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TAI Conversations
Ladan Boroumand: “The Shah Was Never as Hated as the Supreme Leader Is”

As Iran prepares for parliamentary elections tomorrow, TAI’s Jeffrey Gedmin and Sean Keeley interview the Iranian human rights activist and historian in exile, who explains the tectonic social changes unfolding within her native country—and why the regime is losing legitimacy across society, fast.

Ladan Boroumand, an historian by training, has spent the better part of her career in exile, promoting the cause of human rights in her native Iran. Inspired by the legacy of her father, a lawyer and democratic activist killed by agents of the regime, Ladan and her sister Roya launched the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center to catalog the many crimes and repressions of the Islamic Republic. TAI editor-in-chief Jeffrey Gedmin and associate editor Sean Keeley recently sat down with Ladan to discuss her views on changing social trends within Iran, and why she believes the regime is facing a fundamental test of legitimacy. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sean Keeley for TAI: Tell us about your organization, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran. What is its mission? What are the main projects you’re engaged in?

Ladan Boroumand: The Center was founded in 2001 in memory of my father, Abdorrahman Boroumand, who was a pro-democracy activist and a lawyer assassinated in Paris in 1991 by agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran. When there is no state seeking justice for a murder, the children feel obligated to seek justice one way or another. For my sister and me, that meant finding a peaceful way of pursuing his goals, which were the implementation of human rights, justice, the rule of law, and democracy in Iran. We created an online memorial in which every single victim of the Islamic Republic’s story would be documented and the universal human rights that had been violated in each case would be singled out, in both Farsi and English.

This is an ongoing project, obviously. We have nearly 25,000 cases. Many thousands have not been processed because we are a tiny organization, and the government has a 40-year history of crimes. But we also provide the victim’s family with a truth-telling platform, so that the victims do not feel completely helpless. They can at least fight back by providing a counter narrative about the story of their loved one. It’s a way of transforming a passive victim into an active agent of history.

We also run an online library. We have translated countless human rights documents, international human rights laws, democracy texts, even works like Vaclav Havel’s Power of the Powerless. We think these are important for Iranians to know and understand in order to build up a democratic political culture.

Jeff Gedmin for TAI: You’re not able to travel to Iran. How do you collect and verify the information you present?

LB: Well, we founded the center during the digital revolution. We realized that with cyberspace, our isolation from Iran could, in a way, be overcome. My sister and I, Roya, are historians by training. Our sources are, first, the government itself. For the first decades of the revolution, the authorities were not ashamed of announcing their victims in order to intimidate and terrorize the society.

And then we have a secure online form, through which families can send us information from inside Iran. Since we have a huge exile community, many of whom were either witnesses or relatives of people who have been killed, we have been reaching out and interviewing them too. Other human rights organizations—the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch—are also part of our sources.

TAI: You recently wrote an article in the Journal of Democracy, “Iranians Turn Away from the Islamic Republic,” which argues that the regime is losing legitimacy not just among the general populace, but even among many clerics. You write that there’s a high-level disagreement about the regime’s founding principle: “Most grand Ayatollahs have never accepted Khomeini’s absolutization of guardianship and still refuse to this day to accede to his claim that clerical authority extends to matters of political rule.” Can you explain this for us? And if these debates aren’t new, what makes us think that divisions are coming to a head right now?

LB: First of all, the principal cornerstone of the Islamic Republic of Iran is this principle of velayat-e faqih, the (supreme) guardianship of the Islamic jurisprudent. The implicit idea here is that God designates delegates who have absolute power over the whole community. Every other power emanates from this original source.

Khomeini’s absolutist interpretation of this principle was a perversion of a power that in Shi‘i tradition was given to the Islamic jurist for an orphan who had lost his parents or for a mentally handicapped person who didn’t have a guardian. It was really a civic power; it had nothing to do with politics. In the history of Iran’s religious establishment, we had different Ayatollahs who were independent from each other. Each one’s power was dependent on his financial resources and the number of followers he could amass, and we were free to choose the Ayatollah whom we followed. Each one had his own way of confronting modernity. Some of the clergy accepted democratic principles of representation as just and therefore religiously legitimate. That is how our first step towards constitutional monarchy was undertaken with the support of part of the clergy.

