Iranian exile speaks out against militia he once supported
For people around the globe, the images of club-wielding men on motorcycles beating demonstrators on the streets of Tehran was just another case of brutality in a far-off land.
But as he watched the violence of recent weeks unfold on television and YouTube, Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, an exiled Iranian, recognized some of the attackers.
They were once good friends.
His life, encapsulating the betrayals and disappointments that followed Iran’s tumultuous revolution 30 years ago, as well as the hopes and fears of Iranians now living abroad, had come full circle.
Once a lonely young man in exile, a rejuvenated Ebrahimi is now using his experience as an insider within Iran’s hard-line militias to “out” members of the group.
On his well-regarded Persian-language blog, he has listed the names and phone numbers of about a dozen militia members whom he has spotted in photos and video of the demonstrations over his homeland’s disputed presidential election.
One of them rang him up in a tizzy. “This is unethical,” his onetime friend told him.
Ebrahimi was flabbergasted. “You’re killing people,” he said. “Isn’t that more unethical?”
Why was the 11-year-old spending so much time at the mosque, Ebrahimi’s family wondered. What was he doing after school, hanging out with the sons of those detested “Hezbollahis,” Islamic radicals who had dominated the country after the 1979 revolution?
His father, an air force pilot, was no true believer. After returning from lengthy stints at the front of the Iran-Iraq war, he would immediately shed his fatigues, shave off his beard and curse those who headed the war effort as incompetent fanatics.
But young Ebrahimi was enchanted by the country’s new spirit, lured by the confident young men who signed up to fight.
“The boys kept saying, ‘Let’s go to the mosque,’ ” he recalled. “There were always displays of guns and grenades there. I liked it.”
In 1987, the 12-year-old and a friend lied about their ages, evaded their parents and signed up to fight on the front lines during the war’s penultimate year.
“They gave us a little money and a train ticket and told us to report for duty,” said Ebrahimi, who provided photographs showing him as a fresh-faced youngster in uniform.
One day his father came to the base. He approached his son, slapped him hard on the face, then walked away without saying a word.
After 10 months, Ebrahimi returned home, and though he hadn’t seen much action, he was hailed as a hero, a big shot among his peers.
The gawky teenager began writing patriotic pieces for a youth magazine called Surah, catching the attention of hard-line groups.
He signed up for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and was accepted into a university, hanging out with like-minded students and veterans.
They met regularly, usually at mosques. They studied literature called “Program of the Guardianship,” which included lessons about Islam and politics, and depicted their political rivals, including reformists, as enemies of God, in effect giving themselves permission to kill their foes without committing a sin.
“We were brainwashed,” Ebrahimi said. “We thought that these people had taken up swords and were going against Islam.”
Among those he befriended was Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They went on trips together, visiting the resort towns of the Caspian Sea coast on weekends or for holidays.
Eventually they would evolve into the group called Ansar-e Hezbollah, now notorious as the informal shock troops of Iran’s hard-line establishment loyal to the supreme leader.
The way Ebrahimi had envisioned it, Ansar-e Hezbollah was a political and cultural organization. So why were they talking about beating people? He didn’t like that.
It was early July 1999, just before the student unrest and crackdown that symbolized the height and the downfall of Iran’s reformist wave under then-President Mohammad Khatami.
Ebrahimi’s Ansar-e Hezbollah colleagues wanted to crush the students. He urged restraint, hoping the movement would burn itself out.
A week later, exactly 10 years ago today, 18th day of the month of Tir on the Persian calendar, Ansar-e Hezbollah activists stormed the dormitories, killing one student, probably more.
Ebrahimi had seen enough and, in a now famous act, waded into a crowd of students to take the podium.
“You’re right,” he told the stunned audience. “They’re savage. I’ve resigned.”
The students roared with approval.
The next day, he was arrested outside his home, shoved into the trunk of a car and taken to an unknown building and locked in solitary confinement.
During grueling interrogations, he suffered a broken chin and hand, was hung by his feet and beaten.
After eight months, he was dropped off in downtown Tehran, but his freedom was short-lived.
