaché was held as a hostage. And many organizations and groups and societies that represented the Western relations with Iran were closed down. Films from Europe and America were banned, plays by Western authors were banned, novels by Western authors were banned and blacklisted. So there was really a war attitude towards the Western civilization as a whole right from the start. And the Islamic regime carried out a number of terrorist operations in many Western countries including France, where over 50 people were killed on different occasions by true terrorist operations financed and organized from Tehran. There were terrorist attacks in Britain, in Germany, in Turkey, in Switzerland, in Italy and Spain. So this was has really been going on for about thirty years. The difference is that of course this is a low intensity war. It is a brick by brick killing of people. Therefore, it has not attracted the kind of intense attention that an ordinary conventional war would have done. And as Iran does not know whether it is a country or a cause, this was will continue.
HH: I’m talking with Amir Taheri. He is the author of a fantastic, a fascinating new book at well, The Persian Night. Mr. Taheri, at the end of the book, you say the West has three options – do nothing, accommodate, or pursue regime change. And we’ll come back to that, but in the context of Israel has made it very clear that if the United States does not stop this nuclear push by Iran, it will try to. Do you expect there to be an outbreak of actual military conflict between Israel and Iran in the next many months?
AT: Well again, the military conflict has been on for several years. The proxy war that the Islamic Republic is waging against Israel for years through Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group, and more recently through Hamas, and of course the Islamic Jihad, which is an entirely Iranian creation, so Israel has been targeted at least since the mid-1980s by the Islamic Republic. The leaders of the Islamic Republic make no secret of their desire to see Israel wiped off the map of the Middle East as the stain of shame, in the words of President Ahmadinejad. Now whether the Israelis will take military action against the Islamic Republic or not remains to be seen. There are arguments for and arguments against, and there are many Israelis opposed to taking military action against the Islamic Republic now because they argue that Iran and Israel are, after all, objective allies in the long run. And once there is regime change in Tehran, Iran will be Israel’s natural ally, because both Israel and Iran do not want a Middle East that is exclusively dominated by the Arabs. They want the Middle East in which there are Persians, there are Jews, there are Turks, there are Kurds, there are Christians, and many other people. Of course, then there are people in Israel who believe that Iran in its present emanation, or its present appearance as an Islamic Republic is an existential threat to Israel, and that the Israelis should forget their potential strategic alliance with Iran as a nation, and deal with this immediate threat or clear and present danger right now by taking military action. So the debate is going on. The situation is very dangerous, and greatly depends on the United States policy, because the U.S. at the moment does not have any policy, or at least clearly discernible policy, towards the Islamic Republic. And this has caused a lot of confusion in the Middle East. The Arabs are worried about a vacuum of power being created, the Turks are worried, the Israelis are worried, the Afghans, the Pakistanis, everybody. So they’re all looking to Washington to see whether or not the new administration in the United States will be able to devise a policy to prevent new wars in the region without alarming the Islamic Revolution to export this ideology.
HH: Gotta break in for a moment. We’ll be right back.
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HH: Let me jump, I’ll jump around a bit, Mr. Taheri. I want to talk about President Ahmadinejad. What I learned from this book is that he’s a fascinating character, the child of poverty, empowered by the Shah’s white revolution, he gets his PhD, he’s brave, he’s physically a warrior, he fights sometimes deep behind enemy lines in the Iran-Iraq war, and he is for the first of the six president of Iran who are genuinely revolutionary. Is that a fair summary?
AT: Yes, he’s the child of the Islamic Revolution. And unlike many of his peers within the Khomeinist regime, he seems to be a sincere fanatic. He means what he says.
HH: And what he says is that, well, I’ll go to Page 279 of the book, it was so fascinating to me. “He considers himself one of the 36 nails of the hidden Imam.” Would you explain to people what those 36 nails are?
AT: Yes, you know, there is a Shiite tradition, and you know, Shiites are the minority of huge interest and among the Muslims who believe in an Imam, a kind of messiah-like figure who will come back at the end of time, in eschatological fashion, so to speak. So the legend, or the myth, or the belief, is that at any given time, there are 36 good, upright men, and of course no women, because women are second class citizens, and these men are in the world in order to keep the world from falling. They are like nails or pegs, if you like, until the Imam comes back. And Ahmadinejad has been encouraging, if not actually spreading the rumor that he’s one of the nails. When he came back from New York after attending the general assembly of the United Nations, he told the Ayatollah that during his speech at the U.N., there was a green light that enveloped everybody, and he had the sentiment that the Imam was present, encouraging all the delegates to applaud him. And somebody of course secretly filmed that conversation and put it on the internet, and of course, the secret came out that Ahmadinejad believes that he is one of the nails, and in that capacity should do whatever is in his power to hasten the return of the Imam, because erstwhile waiting for the Imam to come back are two groups. One group wants to hasten his return, the other one wants just to wait. Ahmadinejad wants to hasten the return.