What is new right now is that the population is turning away from Islam. They are converting to other religions or are becoming completely agnostic, atheist, anti-religion. I’m working on finding reliable statistics, but there is a strong reaction against the state’s official religion and sharia law. Aware of this massive loss of believers, younger, university-educated clerics have started to question the epistemological underpinnings of the sharia injunctions, which they themselves consider to be indefensible. They have reached the conclusion that all of these sharia traditions compiled over the centuries are not necessarily or essentially Islamic. They were products of the people and worldviews that prevailed at the time of their compilation. According to these reformist clerics, the sharia is based on an obsolete Ptolemaic worldview; they say it has nothing to do with Islam.

In a nutshell, they are saying that even the prophet’s ruling his own community is not part of his prophetic mission. It belongs to political history. This is really new, and seems to have a great appeal in the younger generation of clerics inside the country.

TAI: Two presidential candidates from 2009—one a cleric, Mehdi Karroubi; the other a reformist politician, Mir-Hossein Mousavi—have now been under house arrest since 2011. In November, Mousavi likened Iran’s Supreme Leader to the Shah in the waning days of his rule. Can you tell us about these two individuals—what is their role and how are they seen? And when you hear Mousavi say that today looks like the Shah’s final days, is that accurate or just wishful thinking?

LB: There are several points to this question. The Supreme Leader starting to look like the Shah through loss of legitimacy—that much is true, although I would say the Shah was never as hated as the Supreme Leader is, except for his last few months in power and under the pressure of revolutionary propaganda. I think Mousavi sees what we all see, that the regime is clinging to power through pure terror. Then again, it could be wishful thinking to think the regime would give way, because Khamenei has learned his lesson from watching the Soviet Union, Tiananmen Square, and the Shah giving in to the demonstrators. They have been discussing and meditating on these experiences for years.

We saw that in November, when people rose up against rising gas prices. In three days, the authorities shut down the internet and probably killed 1,500 people. Without warning, they implemented a policy of shoot to kill. This is a government that does not want to negotiate with civil society. Now, how long can they do that and keep paying off their mercenaries under such strong economic pressure? This is another question, and here we may allow ourselves a bit of wishful thinking.

(Photo by Danielle Desjardins)

TAI: Help us understand the various ideological opponents of the regime. Your article discusses Shi‘i reformism—represented by figures like Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar, among others—as well as religious minorities like Sufi mysticism, Baha‘i, even a growing Christian population. What are the numbers of these movements, and can you envision a future pluralistic Iran where they can coexist peacefully?

LB: Yes. This is part of a tectonic cultural change that many policymakers don’t take into consideration. Let’s start with the newest phenomenon, which is conversion to Christianity. It’s important to remember that before the revolution in 1979, we had Anglican churches and Catholic churches. I myself went to a French Catholic school. They were obviously not free to proselytize, but they could whisper the message. In 1979, there were about 500 known Muslim converts to Christianity in Iran.

Now, it’s difficult to count them, because these are house churches and it’s completely clandestine, but it’s been estimated that there are a minimum of 100,000 and maybe up to 800,000 Christians in Iran. This shows that people are looking for a different spiritual message. Christianity comes with a message of love, peace, and tolerance, and of course Christ is a venerated prophet within the Quran. It’s not completely alien to Iranians, and the Evangelical churches that are promoting Christianity are very intelligent in how they try to integrate into the cultural background of the new converts.

Mysticism has always been a social reaction against bigotry and the sharia power of the clergy. After the first decade of the Islamic Republic, many of Khomeini’s enthusiastic young followers slowly became disillusioned and started to turn toward mystical schools. Mystics have always rejected sharia law as unimportant, and insisted on a message of love and unity. The intelligence officials are very worried about them because there are up to 14,000,000 people who have mystical tendencies, whether by choice or by tradition, as in Kurdistan and Baluchistan. If they had the capacity to organize, it would become a very important political force.

During the 2009 elections, actually, up to 4,000,000 followers of the Gonabadi Dervishes [Iranian Sufi Muslims – ed.] voted for Karroubi, because he was a cleric who had defended the rights of Baha‘is to live in peace and the right of Gonabadi mystics to worship the way they want. The regime’s officials were really angry at the Dervishes, because they had massively voted for this gentleman and also promoted the complete separation of religion and state.

