Government Coercion Holds Iranian Society Together: An Interview with Ensafali Hedayat

Sasan Ghahreman - February 1st, 2008

Ensafali Hedayat is a distinguished independent journalist and human rights defender. He has long fought for the rights of the people of Iranian Azerbaijan and has contributed regularly to various reformist newspapers and publications. Mr. Hedayat has written on a number of key events these past years, including the 18th of Tir incident at the University of Tehran and a gathering at the tomb of Bagher Khan, leader of the Constitutional Revolution and Azeri hero to the Iranian people. In 2004, in the process of reporting on student protests at Tabriz University, Mr. Hedayat was attacked, severely beaten by the police, and placed in detention. He was accused of spreading propaganda against the regime and spent 18 months in jail in Tabriz. Later, on his way back from the First Gathering of Iranian Republicans (Jomhoorikhahan) in Berlin, Germany, he was arrested and sent to jail again where he went on a hunger strike.

Mr. Hedayat is a two-time winner of the annual Iranian Press Festival award for the best journalism report and a winner of the prestigious Hellman-Hammett prize. He is a founding member of the Cultural Society of Azerbaijan and Yashil, an organization in support of needy and orphaned children. In this interview, Ensafali Hedayat describes the state of human rights for the people of Iranian Azerbaijan and other minorities in Iran as well as Iran’s current political and social environments.

Mr. Hedayat: You are a journalist, a human rights activist, and an advocate of human rights in Iranian Azerbaijan. As an Azeri journalist, how do you assess the obstacles you are facing?

I am a journalist, and I will always be. Naturally, journalists are part of the society they live in. In every society, people are treated unjustly by governments, institutions, organizations, companies, factories, and even individuals. Sometimes a journalist confronts an injustice and, by bringing it to light, takes a stance. This is how a journalist connects with his or her society and its people. I have always been just a journalist who lives in his society and honors his professional duties. Therefore, I was not simply a human rights activist, or an advocate of human rights in Iranian Azerbaijan. I was living among people and wrote about their problems. I care about the short- and long-term welfare of my society. Gradually, I noticed that I had become infected by the virus of self-censorship and became the passive witness to human rights abuses which should have gone public.

On the other hand, a journalist is confined to his or her time and place. I lived for a long time in Tehran, and I wrote about its residents. I wrote well and I received an award at the annual Press Festival. I was absorbed by Tehran’s issues and became detached from the problems of other regions. When I was forced to leave Tehran under government pressure and returned to Tabriz, my perspective on Iran widened to include all of Iran. Based on the news I covered about people’s problems, activists in different movements considered me as a compatriot. I earned the role of human rights activist, political activist, and advocate of Azerbaijan. But I always considered myself a journalist. On the other hand, my adversaries in the regime also accused me of “Pan-Turkism,” secessionism, spying, and so forth. But I was only a journalist who witnessed people’s agony and chose not to censor myself. The problem of a journalist like me is that people expect too much and the government expects him to keep quiet. If I become silent, my mind will adjust to the self-censorship virus, and the people who expect me to revolt and reveal government corruption will consider me a government agent and a traitor.

One of the demands of political forces during the 1979 Revolution was “self-rule for ethnic minorities in Iran,” in other words, ensuring the cultural, economic, and social development of ethnic minorities. What has remained of that slogan?

Today, you cannot even whisper these demands. Both regime officials and political activists condemn them. Those who made these demands either were executed or forced into exile. “Pragmatic” reformists and exiled opposition leaders believe that these issues are secondary and the fate of the “Islamic Republic” must first be determined, and then the government must be handed to them in order to engage in these discussions. But a large part of the minority population does not trust this segment of the opposition. The “reformists” were defeated inside Iran because they did not pay attention to the wishes of all Iranians. They still do not admit that this was a fundamentally flawed policy. Most non-Persian Iranians do not believe that these “politicians” consider them equals and therefore they do not support them. After the early days of the Revolution, participation of non-Persians in elections diminished gradually, and instead they backed their own regional movements. The influence of reformists and the exiled opposition on non-Persians is fading day by day.