HH: Now a lot of people in the West simply refuse to take this seriously, the fanaticism of Ahmadinejad. And for example, Christopher Hitchens, when he appears on this program quite frequently, calls him a cab driver. But the portrait that comes through in The Persian Night is of a very smart, a very tenacious, a very calculating, and a ruthlessly ambitious individual. Should the West be worried about Ahmadinejad? They say oh, he’s not the supreme guy, he doesn’t matter. But you clearly have a different take, I think.
AT: Well you know, it doesn’t matter what people say. But you know, it is sufficient to compare Ahmadinejad with previous presidents of the Islamic Republic to see if it makes a difference. He’s, after all, head of a vast bureaucracy. Iran has a socialist style economy in which the government controls and owns a good part of the economy. And the president as head of executive, controls that. He also controls the all important oil revenues. He controls the appointments of thousands of people at key posts. He has a lot of …powers of distribution, and as we have seen, you know, the Islamic Republic today is not like what it was even five years ago before Ahmadinejad was president. And Ahmadinejad believes in perpetual revolution, where as the previous presidents believed in Islam in one country. And this was a similar debate that you had in Russia after its revolution, as some of the revolutionaries wanted to export their revolution to the rest of the world, rather like Trotsky, while people like…wanted it in one country. So it does make a difference. As for the supreme guide, of course if there is a direct clash between the president and the supreme guide, the supreme guide might win. But politics is not made like that. The supreme guide has a very small staff, his budget comes from the president’s office. Whatever information he has comes through the machinery of the state. And he’s in no position to prevent the president from exercising the policies he chooses.
HH: Now lots of analysts in the West are saying well, they’ve got an election coming up in June, and if Ahmadinejad loses, we’re going to get a reformer in. But you write that elections in the Islamic Republic are as meaningless as those held in the Soviet Union, and that the supreme guide has used them over the years to kind of manage conflict within the competing groups inside of Iran. Ought we to take the result of June, if Ahmadinejad loses, as a serious change in direction?
AT: Well, I think the elections in the Islamic Republic are important. You know, they are not of course free elections in the sense that you have in democracies, because all the candidates are pre-approved, and those who win must be again approved by the authorities, and ultimately by the supreme guide, who theoretically could annul the election. There is a very heated debate, the campaign lasts only three weeks officially. There are many, many restrictions. The candidates do not have equal access to the media, which is state-owned and state controlled, et cetera, et cetera. Nevertheless, these elections are important for a number of reasons. First of all, they allow the ruling elite to fight it out without bloodshed and coup d’etat and so on that we see in other countries through some simulacrum of elections. Secondly, they will allow the regime to change gears if necessary by choosing one group or another. Let me give you an example. These elections are like the primaries you have in your parties. For example, it would have made a lot of difference if in the Democratic Party’s primaries last year Hillary Clinton would have won rather than Barack Obama. They were both from the same party, nobody else was allowed to intervene, and nevertheless, who emerged as the winner does matter. The same in Iran, in which you can say there’s a primary within the Khomeinist party. It does matter who comes out on top.
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HH: Mr. Taheri, next hour we’re going to talk about the nature of the regime, it’s fascist qualities, its terrorism export, and that sort of thing. I want to finish the next three segments that we have for this hour kind of putting the scheme in front of the American people. Talk to them about the supreme guide, who he is right now. I had no idea until I read your book that he was a magnetic orator, and that he had been raised to the position of successor to Khomeini via a deal with Rafsanjani. Then he’s outflanked Rafsanjani. He must too be an extremely competent though very nefarious figure.
