Fomenting revolution

Revolutionary Guard Corps founder Mohsen Sazegara works to spread his message through podcasts.

Mohsen Sazegara 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Mohsen Sazagara)
Mohsen Sazegara 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Mohsen Sazagara)
Eight years ago Mohsen Sazegara left his homeland as an exile, separated from his country and disillusioned with a regime that he had helped create. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post by Skype from his current home in Washington, the former Iranian deputy prime minister and ayatollah Khomeini aide discussed his role in the creation of the Islamic Republic’s feared Revolutionary Guard Corps, his disdain for political Islam and the chances for rapprochement between Tehran and Jerusalem.
A balding and unprepossessing man in his late 50s, Sazegara was a student leader in the underground movement against the shah, the ruling Iranian monarch and an ally of Israel, until his fall in 1979. While studying abroad at the Illinois Institute of Technology he received word of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return to Tehran and immediately flew home to join the revolution, where he served as a close adviser and confidant to the new supreme leader.
After holding a variety of posts in the government, including overseeing heavy industry during the Iran- Iraq war, Sazegara eventually grew disillusioned with the theocratic form of government embodied by the Islamic Republic.
Following the death of his mentor Khomeini, Sazegara earned a master’s degree from the University of London and subsequently began publishing a string of reformist newspapers in Iran, all of which were shut down by the regime.
He even attempted a return to government in 2001, putting his hat into the ring for president. However, his candidacy was not accepted due to his views being incongruent with the “wishes of the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader.”
After his fourth prison term for his reformist activities, which included an initiative to organize a national referendum on the current form of the national government, Sazegara made his way to England and then eventually to the United States, where he is currently a visiting fellow at the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
A regular on the Voice of America’s Persian-language broadcasts, Sazegara came to the world’s attention when, in 2009, he began a series of popular video podcasts on YouTube aimed at aiding members of the Green protest movement in Iran by providing them with advice from a seasoned revolutionary. The former Islamist seemed to sense a chance at replaying his own generation’s youthful political upheavals, only this time he would get things right.
“When the Green movement started we needed to inform the people about nonviolent tactics, civil resistance tactics and sometimes news,” he told the Post. “They prevented me from talking about these matters on the Voice of America [but] I felt that I could do it by myself. I started a 10-minute home video and posted on my website, on YouTube [and] on Facebook and gradually I found out that I don’t need to use VOA or other media. This is the 21st century so this Internet media can help me to educate many of the young generation.”
During the height of the protests against what many Iranians saw as a fraudulent election meant to keep hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, Sazegara’s instructional videos received almost 60,000 views each on YouTube. More recent videos receive only 3,000 to 13,000 views, however.
“I am not the leader of the [anti-regime] movement,” he was quick to point out. “These are different from Khomeini’s cassettes,” he said, referring to the cassette tapes the ayatollah used to spread his messages inside Iran during his years of pre-revolutionary exile. “I just try to help the young generation to be involved.”
He did admit, however, to being in touch with “several civil resistance activists, [both] in Iran [and] outside Iran.” According to Sazegara, the current leadership of the various social groups in Iran interested in regime change and democratization have not organized protests in line with those seen during the Arab Spring due to their wish not to see their people killed in the streets as in 2009.
“Street protest is only one type of civil resistance,” he said. “We prefer to go to other tactics in which people [are not] to be killed.”
Explaining who else is involved with the underground opposition in Iran today, Sazegara stated that there are “several social groups which in the grand strategy [will] surround this regime by several civil society demands.” He listed several constituencies, including women’s groups, student activists, labor organizers and teachers. “They are working on their own demands against this regime,” he continued. “In this kind of movement it is important that you cover all parts of the society.”
As sanctions weaken the Iranian internal economy, Sazegara believes that the lower classes will join with the middle class in what he termed “negative resistance,” which would comprise such tactics as work stoppages and strikes, he explained.
The Iranian government is “the most well-equipped regime in the whole region to suppress the people, so we prefer to wait a little bit to reorganize the movement, to wait for an economic crisis… and help the lower class of Iran to join the middle class to fight against this regime through civil resistance tactics.”
Because of his nation’s oil income, Sazegara explained, the regime can help subsidize the needs of the lower classes, making it important to wait until sanctions affect revenue from Iranian petrochemical industries before taking action.
It is hard to tell, however, how much influence he actually has inside Iran and how in touch he still is with whatever opposition leadership remains.
One of the biggest mistakes of his generation, Sazegara insisted, is that it unleashed political Islam as a player on the global stage.