Azeris are Iran’s largest ethnic minority. Almost thirty years after the 1979 Revolution, can we observe any improvement in their cultural and language situation?
No, their situation has gotten worse. In the old days, there were a few media outlets with limited coverage of cities and rural areas. More than half of the population was illiterate. But today, in each province, we have only one or two radio and television stations and Persian language enters every house through religious and entertainment programs. The local radios and newspapers are run by people who have no education in the local language. Though the Islamic Republic’s Constitution recognizes other languages and allows for them to be taught in schools and universities, not a penny has been spent on this effort. Such unjust policies and negligence have resulted in people’s distrust towards both authorities and opposition activists. Persians are the only ethnic group in Iran which enjoys the right to speak and write in its own language. Other ethnic groups must speak and write in Persian, and if they protest and seek equal rights, they will be accused of being secessionists or traitors. How can these people trust politicians who ignore them? How can they support these politicians who do not acknowledge their rights? When they do not care about ethnic rights – even when it jeopardizes their own hold on power – how can they be trusted to do the right thing in the future and not repress people?

During the Shah’s regime, Iran’s government accused the Soviet Union of agitating the ethnic minorities, and now they accuse the US of agitating these groups for independence. What is your view?

Just like before, the regime tries to paint minorities as collaborating with outside forces. The regime prefers to alienate minorities and to treat them as inferior, rather than grant them their legitimate rights. When Azeris ask for recognition of their Turkish language, they accuse them of being influenced by the Republic of Azerbaijan or Turkey and of secessionism and “Pan-Turkism” tendencies.

It is natural that people of each region consider their language, culture, history, music, trades, etc. as important and wanting to elevate them. There is nothing wrong with that. But some consider this a crime. For those who believe Aryans, Fars, and Tehranis are better than other people (which are views articulated by the Pan-Iranist Party), all other ethnic groups should forget their rights otherwise they are traitors. Do not think that you are against dictatorship, because if you support these views you are in fact supporting dictatorship.

Is it possible that people’s demands are politically manipulated by foreign powers?
We have seen that it is possible for governments to manipulate others to fulfill their interests. But this cannot be used an excuse to strip people of their human rights, including their minority rights. If a government ignores the natural demands of its citizens, they may seek other advocates and partners to reach their goals. If world powers offer support – even in just their rhetoric – to the downtrodden populations around the world, they will steal the support of these downtrodden away from those who have rejected them. As a result, it is possible for those powers to manipulate these relations. If political forces fail to recognize people or the legitimacy of their rights, people will turn to other sources (internal or external) to gain their rights. Recently, talking with one of the leading advocates of Iran’s separatist movements, I reached the conclusion that savvy political activists can easily disarm these separatists by honoring people’s basic human rights. Even if the Islamic Republic granted these human rights such as the right of education in the ethnic languages, including Turkish, then people would be stripped of their excuses for advocating separatism. But the Islamic Republic is as unwise as part of the opposition in this regard.

What risks currently threaten the culture and society of Iranian Azerbaijan?
Iranian Azerbaijan’s population is diminishing because of lack of jobs and economic security. There is no investment in the economy or industry. Its public figures are mocked in the media and in private gatherings. Basic rights of the population are ignored. Intellectuals and political activists in Tehran make fun of Turks with insulting jokes. There is no respect for historic Azeri figures who contributed significantly to the development and independence of Iran.

Azerbaijanis are experiencing “cultural invasion.” These dangers threaten the unity of Iran and even interests of the Fars people. If Azeris stopped supporting the unity of Iran, other minorities who have long supported independence would gain more power and the balance of power regretfully would shift in favor of separatist minority activists. If Iranian Azerbaijan were to separate from Iran, Iran could become a small country with many disputed territories. After all, some Turks even argue that Tehran has the second largest Turkish population in the world, after Istanbul.

Parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in Iran in the near future and the Azeri vote is important. Can elections address the people’s demands?
For a long time, Iranian Azerbaijan has boycotted elections due to a sense of rejection and alienation. Azeris are also disappointed with the reformists inside the regime and with opposition politicians. That is why internal and external political parties and organizations have the fewest supporters in this part of Iran.

In President Khatami’s first election in 1997, the people of Azerbaijan invested hope in the reform movement, but they soon became disillusioned. In Mr. Khatami’s second election, participation dropped sharply. For example, in Tabriz, 20 percent fewer people voted in the second election. The people of Azerbaijan have lost hope in the “Tehran-centric” activists.

The tendency to pay more attention to the capital Tehran is also evident in Iran’s student movement. In the student movement of 1999, students of Tabriz and Urmia were also actively involved and suppressed accordingly. Are you hopeful for an end to this tendency?