AT: Well, the current supreme guide is Mr. Ali Khamenei, who is a mid-ranking cleric, but nevertheless because of the job, he is promoted to grand ayatollah, at least officially. His family hails from a small village called Khamenah, hence the name Khamenei. In fact, his real family name is Husseini. Husseini Khamenei means what’s in Khamenah. And Khamenah is a small village in Northwestern Iran in the province of Azerbaijan, so he belongs to the Azeri minority of Iran who are Persians, but with a different language called Azari, which is close to Turkish. But his family grew up in Mashhad, which is about 1,500 kilometers, or a thousand miles to the east of his birthplace, because there was the holy city of Iran, the most holiest of cities in Iran, and his family being a clerical family shifted there to be closer to a bigger market, if you like, for clerical services. He started training as a cleric to become a mullah, but very quickly, in the 1960s, when he was in his early 20s, he became involved in politics in favor of Ayatollah Khomeini against the Shah. He was arrested, he went to prison a number of times. He had to stop his studies, and then he was exiled to a remote town called Khash on the border of Iran and Pakistan, again about a thousand miles away, and he spent several years there until the revolution. So in the end, he couldn’t finish his studies. You know, theological Shiite studies usually take forty years before you become a qualified mullah. And of course, Khamenei didn’t have time to do that. After the revolution, Khomeini used him in a number of missions, sending him here and there to make speeches, because he’s a very good orator. He really knows how to electrify crowds. He has a good accent. He’s self-taught. He has studied Persian literature, and unlike most Iranian mullahs, he also knows Arab. Again, self-taught. For example, Khomeini could not speak Arabic at all, although he was a grand ayatollah. So Khamenei had all the qualifications for an age in which television and radio of course play a greater role even than the mosque itself. He first official job was to become a Friday prayer leader in Tehran at Tehran University. Then he was appointed as deputy defense minister. And this was during the war with Iraq in 1980, between 1980 and ’88. He showed a great deal of courage by going personally to the front, risking his life, thanking the troops, mobilizing the people, and managing the ramshackle army on a number of occasions into resistance against the Iraqi invaders. So he made a name for himself in that way. Then when terrorists killed the president of the Islamic Republic, Mr. Rajai, very hastily the regime was looking for someone to replace him, so they looked at Khamenei and made him president, much to his own surprise.
HH: On that note, we’re going to go to break. It is again, the key point to take away from that to my audience is that these are very competent, ruthless and extraordinarily brave, they are not lacking in physical courage or fanaticism, the supreme guide, the president and more when we come back.
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HH: I’m going to give a quick summary, Mr. Taheri, of the competing centers of power, which I thought you just described in effortless style. On the side of the Islamic Revolution within Iran, there are the assembly of experts, the Council of Guardians of the constitution, the Council for the Disarmament of the Interest of the Established Order, the Supreme Judicial Council, the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, and the IRG, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, representing sort of the state of Iran, the government, the traditional kind of country government that we associate are the president, the Council of Ministers, the standard army, or the army of the Islamic Republic, the National Iranian Oil Company, the Ministry of Justice. And then there are a bunch of intermediary groups like the Society of Combatant Clergy and the Holy Warriors of the Islamic Revolution, and the Association of Friday Prayer Warriors. And then there are these secret organizations like the Society of the Pledge, and I can’t even say this other one. How in the world does anyone know what’s going on inside of this country?
AT: Well, if people focus and they are knowledgeable about these groups and how they work, they will find out. You know, the first thing to understand about Iran is that Iran is suffering from its split personality. There are two Irans. There is Iran as a revolution, and Iran as a state. And each of them have their own organs and their own ideologies, and their own troops. Whenever there is an organ of the state, it is paralleled by an organ of the revolution. And the reason is that when the revolution came, the Iranian state was too strong to be completely destroyed. For example, the mullahs wanted to destroy the system of justice in Iran, which was based on the Napoleonic Code and European law. They couldn’t. So today, you have two kinds of courts in Iran – the old style Napoleonic Code courts and the Islamic courts. You have a regular army, the standing army, which has been there before the revolution, and you have the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, which is a parallel army. And in some cases, of course, the interests of these two divergent realities are in conflict with each other. And let me give you an example. If you take Iran as a nation, as a nation-state, Iran should be the best ally and friend of the United States, because the U.S. is the only major power with which Iran does not have a bad history. It is not in conflict with the U.S. over borders, or over access to raw materials or markets, anything. And the Iranian people, they love America. But if you take Iran as a revolution, Iran must be the worst enemy of the United States, because anti-Americanism is part of the global revolutionary ideology. And when Ahmadinejad claims to be the standard bearer of a new international “resistance” against imperialism, he must be anti-American. So in every aspect of life, you have two policies, because they reflect the two realities of Iran.
HH: Now you say that Iran right now is a heaving volcano. It’s undergoing a huge wave of executions and arrests, the president, Ahmadinejad, is unable to travel in many places in the country for fear of assassination. Is it just the standard operating procedure? Or is the temperature boiling in a way that it has not boiled before?