Imagine those people, who are at least several million, and then imagine all the Sunnis that are not sympathetic to Shi‘a rule. Now imagine the Christians, between 100,000 and 800,000 of them, but imagine a moment where there is more freedom for Christians to proselytize—I think that those numbers could go much, much higher. Now imagine these new religious radical reformers who are saying sharia belongs to the history of Islam, that human rights and liberal democracy are the fairest mode of political organization. Imagine all of this together, and you can really envision an Iran with much more vibrant and religiously pluralistic society.

TAI: Apart from the question of religious minorities, there are also many ethnic minorities within Iran. The Azeri minority is almost a quarter of the population, and you also mentioned Baluchis and Kurds. Can you give us an overview of these groups and their grievances?

LB: Well, Iranian Azerbaijan remains a very important region of Iran. [Iranian Azerbaijan is a group of three provinces in northwestern Iran, not to be confused with the bordering Republic of Azerbaijan– ed.]  Its name is Persian. Azer means fire and Azerbaijan means “Protected by the Holy Fire” or “Land of the Holy Fire.” Several waves of Turkic tribes came to Iran, so many Iranians in the Azeri provinces speak Turkish. Obviously, with the transformation of Iran’s tribal monarchy into a modern nation-state in the early 20th century, Farsi was imposed upon the whole country as Iran’s national language and other languages and dialects were suppressed. This is the Azeris’ main grievance, that the Turkish language is eliminated and suppressed. Otherwise, they are oppressed as much as the Farsi-speaking population.

The Kurdish are a different story, because they are Sunni and because both Azerbaijan and Kurdistan were the site of separatist games played by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. [The Soviets backed two short-lived puppet states, the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad and the Azerbaijan People’s Government, in 1945-1946 –ed.] This background and historical propaganda makes many of them inclined to autonomy or separation. Regional grievances will be a major political challenge if we have the opportunity to build a democracy.

I’m really worried about that problem, because as Islamic legitimacy is fading away, nationalist values are taking root in Iran. There is a strain of nationalism that is extremely violent and doesn’t even want to allow a peaceful debate about this issue. For now, the Kurds and Azeris just want more regional autonomy, which in my opinion should be seriously discussed. We need to find intelligent and peaceful ways to keep these people, and we need to keep in mind that Russia, Turkey, and probably Saudi Arabia are preying on these discontents in their own strategic games with Iran.

TAI: Given all of these factors, then, what are some likely outcomes if the Iranian regime were to collapse? What scenarios seem plausible to you? One imagines that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and intelligence services, however despised by the population, would not go gently.

LB: Basically, the problem is the transition. The Revolutionary Guard are Iranian citizens and they are paid. Many of them try to join the Basij [a paramilitary group and one of the five forces of the IRGC –ed.] in order to gain privileges or make ends meet. To have a successful transition, we need first to have the opposition coalesce around a platform that is acceptable to all. For now there is still lots of distrust among them. We even have neo-monarchists now, because the population is comparing what the Pahlavis did for Iran with the way that the Islamic regime has destroyed the country.

Our strength, though, is that we have an organized civil society that is pro-human rights, pro-democracy, vibrant, and innovative. But the regime is trying to keep these people apart from each other, in prison, and under tremendous pressure. The diaspora has a role to play here. The worse it gets, the more opportunities we will have to appeal for people to quit the regime. But for that we need to offer them a viable alternative and a strong leadership of the opposition. We haven’t seen that yet.

TAI: What role, if any, can the United States play to support democracy in Iran? And how do you think of the role of sanctions?

LB: They are playing a role. When you see people demonstrate, they constantly say, “Our enemies are here; they lie to us when they say it’s America.” People know that the main cause of their economic hardship is the government’s corruption and mismanagement. The popular protests of December 2017 and January 2018 took place two years after sanctions had been lifted by the Obama Administration, and people had seen no economic improvement as a result. That is why, when they rose up again this past November, they didn’t mention the sanctions as their grievances, although the sanctions are certainly making life more difficult for the regime and for the population.

I support levying smart sanctions against human rights violators and sponsors of terrorism, such as the IRGC, and the United States has recently done this. But it’s one thing to impose sanctions; it’s another to actively pursue their implementation. We would like America, the European Union, and other countries to actively pursue the implementation of sanctions against those who promote terrorism and commit human rights violations inside Iran. A big part of this war between civil society and the regime is a psychological war. The more the population feels empowered and supported by the world, the more daring it becomes. In the past two years, we have even had leaks from inside the regime about human rights violations. This is new, and for me it’s a positive indication that people within the regime who are not happy are starting to act.