In response to pressure by the people, Parliament was forced to investigate the Tehran University dormitory incident and publish a report on it. Although the incident at Tabriz University was graver, nothing was said about it and no document was issued.

Unfortunately, opposition forces also kept silent on Azerbaijan’s incidents. I noticed that the Farsi news media paid no attention to important incidents in Azerbaijan. They allocated a tenth of the news coverage they usually allocate to dissidents like Mansour Ossanlou, Akbar Ganji, or myself compared to the time they dedicated to dozens of Azeri dissidents who were jailed for human rights-related activities or to the huge military intervention to suppress Azeri protests against insulting caricatures. Why are these issues not being covered by any media?

We are in a vicious circle, here. Events over the years have made the Azeri people lose hope for change from within and by “centralist” activists and politicians, after a series of incidents. These incidents include: demonstrations that were brutally suppressed; a state of emergency declared in their cities; the banning of celebrations of national Iranian figures of Azeri descent such as the Constitutional Revolution heroes Sattar Khan and Baquer Khan; the banning of the annual gathering at the tomb of Babak Khoramdin (an Iranian leader lived in Azerbaijan and fought against the Arab invasion and their ruling Caliphs about 1,000 years ago). At the same time, human rights groups have turned their backs on the Azeri people and the political opposition seeks to distance itself from them. Azeris have been accused of advancing separatism even by the political opposition – which is part of why their media won’t cover their issues.

So now, these people are looking for other allies. Some Azeris have called me, and others who think like me, “a traitor to the people of Azerbaijan” because we are trying to bring different sides to the negotiating table. We want to step out of this vicious circle by making people understand that they can negotiate and address the problems and demands of the Azeri people peacefully.

During the Shah’s regime, province boundaries were decided on security considerations, and none of the top provincial authorities were chosen from the local population. There was an expectation that this anti-human rights approach would not continue after the Revolution. Was this the case?

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Azeris believe that the Shah purposely included Azeri lands in other provinces. No doubt there are some small Kurdish cities attached to Western Azerbaijan as well. With regard to top civil and military positions, the story is different. Because Turks are the largest ethnic minority in Iran and are Shi’a Muslims, they have played lead roles in Iran’s government and army for hundreds of years. They were well represented in the army and civil positions before and after the Revolution. In the Ahmadinejad cabinet, many governors and high-ranking executives are Azeris. But inside the Azerbaijan provinces, almost 80 percent of the governors and high public positions are held by non-Azeris.

As a human rights activist, how do you perceive Iran’s future and in what way can we influence this future?

As a journalist, if I do not censor myself here, I must confess a bitter truth. Those of us who recently left Iran prefer not to speak this truth with you who have left Iran long before us for fear of your defensive reaction. The situation is worse than you think. Many people in Iran have lost hope that they can gain their freedom through efforts of the current political opposition and its leaders. Losing this hope that fundamental change can come from inside Iran, they also believe that Iranians living abroad are not willing or ready to face the danger of Iran’s risky internal affairs and are just sitting on the sidelines, waiting for a country ready to rule, as their political muscles atrophy.

Current Iranian statesmen, including the legal reformist opposition, who fight amongst themselves for a greater share of power, will not play a part in the reform of Iran’s system either, because they accept the present leadership and the Constitution. Thus, a “reformist” government or Parliament can do nothing except change the lower layers of government posts and positions.

Regretfully, many people in Iran have lost hope and are expecting an intervention from outside. Last month the Nehzat-e Azadi-e Iran (Freedom Movement of Iran) recommended that the upcoming elections should be observed by the United Nations or other international observers. Even some reformists within government have supported such interventions from outside.

Unfortunately, the despair of some people does not stop here. I have even heard some say that if bullets were fired towards Iran, and people were confident that the United States and its allies were ready to topple the regime, people would revolt against the regime. I have no doubt that everything would collapse if this path were taken; the country would descend into civil war, chaos, and destruction. Some argue that people witnessing the Iraqi experience cannot possibly feel that this is a viable solution. Yes, they are watching the experience of Iraq, but they also have the burden of everyday life. They are looking for a way to be rescued. An Arabic proverb says: “A person who is drowning will grab anything he can reach, even if it is only a weak, broken branch.” Don’t be surprised if some Iranians who are drowning deep inside the depths of their despair and hopelessness, wish for any kind of intervention, even a military one, just anything that can open a little hole for breathing in their dark lives.