AT: Well, the people outside Iran do not realize how much tension there is in the country. Many of our provinces in the east have become kind of no man’s land for the regime. There are bandits, there are counterrevolutionaries, there are secessionists. There is constant warfare there that is hardly ever reported, because there are no journalists. And if you foreign journalists were there, they’re not reporting regularly, because they would have their working permits cancelled, and they would be expelled from the country, as many of them have been during the past two or three years. Then you have labor unrest in Iran. There is a massive movement of Iranian workers who want to have independent trade unions. Thousands of them are in prison. There are many strikes all the time. Then there is the women’s movement. Several hundred women are in prison at the moment because of their involvement in this women’s liberation campaign, women’s rights campaign. Then there are ethnic groups who are in rebellion, the Kurds, the ethnic Kurds in Iran, the Turkomans, the Taleshi, the Arabs in Southwest Iran, the Baluchis in the Southeast. So it is really a heaving volcano, and this is partly why President Ahmadinejad tries constantly to project Iran as an adversary of the United States in order to divert attention from his internal problems. And to say that it is time for us to unite against a common enemy, let’s say the United States, the crowd is unsettling, the domestic social tension, that really quite frankly cannot or does not want to handle.
HH: With the plummet in oil prices over the last year, what’s the economic situation in Iran right now?
AT: Well, the latest statement by the minister of labor, for a start, I think three or four months ago, was that one thousand workers are losing their jobs each day because of the economic recession. But this is combined also with unprecedented inflation, which is now maybe around 30%. It might not look great compared to Latin American inflation all time, but for Iran, it is really a big deal, because Iran has never experienced inflation of that kind. And since the government has lost a lot of its moral legitimacy, it has come to depend on its power to distribute favor and to offer subsidies on essential goods like bread.
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HH: By the way, Mr. Taheri, are you considered an enemy of the regime?
AT: Well, I supposed so. And I was in Geneva last week for the Durban II conference, and through a Swiss NGO, I offered to Ahmadinejad to join a debate with me, a public debate. And he declined. So I supposed they regard me as an enemy of the regime, or at least an opponent of the regime.
HH: They use to kill their opponents of the regime, though, in Europe in the 80s.
AT: Well, they have killed 117 of their opponents in exile, including in France, in Germany, in Britain, in Italy, in Spain, in Turkey, in Switzerland and elsewhere. But that was really during the 1980s and 1990s. Recently, they have not had any recourse to assassination of opponent growth, at least not in Europe.
HH: That’s good. Now very quickly before we got to the next hour, you write about an emerging house church movement among Christians in Iran. How widespread is that? And how serious the persecution of it by the government?
AT: Well, it is very difficult to know how wide the spread this is, because of course there is no open information about it. What our estimate is from many different sources. In fact, an American Iran lady who was doing research on this subject, Mrs. Halatunian, is already in jail in Iran. And she has been arrested precisely because she was trying to find out the extent of the movement. But what surprises me is that you have people converting to Christianity in villages deep in the Iranian heartland. It’s something that is really astonishing. Of course, the regime says that these people are duped by missionaries who come there and offer them money or better life, or even the prospect of immigration to Western Europe or Canada or the United States or Australia, whatever. There may be an element of that, but you know, the scale is quite big. And the Iranian Christian writer who lives in Canada travels throughout Iran and visited all the Christian communities and churches and so on. And from his report, which I have read, it seems that most of the churches are having new converts to the point that the Islamic Regime has decided to post revolutionary guard people inside the church during church ceremonies to make sure that there are no new converts.
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HH: This hour is even more important. How did the Khomeinist revolution come to power, and what does it stand for? And although our connection isn’t so great, it’s important that we figure out what we’re dealing with in terms of what Khomeinism is, and it really has its roots, Amir Taheri, in the conquest of Iran by Islam, and then the nature of the Shia and Arab conquest. Could you in sort of brief fashion alert the people listening who have no idea how Persia became Iran, and Iran became Islamist, how did it happen?
