Dialogue with Nilufar Saberi, a Tehran-born human rights activist with whom I discussed the reality of Iran, the protests and the future of the theocracy.
The protests in Iran erupted after the world learned of the case of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Iranian Kurdistan who died at the hands of the Morality Police, a security force of the Islamic theocracy, for not wearing her veil properly. Despite government repression and censorship on social media, the riots became a new revolution under the desperate cry of Iranians in their struggle for democracy, equality and human rights.
Mahsa’s case exposed what Iranians in Iran, as well as those in exile, have been suffering since 1979: living under the yoke of a theocracy where political power is strongly subordinated to religious power headed by the Shiite clerics who are the minority faction of Islam.
Up to now, different sources have counted 76 dead and more than 1000 people arrested amidst the government’s threats to increase repression in order to prevent the fall of the regime.
In solidarity with the Iranian cause, different cities around the world are witnessing demonstrations in front of the embassies of the Islamic Republic of Iran to express their rejection of violence against women and the systemic violation of human rights. This 28 September, in Madrid, I met Nilufar Saberi, one of the brave Iranian women who escaped the arrival of the Islamists in 1979 and who moved to Spain where she now lives. Nilufar is not a political activist but an independent advocate for the freedom of women and men in Iran, her compatriots, who today continue on the streets seeking the democracy they have longed for for four decades.
It seemed to me a very good opportunity for her to express, with the emotion and courage reflected in her eyes, what it means what is happening today in the Persian country.
For those who do not know what is going on, what is happening today in the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Iranians have been fighting for a democratic government that protects human rights all our lives, especially since 1979. For four decades now, we have been living under the yoke of a theocratic regime, when political power is subordinated to religious power. We are in a struggle for a democracy in which we can have what other countries have: freedom of expression, political plurality, equality and other democratic values.
Nilufar was born in Tehran, the Iranian capital, in 1966. His memories of Iran are divided between the last years of the monarchy of the Shah, the previous Iranian ruler displaced by the 1979 revolution, and the years of Ayatollah Khomeini. Although he has lived in Spain for many years, the connection with his compatriots allows him to follow the situation in his native country as if he were there.
I have a very clear memory of the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the beginning of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Ayatollahs. I am convinced that the vast majority did not want such a bestial and ruthless theocracy to come to power.
If the vast majority did not want such a theocracy, then why did the revolution succeed in those years?
In those Cold War years, between 1947 and 1989, a series of mobilisations of clerics and academics in Iran finally overthrew the Pahlavi Dynasty that had reigned since 1925 with the support of the United States and the United Kingdom.
The revolution came to power because there was no political infrastructure that could respond to the political and social demands that many demanded. Political pluralism was not allowed under the Pahlavi dynasty and this meant that the only people who had the tools to seize power were the religious led by Khomeini.
The context of the Cold War is very important to understand what was happening in Iran in those years. The struggle, characterised by an ideological confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, meant that different US governments supported and opposed different governments in line with their strategy of preventing the spread of communism.
Foreign powers also supported the 1979 Islamic revolution, and that has to be said as well. In that way, they were guaranteed to have a controlled area to quell any attempt of communist outbreak considering also that Iran is very close to what was at that time the Soviet Union. The national and international interest at the time was to support the Islamists beyond the good relationship they had with the monarchy.
The theocracy imposed in 1979 involved the drafting of a new national constitution and a political and religious power headed by Supreme Leaders who were the most important positions in the nation. From then on, Iranians endured what Nilufar described as truly terrible things.
Executions, hanging sentences and stoning women became the fate of anyone who wanted to speak out against the national authorities. Since then, the Iranian regime has committed terrible acts within its borders, but also outwardly by sponsoring terrorism.
Since 1979 in Iran, what does it mean to live under a theocracy? That is not a concept with which we in the West are very familiar as a form of government.
I can give my testimony as an exile and I can assure you that it is not fortunate for anyone to have to leave the country where you were born, to leave your family and the things you love. In those years we had to escape from Iran with the clothes on our backs, from one day to the next, without anyone’s help. Although it is true that I have not suffered the direct consequences of living in a theocracy while in Iran because I was already in Spain, I can assure you that forced exile is also a consequence of all this and it is terrifying.
