Iran's Hard-Liners See Old Revolutionaries as Risk


First the secret police searched Ahmad Sadr Hajsaid Javadi's house for evidence that he was plotting to overthrow the Iranian regime. Then they interrogated him for three days before reluctantly letting him go.

That was 36 years ago, when the shah was still in power and Javadi, a lawyer, was a member of an underground group promoting democracy. Today he's 84 and right back where he started. A few weeks ago, his home was searched and he was arrested and charged with subversion.

"They blindfolded me," Javadi said, his voice shaking with anger and disbelief. "They kept me in solitary confinement for three days."

In the run-up to today's presidential election, hard-line Islamist forces arrested Javadi and dozens of other elderly intellectuals, many of whom had endured prison, even torture, under the shah and helped bring about the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

They were the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic, fighting alongside many of those now in power. But today, because they support the reform movement and the increasingly popular notion that religion and democracy can coexist, these old-timers pose a threat to the hard-liners.

The onetime revolutionaries represent a sensitive fault line in Iranian politics, one that emerged when hard-line Islamists consolidated power and split from the moderate intellectuals shortly after the revolution.

Those divisions are at the center of this year's election battle: President Mohammad Khatami is pushing for an Iran closer to the one that Javadi and his peers envisioned, and hard-liners are trying to stop him.

The operative question now is, have the intimidation tactics reached critical mass? Are the people so dispirited by a crackdown that has included arrests and newspaper closures that they will simply stay home on election day?

"These are the kinds of discussions people are having all over Iran--not whom to vote for, but whether or not to vote. Is this man [Khatami] credible?" said Farideh Farhi, a political scientist in Tehran, Iran's capital. "That is why election day is so important."

When the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was the sovereign, Javadi and other religious moderates called themselves the Freedom Movement. They were doctors, lawyers, engineers and intellectuals who supported the rule of law and democracy. They imagined a nation where civil society was governed by elected officials who operated within the framework of Islamic values. Many of their members were arrested and tortured by the SAVAK, the shah's ruthless secret police.

The shah's regime was toppled under pressure from a coalition of forces that included the Freedom Movement and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's religious followers. In fact, Javadi was once the defense lawyer for a young cleric, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is now Iran's supreme leader.

The two sides parted ways in the 1980s, when Khomeini and his legions consolidated power and essentially excommunicated the moderates.

"We didn't know they were going to implement their own ideas and attitude," said Javadi, who served as justice minister in the first Islamic government. "We believed that freedom and religion are compatible. We still believe that. The Islam that we believe is based on freedom, not oppression. Nowadays these people call our attitude 'American Islam.' "

The split between the Freedom Movement and the Khomeini camp was precipitated in part by radical students who took over the U.S. Embassy and held diplomats hostage for 444 days. Ironically, many of those former student leaders are now close allies of Khatami and are encouraging him to steer toward a course they undermined in their youth.

"We were thinking there was a despotic and bloodthirsty regime in the country and that nothing would become right as long as that regime was not destroyed, and that when it was destroyed, everywhere would turn into heaven," Abbas Abdi, a leader of a popular political movement that supports Khatami, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, said in an interview with the Persian-language newspaper Hayat-e-Nou. "This was the mental picture of youth at that time."

Over the next 22 years, the Freedom Movement was essentially banned by the government, but the small group of intellectuals was tolerated--until this election season.

In March, the Tehran Revolutionary Court prohibited the group from conducting any activities, ordered two dozen liberal-minded activists arrested and warned that offenders would be prosecuted.

Former Ally in Shah's Overthrow Is Detained

Authorities even locked up 92-year-old Taheri Ahmadzadeh, a steadfast revolutionary who saw his two sons hanged by the shah. Under Iranian law, plotting to topple the Islamic establishment amounts to waging war against the state, an offense that carries the death sentence.

"They have this belief that if we do not exist, it will help them," said one former revolutionary who asked that he not be named for fear of reprisal. "They want us to panic. They want to affect the election."

This former ally of Khomeini spent many years in prison during the shah's reign. Then, in April, he found himself back in prison.

"Unfortunately, it is going back to the manner of the former regime," the longtime dissident said a few weeks after his arrest. He added that the arrest backfired on the authorities: "With this arrest I have become even more popular with the people."

The authorities also hauled off Khosro Mansourian, 60, another founding father of the Islamic state. His family members are concerned because they haven't heard from him since his arrest and are worried about his health.

"I don't think the revolution betrayed them," a close relative said of the Freedom Movement members. "But they did not want someone to be on top and rule. They wanted a change--not just like the shah's regime."

Even as public opinion and top elected officials have castigated the security forces for arresting these men--about 20 remain behind bars--there is little indication that the authorities plan to back off.

This week, they released a purported confession from one of the most well-regarded religious nationalists, Ezzatollah Sahabi, who was sentenced to four years in prison for attending a conference in Berlin that was allegedly aimed at overthrowing the government.

'Confession' Appears to Have Backfired

In a letter intended to add credibility to the hard-line crackdown, Sahabi--who spent about 15 years in prison under the shah--confessed to working with the United States to topple the Islamic system.

"I do not deny that all of my press and political activity in the past years were aimed at discrediting the religious government and to replace it with a nonreligious one," Sahabi said in the letter carried by the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

"You are gravely mistaken if you think that I would return to my political life if I survive and am released," he allegedly wrote in the letter, which was addressed to his children.

But like many of the hard-liners' other tactics, this one appears to have backfired as well. Those who know the longtime activist attributed the confession--if he actually wrote it--to psychological pressure at the hands of the authorities.

"The absurdity of extracting a confession from a man so highly regarded, so old, so gentle is obscene," said Farhi, the political analyst. "All it does is undermine the credibility of the regime."

During his four years in office, Khatami has faced many crises with the same calm, restrained manner. Whether it be the arrest and conviction of some of his closest advisors or the shutting down of 40 reform-oriented newspapers, he has never raised his voice or issued a direct challenge to the conservatives.

That has frustrated his supporters, but those close to Khatami say the president believes that this is the price to pay for changing the nature of the debate in Iran: Four years ago, it was whether to pursue reform; today, it is what kind of reform to pursue.

"Naturally, this reform has costs," said Khatami's chief of staff, Mohammed Ali Abtahi. "The cost is not high for what we have gained."

And the arrest and imprisonment of old-timers are part of that price, he said, adding that he is certain they would agree. "These people who were in prison during the shah and were tortured want to achieve a good result."



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