AT: Well, you know, the Iran in the 7th Century A.D., or common era if you like, was a declining empire. It had been in a state of civil war for about thirty years, it had been ruled by two ineffective queens. There has been … of the ruling ministry, and eventually, it’s ended under a king who was 13 years old. So it was really ripe for corruption, and at this time, the Arabs united under the prophet and his successors, managed to raise armies and started raiding the frontiers of the empire at that time, and very soon found out that this is a tired empire, it is a lazy and hot and life-loving empire that doesn’t want to fight, very much like what the barbarians found when they attacked Rome and destroyed the Roman empire. So within three years of the skirmishes and war and so on, the Arabs had managed to destroy the Persian empire, or whatever was left of it, and they would control almost two thirds of the Iranian territory at that time. Their subsequent war took another fifteen years before they controlled almost all of the territory, but the Iranians did not convert to Islam. We regarded it as an alien faith. They had their own religion, Zoroastrian, which was a multi-theistic religion. In the end, however, Iranians became the Arab armies, became generals of the Arab armies, and set up their own dynasties and mini-kingdoms. And these Iranian kingdoms started converting the people to Islam.
HH: And when did it become Shia?
AT: Yes, it became Shiite in the 16th Century. It was the start of the Safavid era, in 1501. And the reason was that the new dynasty of Safavid wanted to demarcate Iran from its neighbor, the Ottoman empire, because in those days, there were only two Islamic countries – the Ottoman empire and of course the Persian empire. And the Persians wanted to, not to refuse the sultan of the Ottoman empire who claimed to be caliph and leader of all the Muslims. So they said we are Shiites, we don’t accept your leadership, you are not good Muslims, and the feeling was reciprocated by the Ottomans who said the Iranians are not good Muslims. And for the past five hundred years, the Iranian state has been a Shiite state, and they have managed to convert the majority of Iranians to Shiism, although even today we have about ten, twelve million Sunni Muslims in Iran who are treated as second class citizens.
HH: Now the Khomeinist revolution is of course a Shia revolution. And one of the things that was fascinating in your book is that you say the name of the regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran basically contains three lies. It’s not in your view genuinely Islamic, it’s not a republic, and it’s not really Iran. Explain each of those if you could, Mr. Taheri.
AT: Well, it is not Islamic because at most, it is Shiite. And the Shiites are only 16% of Muslims. That means the majority of Muslims do not see themselves reflected in the Islamic Republic. And there is nothing in the Koran or in the sayings of the prophet that would amount to a recipe for a state in Islam. The word government, the word state and the word politics do not feature in Islam. It is not, of course, a republic, because there can be no republic in Islam. Islam believe in the rule by God, not by the public, not by the ordinary mortals. And it is not Iranian, because it claims to represent the Islamic ummah, which means the community, for whoever is a Muslim is supposed to be, theoretically at least, a citizen of this republic. So these are three lies, the Islamic Republic of Iran that come together to make a much bigger lie.
HH: Now I think probably the most important aspect of the book is the explication of what Khomeinism is. And the biography you provide of Khomeini, most people don’t even remember him now in the West, but truly a very dark, bitter, angry individual. And when you quote him as saying to kill and be killed are the supreme duties of Muslims, you think that’s generally remembered in the West today, Amir Taheri?
AT: Well, sadly not. The West had a very mistaken view of Khomeini from the beginning. Don’t forget that the man who was President Carter’s ambassador at the United Nations, a pastor, I think, called Andrew Young, called Khomeini a 20th Century saint. Time Magazine described Khomeini as a philosopher-king, although Khomeini knew nothing about philosophy. Your university of UCLA is teaching a course in Khomeini’s philosophy, although this makes Iranians laugh, because Khomeinian philosophy are really contradictions in term. He was an angry man, very ambitious, power-seeking fellow who thought that he’s really above Iran, above Islam, and above politics. Therefore, we have to consider him as one of those characters in history who come and change the course of events not on the basis of any morality or any particular theology, but on the basis of will to power.
HH: You write on Page 56, you quote him again as saying, “Basically, we do not recognize a country named Iran.” And then you detail how his regime has systematically attempted to destroy the history and the evidences of an Iranian patriotism, of an Iranian past to which people could rally. It’s extraordinary.
AT: Yes, you know, it is astonishing that you have streets named after Iran’s ancient kings, for example, in Paris, but nowhere in Iran. The name of great Iranian heroes, writers, poets, philosophers of the Islamic era are banned in Iran. So every effort is made to wipe out the memory of Iranianness, which goes back to 3,000 years ago, and in its place create an entirely artificial Islamic memory which is not shared by most Iranians.
HH: You also detail the 12 characteristics of the regime that clearly render it as a fascist regime, and I would like to walk through that in the minute we have left in this segment. It’s clearly a totalitarian regime, Amir Taheri. Explain to people what that means.