Since the first day and until today, I am connected with my compatriots who live in Iran and today are fighting in the streets for democracy. I can only tell you that it is terrifying. What you are seeing now in the media is what Iranian society has been enduring since 1979.
Nilufar takes a few seconds of silence to return to the initial question. Some memory may have crossed his mind that he did not want to make explicit, and I could not bring myself to enquire, but the testimony of exile as a consequence of the Islamists’ assault on power was portrayed in his answers.
I tell you again that it is terrifying. But with these protests, which as I told you have already turned into a real revolution, we are closer to achieving a democracy that we have been fighting for for many years. We are going to achieve it.
Before moving on, he returns to the issue of exile. It is, without a doubt, one of the most traumatic processes for a person because it exposes them to a vulnerability for which we are not prepared.
Exiles will understand me. That experience of leaving without money, without friends, without family, without a common language and without any support is terrible. I remember that, when we arrived in Spain, there was no infrastructure to welcome us because at that time the refugee issue was not treated as it is today. I remember that at the beginning we arrived with some Cubans who also escaped from a dictatorship.
Iran, with its more than 80 million inhabitants, hides a real ethnic, religious and cultural mosaic which, according to data consulted, shows that the majority of its citizens are not Persians as one might think. There are also Azeris and Kurds like Mahsa Amini, the young woman who was murdered in the last few hours and who ignited the libertarian flame around the world. However, there are many human rights activists like Nilufar who continue to fight for democracy, but from abroad.
Recalling the case of Masih Alinejad, an Iranian activist who lives in hiding in the United States because of assassination attempts and attacks against her, I wanted to ask her about the danger that Iranians in exile continue to face despite being far away from home.
Yes, Iranians in exile are also in danger and this is something we must denounce and condemn.
Can a person who is in exile and decides to continue his or her struggle for democracy be attacked by the Islamists who rule Iran?
Of course they can, and that is exactly what has happened since 1979. In the beginning, assassinations abroad were very common. So were attacks on these people. Today, it is true that the number of murders has decreased, but I must say that the same persecution has continued and this is something we must denounce and warn about.
Masih Alinejad is one of the leading activists in the struggle for Iranian democracy. In 2014 she started a campaign known as My Stealthy Freedom, which was aimed at calling for an end to the compulsory wearing of the veil in the Persian country. A campaign that, had it been listened to, would have prevented the deaths and trauma of hundreds of Iranian women.
The cost that Masih has had to pay has been extremely high: from attacks, persecutions and harassment to an assassination attempt that took place in July this year when a man was arrested near her home with an AK-47 rifle. Only a year earlier, she had been informed of a plot by Iranian intelligence services to kidnap her.
To conclude Nilufar’s story, I had only to ask about the future and how we can best help the Iranian people.
We are facing a real revolution. It is no longer a localised protest but a real revolution in defence of freedom. But this revolution must be supported and accompanied by the international community asking Western governments to stop legitimising a theocratic regime. If this support does not come, the TV cameras and media coverage will end and Iranian citizens will be doubly condemned: the detainees will be executed and all the rest of Iranians will be condemned to continue living under the yoke of the most terrible theocracy in the region.
The legitimisation of the Iranian theocracy by Western governments is currently in a decisive episode in Vienna, Austria: led by the inconceivable concession by some European Union governments and a large part of the Democratic Party in the United States, there is an intention to lift economic sanctions on Iran in reprimand for its nuclear programme for military purposes.
This new nuclear deal, abandoned by the United States in 2018 after finding that Iran had never stopped enriching uranium to nuclear weapons-grade levels, would give the Iranian government access to enormous economic resources from the sale of its oil. The concession would be tantamount to funding for the Iranian authorities to continue repressing, persecuting and executing.
It is as if, in the 21st century, any government wanted to legitimise a regime inspired by the totalitarianism of the 20th century that led to the death of millions of human beings. We can fight for democracy, but governments cannot continue to support the Iranian regime.
This interview that emerged at the rally in front of the Iranian embassy in Madrid came out instantly. But there is nothing better than an Iranian woman to explain what is happening in Iran and encourage those who read this to support on social networks the Iranian cause that will continue to fight to end the terror to which they have been subjected for decades.