Ebrahimi was again arrested, tried and sentenced to prison, shuttling from Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison, where demonstrators today are being taken, to other facilities in and around the capital for three years.
Even when he was free again, Ebrahimi was a marked man, prohibited from leaving the country and facing years of scrutiny by security forces.
He had a choice: stay and fight it out with authorities in Iran, or make a run for it.
The hike across the mountainous border with Turkey was long and dangerous.
In Ankara, the Turkish capital, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees accepted Ebrahimi’s application for asylum.
He enrolled at a university, fell in love and moved to Germany, joining the many Iranian dissidents carving out lives abroad.
It was 2007, and Ebrahimi was at a conference of Iranian dissidents in southern Spain when a man claiming to be with the CIA showed him a photocopy of a check made out to Hezbollah and supposedly signed by Khamenei.
Ebrahimi thought the man, who gave his name as David Coberly, was testing him by showing him bogus intelligence.
Who would believe that Khamenei, whom Iranians regard as God’s representative on Earth, would make a check out to Hezbollah, like a guy paying for new kitchen cabinets?
“Is this a joke?” Ebrahimi recalled asking.
It wasn’t a joke, he soon learned, but it was symptomatic of America’s misunderstanding of Iran, or maybe its willingness to welcome faulty intelligence in order to make a case against the country.
Ebrahimi had embraced the life of an activist in exile, becoming a valuable asset for Western intelligence agencies and analysts seeking insight on the Islamic Republic. He was in regular contact with Western officials and a circle of neoconservative activists.
He and other Iranian and Western activists enticed Iranian officials to defect to the West.
The group played a key role in the defection of Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asgari, a former deputy defense minister who left via Turkey, taking a trove of secrets about Iran’s weaponry and technology with him.
But feeling adrift in the life of an exile, Ebrahimi grew homesick. Last year, he and his parents made plans for a rendezvous in Istanbul, Turkey, hoping it would be a fun-filled holiday.
Once again, he found himself locked up, alone with his thoughts in a windowless gray tomb.
At the immigration counter at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, border guards ushered him away. Security officials ordered him to strip.
“Why?” Ebrahimi demanded. “Why am I being singled out?”
They refused to tell him. But he had his suspicions, confirmed hours later when he overheard an Iranian Consulate official outside the door vowing to take him back to the Islamic Republic for his role in the defection of the military commander.
“I was very afraid,” Ebrahimi recalled. “I was scared like I’ve never been scared before.”
Then Ebrahimi realized that Turkish authorities had forgotten to take away his cellphone. Quietly, he began calling people abroad: his wife, well-connected Iranian dissidents in the United States.
“I was personally on the phone for several hours that night trying to gain his release,” said Kenneth Timmerman, a neoconservative activist who heads the Washington-based Foundation for Democracy in Iran.
“Other people were involved pulling political strings. There was a lot of heavy lifting being done in Washington.”
Time was ticking away. Once, as Ebrahimi was being taken to an interrogation room, the Iranian official patted him on the back.
“I’ll see you in Tehran,” he told Ebrahimi.
Early the next morning, an official who said he was from the consulate of a Western government showed up at the airport and demanded to see Ebrahimi.
The Westerner was firm. He had orders from his capital. Ebrahimi was to be placed on a plane back to Germany.
These days, Ebrahimi spends his time writing his blog and working on a memoir he hopes to sell to Western publishers, stepping out occasionally from his ground-floor apartment for a quick smoke.
Recently, he wrote an open letter to his old friend Mojtaba Khamenei, who is said to be the driving force behind the military-led crackdown on the protest movement.
“We have defended our country, rifle in hands, and have killed to save our country from deterioration,” he wrote. “In those days neither you nor I ever imagined standing up against our own people, unlike what seems to be your cup of tea these days.”
Ebrahimi described the photograph of Neda Agha-Soltan dying in the street last month near a demonstration in support of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
“It reminded me of one of our martyred friends during the war,” he wrote. “Don’t you see how the nation is being crushed? Don’t you see the blood in the streets? How can you watch and not speak a word of protest?”