Let’s face it: other than “government coercion,” nothing is holding Iranian society together. The Revolutionary Guard and basij cannot defend the country against a foreign army; Saddam’s army, which was more faithful to him, did not want to sacrifice themselves for him, since he was finished.
Throughout the years, the people of Iran have revolted many times against the ruling system. If the rulers really want to have the people on their side, they must act now. They should understand that they cannot lean on Russia or China as their allies. If the government recognizes the Iranian people’s basic human rights, it will give hope and energy to millions of people to defend their country. This is what many of us call “a fundamental change” rather than just shallow changes among rulers. But the Islamic Republic is not that wise and will not grant these rights to millions of people (for example granting education in one’s mother tongue and the preservation of Iran’s historical heritage) to garner support matching the early days of the Revolution. Iranians who enjoy freedom would be completely against any action against their country including a military attack. A spirit of cooperation and unity would eclipse the in-fighting and fear.

But unfortunately, some people inside the country do not believe that those of us outside the country are able to play a role in Iran’s political developments. They think that the only positive thing we are doing is advocating against a possible military attack by the US against the Islamic regime … that we are doing nothing else, while we are living our lives in peace and prosperity. It is interesting that some do not appreciate our efforts and believe that, by advocating for peace, we are blocking the way for any change in Iran. They call our efforts “treason.” You see, I am not talking here about good and bad views or consequences. I am just trying to portray a whole picture of our society’s situation, different experiences and views. If we, Iranian activists outside Iran, feel that we should confront such dangerous views, we need to be realistic and find a democratic solution to guarantee peace, democracy, and unity for our country.

By addressing the legitimate concerns of Iran’s citizens and by acknowledging equal rights for all national minorities in Iran, the Iranian Diaspora can improve their standing among people in our country. If the Islamic Republic of Iran holds back on something for the people, why shouldn’t we acknowledge it and attract the admiration of the Iranian people by advocating for it? We can gain the confidence of Iranians, give them hope and strength and reduce the bitterness of their life, today and in future.

Are you suggesting that there are in fact some people who might be expecting a military attack from outside the country and do not care about its results? I am asking this because some readers may think that, in your opinion, some Iranians inside the country are hoping for change “at any price.” I know that many people, including activists and political figures, believe strongly that any military intervention by international forces would be the beginning of a long, bloody war, possibly leading to civil war and separation of certain regions. For many, this represents disaster and destruction that is unjustifiable. Earlier, you mentioned a more peaceful intervention by international organizations, for example for observing elections or a possible referendum. Many people deem this role acceptable or even necessary to force the regime to honor the human rights of all Iranians and be held accountable to its international agreements. Can you please clarify your comments?
I would be glad to. I am trying to portray the depths of despair and dissatisfaction of people. There is an intensifying hopelessness among ordinary citizens regarding the shallow attempts at reform by the government.

Let me be clear: foreign military action would cause Iranians revolt and everything would collapse. Iran would be in danger of a nation-wide civil war and separation of some regions may take place. No one desires, promotes, or supports the war and bloodshed which would follow. But people can only hold on to dreams and unrealistic hopes for so long. Maybe to you or others this seems exaggerated, but activists outside of Iran must open their eyes to the reality and depths of disaster inside the country.

Even former President Khatami warned leaders about these problems just a few weeks ago. In a speech, he said, “don’t think that these people are the same people who supported the Revolution, the country, and their government during the Iran-Iraq war. Iranians have lost all hope and energy. Don’t think that they will come out to the streets to defend you if a disastrous foreign attack happens. They would go back to their homes and would lock their doors.” Khatami and many others are getting the point. I am talking about the same problem. Obviously, no one supports war and bloodshed. But that doesn’t mean that everyone understands that an attack would definitely lead to a war. When some become so desperate, they might not see everything, every possibility, and every consequence. Many people, especially among ethnic minorities, are under such enormous hardships and have swallowed so many lies and empty promises by the government that they have lost faith in positive change from within. It is normal, regretfully, that some of the most desperate among them would welcome change from any source. To effectively confront this problem, we need to listen to people and help them in practical ways to gain their human rights. It is not possible to confront these views with shallow optimism and empty “patriotic” slogans. Let’s be realistic.

Thank for very much for speaking with us.