AT: Well yes, you know, I tried to show what featured Khomeinism and Islamism in general have in common with fascism. And I found I was astonished to see that they are very close. Of course, some people would say that but fascism could not be religious, but in reality, we saw the version of religious fascism in Portugal under Salazar, who was a very good Catholic, or under Franco in Spain, who was also a very good Catholic, supposedly, but had created a fascist regime. So paying lip service to a religion does not prevent a regime from acting like a fascist set up in order to remain in power. And all those features are there. You can observe them in the daily behavior of the Islamic regime in the way it treats its people. And ultimately, it is very important for those opposed to the regime to understand its nature. You are not fighting a religious regime. You are fighting a fascist regime that is using religion as one of its motifs, if you like.
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HH: The 12 characteristics that link fascism to the Iranian regime are 1. totalitarian, 2. anti-religious, even though it pretends to be religious, 3. a cult of tradition, but really the revival of old superstitions, 4. the rejection of modernity, 5. the cult of the chiefs, 6. the exploitation of social and economic grievances, 7. xenophobia, especially with regard to the Jews, 8. the cult of death, 9. fear and hatred of freedom, 10. love of uniforms, 11. a cult of war and the readiness to use terror, and number 12. the rejection of the normal language of society. Let’s go to that 11th, because I think it really is so obvious, but you catalogue it, the willingness to use terror. Every single Palestinian terrorist organization has a branch office in Tehran, even though they’re all Sunni, Amir Taheri. I found that very surprising.
AT: Well, not at all, because when we were in Geneva with President Ahmadinejad, a journalist asked him why when you say you are the champion of Islam, why don’t you recognize Kosovo, which is a Muslim country, and recently defended? But the Islamic Republic refuses to recognize Kosovo, because Kosovo is the baby of the United States and Europe. So you know, the Islamic Republic is not fighting for Islam. It is fighting for its own fascist ideology. In the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia to the north of Iran, formerly Soviet republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Islamic Republic is supporting Armenia, which is Christian, against Azerbaijan which is Muslim. In other places, it supports Muslims against Christians. So it is really quite misleading to think that the word Islam would explain the behavior of the Islamic revolution. It doesn’t.
HH: It does use terror, though. In fact, on Page 235 of your book, you quote Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, obvious a terrorist organization, as saying many think that by saying we are members of the party of the supreme guide in Iran, that they are insulting us. Today, I declare once again something that is not new. I am a member of the party of the supreme guide, who is learned, just, sagacious, brave, honest and sincere. Let everyone know that we are the party of the supreme guide. That’s as clear as can be from the head of Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, that he worked for the supreme guide.
AT: Yes, of course he does. You know, he was appointed by the supreme guide, in effect is paid by him, and is controlled by him. So he’s admitting it. At least, you know, unlike his predecessors, he has the chutzpah, if you like, to reveal his true identity.
HH: Now what happens if Iran is struck by Israel? Do you expect they will turn Hezbollah loose again for a replay of the 2006 war?
AT: I really don’t think so, because at that time, Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad will think whether it’s in their interest to escalate the conflict or deescalate it, because if they escalate it, you know, it could go very, very far. It could go to a situation in which either the Islamic regime will have to go, or Israel will have to be wiped off the map. And what would be the reaction of the outside world? What would be the reaction of the United States and so on? It’s a big question mark. My own guess is that if there is specifically targeted attacks on the Islamic Republic’s strategic targets, but there is no sign that they want to overthrow the regime, the regime will back down. We have an example of this, and I explained it in my book, in 1988, when President Reagan ordered the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s navy be sunk in the Persian Gulf. On the same day, Khomeini came on television and said Iran is drinking the cup of poison and accepting an end to the war. So whenever the Islamic Republic is faced with a serious challenge, it backs down.
HH: Yeah, I quote from your book, I wrote down…
AT: It continues moving forward as long as there’s no resistance to it.
HH: I wrote down in my notes, “Every time it has met something hard in its way, the Khomeinist regime has stopped or even backtracked.”
HH: That came at the conclusion of your urging the new administration in Washington to reject appeasement.
HH: It doesn’t look to me like they’re rejecting appeasement. Does it look that way to you?
AT: Well, I think that history shows, you know, that there are some regimes that cannot be appeased, because they don’t want anything in particular. They want everything. And we saw it in the case of Germany in the 1930s and Hitler. If Germany had behaved like the nation-state, all of its grievances could have been addressed and sorted out. But the Sudetenland, about Danzig, about the payment of war reparations, about the disarming of the areas in Ruhr and Rhineland and so on, all of them were negotiated. But Hitler wanted to dominate the world. The same thing with the Khomeinist regime. They don’t want anything in particular. And for 17 years, for example, the Islamic Republic has been negotiating with its neighbors in the Caspian Sea to find out a regime for using the resources of that sea. The negotiations failed, because the Islamic Republic cannot negotiate. It must have either everything or nothing. And this is something that the outside world, especially the United States under President Obama, should understand.