TAI: There are some in the Iranian exile community who oppose sanctions on the grounds that they hurt average people, not the regime, and may even push people into the arms of the regime. Can you tell us about that side of the argument?

LB: Most of the pro-democracy diaspora is favorable to seriously sanctioning human rights violators. But parts of the community, especially those who regularly go to Iran and come back, don’t like this strong pressure on the government. Among those who oppose sanctions, there are those who honestly think it’s harming the population more than the state (whether they are right or not), and there are those who are here on mission from the Iranian government.

The University of Maryland recently published polls that they had done inside Iran, which basically substantiate all of the Iranian government’s positions, and presented it as scientific. But obviously you can’t do any polling without the intelligence services spearheading it. People should be a little less naive. You have a discourse that is produced by the Iranian regime’s representatives in Washington, and they are well supported. When you repeat a lie 10,000 times, every journalist ends up accepting it as self-evident. That’s why I wrote this article because I thought, my God, things are radically changing inside Iran and nobody knows about it.

TAI: How do Iranians who oppose the regime feel about U.S. alliances with the Gulf states? Is there any reliable data on that?

LB: No, but I can talk about what I hear on social media. Those in opposition blame the regime for adventurist policies that have isolated Iran from the whole world and united everyone against Iran. Regarding the current government of the United States, people have mixed emotions. Many people love Trump. I think the only time President Trump talks about democracy and human rights is in his Farsi tweets, and probably because he doesn’t know what they say. But many also don’t trust the U.S. government because they have in mind what happened in North Korea. They think Trump is all about making deals. They know they have a window of opportunity right now and that’s it.

TAI: Many Americans form their impressions of Iran through culture—whether it’s Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Asgar Farhadi’s film A Separation, or Persepolis, the graphic novel-turned-film about a young girl growing up during the revolution. Are such works helpful as a gateway to understanding Iran?

LB: They are. These are the real indicators of a society’s life. Many don’t know it but there are so many plays ongoing in Tehran, both in the official and underground theaters, playing to full houses. Many art exhibits and concerts, too. People have turned to culture because their civic space is completely closed to them, politically speaking. Culture shows you what is really happening inside the country.

TAI: So what is the state of artistic freedom within Iran? You’re talking about a lively cultural scene, but I also remember the case of Jafar Panahi, the director who has been under house arrest since 2010 and was officially banned from filmmaking (an order he has repeatedly defied). What is allowed within the country and what crosses a line?

LB: Well, there’s a ministry of censorship, basically, called the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and every single book is subject to tedious negotiations with the censor about each word used. No, this is really a repressive country. Now, if you are lucky, or you have a censor who’s nice or has cultural ambitions, your book may come out. But if that book becomes controversial, it will be censored after publication. It’s the same with movies. It’s not a free country and they subject every artist, every writer, every screenwriter to a bizarre negotiation.

TAI: What about the status of women in Iran today? Any interesting trends there that you can speak to?

LB: One of the things that I have noticed since the 2017 elections is a new form of women’s activism. In 2017, when I was studying how civil society was taking part in the elections, I noticed that civil rights activists’ demands from the candidates were minimal; even those who had previously been radical regarding human rights were demanding the bare minimum. Or they were not even mentioning human rights.

But then, a few months later, in December 2017, we had this uprising in Iran, where more than 100 cities were taken over by demonstrators and the main slogan was: “reformist versus conservative: this game is over.”  People were simply saying they had had it with the Islamic Republic, all factions included. They were chanting:  “we want a free Iranian Republic.” “We want secularism.” “We want the king of Iran.” “The clergy has no place in political life.” And when you look at these slogans alongside the mild election demands, you realize what has happened inside the country: Society does not want to speak to or negotiate with the regime anymore. They don’t demand anything from the regime. They want it gone.

Now, the women’s rights protests follow the same pattern. Iranian women were actually the first segment of the population to resist the regime; on March 8, 1979, they were out demonstrating against mandatory veiling. Since then, they have individually exemplified passive civic resistance—putting on makeup, for example—while women’s rights activists collectively started to demand the end of discriminatory laws against women, and the right to divorce, the right to keep their children, and so on. They organized the tremendous “One Million Signatures” campaign to petition the parliament to change discriminatory laws. They were arrested, flogged, fined, banned, and placed under constant pressure.