“One regret for me and my entire generation is the big mistake of creating a kind of revolutionary ideological version of Islam.”
Reinforcing the popular belief that he is looking for personal redemption through his long-distance involvement with anti-regime activities, Sazegara told the Post that if he “was reborn, definitely again I would oppose the Shah; but definitely I wouldn’t go for an ideological revolution, especially a religious revolution.”
Still a devout Muslim, Sazegara now believes in a separation of religion and state, having seen what an Islamic government does to its own citizens.
He expressed confidence that the young generation in Tehran shares his views, citing the Green movement as proof and recalling several instances in which he observed the backlash against the anti-Semitic propaganda of the ayatollahs among the students of Iran.
While giving a public address to over 1,000 university students in Iran, Sazegara says he announced that he believed his country’s national interest to be best served by having “good relations… with Israel.”
All of the students “supported that. About six months after that, when I was a presidential election candidate, I made a speech in the University of Mashad, this time [to] more than 1,500 students. I explained that we should be the friends of any nation in the region, including Israel, and we have a historical relationship with [both] Israel and with [the] Arab states so we should support the peace instead of war in that region. Again I had a very strong support of all of the students except a few from [the] Basij” paramilitary group.
After witnessing the reaction to his statements, he realized that “the young generation of Iranians are really sick of these types of propaganda full of hatred of Israel and the United States and Western civilization.
You could watch it in the Green movement as well, when millions of members of the young generation came to the streets. You could see that they want a modern world.”
Turning to the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat, Sazegara insisted that the current sanctions regime would be ineffective in stopping Tehran’s ambitions. Without the support of China and Russia, he explained, such actions would be pointless.
The success of sanctions “depends on the international community convincing China not to cooperate with the Iranian regime,” he said. “If the United States can persuade China to cooperate with the international community then these sanctions will be more effective.”
However, he emphasized, implementing sanctions against Iran’s central bank “prematurely,” as the UK has done, will not accomplish anything. Real change, he believes, will only come from inside Iran itself.
“The rulers of Tehran stand at a crossroads. One way will be to become another North Korea with a nuclear bomb, and the other one will be a kind of conciliation and answering to the world.”
Unsurprisingly, Sazegara insisted that there is no viable military option, stating that he opposes any strike on his homeland. “Covert operations have been shown to be more effective than any military strike to stop the nuclear ambitions of the regime of Iran.”
Worrying that an Iranian nuclear weapon would set off a regional arms race, Sazegara called for comprehensive regional nuclear disarmament and for Israel to give up its weapons of mass destruction.
“The best way for solving the problem is supporting the people of Iran in their struggle to make a democracy,” he continued. “In a democratic Iran I’m pretty sure that the regime will be reliable and peaceful and we can prevent this type of adventurism of this regime.”
While he said that the Islamic revolution was born out of “the concept of defending the Palestinians’ rights,” Sazegara believes the only feasible end to the current conflict is a negotiated two-state solution.
“This regime needs to support radical groups, terrorist groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, to justify its rule in Tehran. [But] in the future, a democratic regime based on the will of the people will support a peace process based on a two-state solution,” he said. Iran can actually serve as a bridge between Arabs and Jews and “keep peace in the region.”
While his goals are certainly laudable, there is a sense of quixotic idealism about Sazegara. Though he is certainly knowledgeable about the inner workings of the Iranian regime, it is possible that his hopes for personal redemption have impelled him to place an inordinate emphasis on the potential for internal change in Iran. Certainly, while his assurances of goodwill are welcomed by many in America, Israelis generally tend to disagree with his assertions regarding the futility of military action as a measure of last resort.
Ironically, it was the Israeli military, he said, that served as the blueprint for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. When he founded the organization, he explained, it was meant as a “people’s army.”
“One of our models was the army of Israel. We wanted to create a kind of organization to mobilize the people to defend the country when the country is invaded by foreign troops. [The current] Revolutionary Guard is quite different from that basic idea.”
As the regime’s power grew, the organization Sazegara founded developed and changed.
The regime “converted this organization to a monstrous organization to suppress the people of Iran,” he stated, saying that witnessing the current incarnation of the guard is like being a parent watching his child grow up to become a rapist.
It is ironic indeed that an organization partially modeled on the Israel Defense Forces should be tasked with running a nuclear program aimed at the destruction of the State of Israel. However, should Mohsen Sazegara get his way, his organization would become an agent for reform, as he has.
It just isn’t very likely.