HH: How will the decision to escalate or not escalate, in the event of an Israeli attack, be made, Amir Taheri?
AT: Well, there will be a rush of reports to the supreme guide. The supreme guide will convene a meeting of the High Council of National Security. He will listen to the views of what is really kind of a star chamber of the regime, and then he will have to decide. This is what happened to Khomeini as well. And Khomeini decided that it was in his interest to eat humble pie and not to escalate it. So I think the same thing could happen, because these regimes, whenever they hit something hard on their way, they stop. And we have seen enough to, only in the case of the Reagan incident that I said, you know, for example, pro-Iranian groups started capturing Russian hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s, just as they were seizing American and French hostages. So the Russians ordered the kidnapping of a number of Iranian diplomats, and threatened to kill them. So immediately, Russian hostages were released, because the Iranians understood that somebody is giving them a taste of their own medicine. As long as they think that they can, for example, kill Americans with impunity, they will continue doing that. They killed Americans in Khobar in Saudi Arabia, and President Clinton decided to cover the whole thing up. So of course why should they stop? But you know, if they are resisted, if somebody’s saying no, this is a red line, you have come that far and no further, they will stop.
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HH: Amir Taheri, in Dallas ealier this week, I did a public event with a couple of colleagues of mine and the Governor of Texas, and I was there, and I had a chance to chat a bit with an Iranian-American woman about 50 years old, maybe a little bit younger than that. She had fled Iran, the last flight out of Tehran. She of course is extremely well educated, as are most of the pre-revolutionary Iranian women of any kind of economic consequence. And yet it’s so sad against that backdrop to read about the Persian night that has descended upon women in Iran. I don’t really know if people urging accommodation of the regime understand what it means for women there.
AT: Well, women are one of the three phobias of this regime, the other two being America and democracy together, America’s a symbol, and of course the Jews. Islamic literature is full of bitter, key traditions about women. Under the rules of Islam, women are treated as second-class citizens, they cannot become judges, the testimony of two women is equal to one man. There is, of course, polygamy, you could have four wives, and in the Shiite version, countless number of temporary wives. A woman could marry and could be divorced by her husband even without being informed. And of course, again, inherits only half of what her brother would inherit. And Iranian women are fighting against this discrimination and mistreatment for themselves. The first anti-Khomeinist demonstration in Tehran took place on March 8, 1979, just less than a month after the seizure of power by Khomeini. And women have been fighting since then. And right now, there are dozens of women activists in prison, because last year, we started a campaign called the one million signature campaign, trying to collect a million signatures calling for the abolition of anti-women legislation and the treatment of women as equal, and allowing women to run for office, to become president, for example, or to be present in the Council of Ministers. So women are very in the vanguard of the fight against this regime, because within their society, all of which is being oppressed, the women are doubly oppressed.
HH: What about Mansoor Osanloo? Tell people about him.
AT: Mansoor Osanloo is one of the very heroes of our time. And I’m sad to say that the West has not paid enough attention to him. Currently, he’s in prison, he has been tortured, he nearly went blind a few months ago. He was the leader of the independent trade union for Tehran bus drivers and conductors. He organized a strike there for the rights to have an independent trade union rather than a body appointed by the government with the mullahs as head. He went to prison on a number of occasions, but he refused to give up his fight. And since then, that is now about four years ago, his message has spread throughout Iran. The latest estimate is that there are over 400 independent trade unions in Iran, some are grouped together in a kind of coordinating council. They represent about two and a half million workers. This is not, of course, very large now compared to a working population of nearly 28 million, but it is astonishing building this in such a short time. And despite the regime’s efforts to vilify him, to blacken his image, they have failed. He is one of the few prominent Iranians who have a good reputation in Iran. And many Iranians look to him as a source of inspiration. I hope and I pray that workers in the United States and their representatives, the unions, pay a great deal of attention to him, and people like him in Iran.
HH: His name is Mansoor Osanloo. I didn’t know about him until I read The Persian Night, one of the other…you know, there’s so many things I didn’t know about, but I thought I knew a lot about Iran. And it really is, the AFL-CIO should have this guy’s face on every single poster for international labor, as should our diplomats on their lips whenever they’re talking with anyone who talks to Iran or to the Iranians themselves.