And then in 2014, a London-based journalist named Masih Alinejadin started this Facebook page called “My Stealthy Freedom,” where she asked Iranian women to post photos and videos of themselves unveiled. Many such photos came out. That was civil society spontaneously taking the initiative to present another narrative on Iran, through the virtual world. “You have controlled the physical world,” they were saying. “We have a clandestine space where we are ourselves, and the world will see us.”

The regime went completely crazy because the women were not organized; they were not connected to each other at all. How could the regime counter this? Before becoming an exile, Masih was a well-known journalist in Iran, who came from a pro-Khomeini traditionalist family. She wore the veil all her life until she came to live in London. One day, after launching the Facebook page, she woke up to the news that she had been raped by three men in a London metro station. This was fake news, spread by Iranian state television; Iranian intelligence was insinuating that women taking off their veil are preyed upon in the free world. It was an insulting, disturbing campaign, and her relatives were really worried.

In reaction to this smear campaign, Iranian women continued to send Masih photos and videos of themselves. The virtual space became the mirror of their real selves. And then seeing their strength and their numbers, they took their struggle from the virtual world into the real world. This was the beginning of an individual and collective female resistance to mandatory veiling. Ordinary women started to challenge law enforcement officers in the streets. Girls started turning on their cameras when they were harassed by security forces. “My camera is my weapon” became their slogan. Here we see a completely different use of the digital world. Instead of a social phenomenon that started in the real world before being amplified in the virtual one, we had a virtually originated movement, which then was transferred to the physical world. I think this is an interesting case study not only for Iran, but for any closed society exposed to the virtual world.

Now women are individually taking off their veils. They are saying to security forces, “It’s my right to choose the way I get dressed, and you don’t have a right to tell me what to do.” This is secularism in action. And the government has been forced to legislate; there is now a law that makes sending photos and videos to Masih a crime.

TAI: When I hear you talk about women inside Iran risking lengthy prison sentences for taking off their veils, it seems illustrative of a larger yearning for autonomy and individual freedom. Meanwhile, there are trends in conservative circles in the West toward new forms of traditionalism. In Germany, some members of the right-wing populist party AfD say openly that women should retreat from public life and play a more traditional, family-centered role. In this country, there’s a belief in some conservative circles that liberalism has failed us, and that to find meaning one needs to turn to traditionalism and orthodox versions of religion. How does all this look to you, based on your experiences?

LB: Well, when I was very young in Paris many years ago, many of my fellow students were Maoists. They had willingly accepted a lot of constraints in their daily lives. I think there is always this totalitarian temptation within us. In times of identity crisis or ideological crisis, some people find comfort in ways of life that deny their autonomy and freedom. To me, this is a new form of something that we have always had. French communists wanted the dictatorship of the proletariat until 1971. That’s was almost 20 percent of the electorate, and they were playing with fire. I think it’s an indication that democracy is in ideological crisis in consolidated Western democracies, and we shouldn’t take this lightly.

TAI: Last question: what, in your view, is the single greatest misunderstanding that Americans have about Iran?

LB: Probably that we are all Muslims, and that most of us are in favor of the regime. The regime propaganda has been extremely successful in that regard. Just as an example, look at the way the assassination of General Soleimani was reflected in the mass media here. There were predictions that people would rally around the government, that people loved this man. That’s not true. The reality is much more complex. We saw it with the shooting of the Ukrainian airplane, too, how discontent burst out again and people were shouting, “Soleimani is a murderer, and his leader is a murderer.”

Where is the truth here? We saw the pro-Soleimani demonstrations, but we also know that all schools were closed, and that participation was mandatory in many cases. I’m sure that many people who do not agree with the regime did participate out of nationalism, but if they hadn’t killed 1,500 people in three days, how many people would have come out to demonstrate against the Revolutionary Guards or against the Islamic Republic? The propaganda has been successful in making people believe that this regime is popular. That’s the biggest misapprehension of Iran by the American people, and by many Western publics.

Published on: February 20, 2020
Ladan Boroumand is a historian, and co-founder and senior fellor at the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran. She is currently writing a book on the social changes underway in Iran. Jeffrey Gedmin is editor-in-chief and Sean Keeley is associate editor of The American Interest.
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