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HH: Mr. Taheri, you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people listening right now, and more will read this when it’s transcribed and posted. What can they do to help regime change along? Obviously, the Obama administration is going to try appeasement. It’s going to fail like it has with every president since Carter. But if you’re just an ordinary American who says we don’t want a war with Iran, they should be our ally, they were our ally, we’d like them to be our ally again, how do they help?
AT: Well, the same way that they helped the people who were struggling against the Soviet Union, by first of all showing that the Iranian people are not alone, by making sure that the U.S. administration does not give moral equivalence to a fascist regime, that this regime is exposed by the United States in all international arena, and is not allowed to claim legitimacy, by supporting the families of the Iranians who are fighting. For example, you mentioned Mansoor Osanloo, the trade union leader. But there are also women leaders, to help finance their lawyers, to help protect their families, and at the very minimum, to send them a message that we are with you, and that we make sure that no governments in the democratic world will accept the present regime as a legitimate representative of Iran. For example, why not a day of solidarity with the Iranian working class, or one hour of a stoppage of putting goods on ships bound for Iran as a symbolic gesture to tell the Iranian workers that their fellow workers in the United States, in Canada, in other democracies, are thinking of them? Why not democratic governments making sure that they do not treat the representative of the Islamic regime as equals in diplomatic terms? Why not stop spreading the red carpet for the representative of this regime? For example, the president of Switzerland welcomed Ahmadinejad with open arms, and you know, was laughing and having a nice time with him as if Ahmadinejad was just anybody else. This is really scandalous, and it tells the wrong message to all those Iranians who are fighting this regime.
HH: Any doubt in your mind that an Ahmadinejad-led regime will continue to press as fast and as far towards nuclear weapons as it can go?
AT: Not at all, because these are people, you know, who have decided that the international law was written by, as they call them, Jews and crusaders. And they are not binding to Islam. Therefore, they consider themselves above the law. Ahmadinejad says quite openly that the United States is a sunset power, whereas the Islamic Republic is a sunrise power, and that he, Ahmadinejad, and the Islamic Republic are offering the only alternative to the famed American model to the world. You know, he has the ambitions to prepare the ground for the return of the Imam, to unite all of mankind under the banner of his version of Islam. He has very high ambitions. And of course, when you have ambitions like that, you try to provide the wherewithal for achieving that whenever and wherever you can.
HH: Can you see him giving up power even if the election goes against him?
AT: Well, he would have no choice, because in that case, there would be a civil war within the regime, and this is what they have avoided so far. But even if he loses the election, he has the support of many underground and secret organizations, some of them terrorist organizations, parts of the military and intelligence services. He would be still around.
HH: Last question, Amir Taheri, do you think that the regime has agents, sleeper agents in places like the United States and in Europe in the event of outright conflict?
AT: Well, you know you have just to look around them, and you always find people who are trying to put a human face on this inhuman regime, people who are urging the United States and other democracies to treat this regime as moral equals, which is scandalous in my opinion. And we are seeing that whenever the regime wanted to proceed to acts of violence, it always found some people to do it, you know, from Britain, from Germany, Italy, Spain, all over the place. And now they are very active in that in America. Ahmadinejad is soon going on a grand tour of Latin America, in Ecuador, in Venezuela, in Brazil, in Bolivia, et cetera. And of course there, they are creating new networks of pro-Khomeinist groups among people of Middle Eastern background who have been in Latin America for years.
HH: I lied, not the last question. Do you think that the Obama administration is aware of what the Iranian regime is trying to do in places like Venezuela with Chavez, and in Cuba? You have a great section in here of Ahmadinejad’s outreach to those people.
AT: Well, I hope they are. If they are not, then you are wasting your tax money on them. I don’t know. I’m not American. But I think the United States has enough information. It has embassies that report, and it is, you know, quite open for anybody to see. All these Latin American anti-American presidents have been to Tehran on a number of occasions. I think Chavez has been there seven times, more than to any other country. And Ortega has been there of Nicaragua, Correa of course of Ecuador has been there, Morales of Bolivia has been there. And now Ahamdinejad is coming on a grand tour, and his plan is to assume the leadership of the non-allying movement next year in Tehran, and then present himself as somebody with a global support against the United States’ so-called hegemony.
HH: On that sober note, I want to thank you, Amir Taheri, for a fascinating book, The Persian Night, and for a long conversation. It’s greatly appreciated.
End of interview.