The image of Ebrahim Yazdi, who passed away at 86 years of age on the 27th of August, fittingly portrays the paradoxes of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Those who were present on the political scene of Tehran in the last twenty years knew him as the opposition; the leader of a small (and scarcely tolerated) Freedom Movement for Iran: an ‘Islamic liberal’ and supporter of democratic reforms.
An intellectual of serene temperament capable of acute analyses yet, in some way, an outsider. Nonetheless, Yazdi had been an integral member of the most restricted circle of Iranian revolutionary leaders; being amongst those who accompanied Ayatollah Khomeini on his return flight to Iran in February, 1979 – and with whom he worked to build the Islamic Republic, for which he served as its first Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Born in 1931 in Qazvin, a city in the north-eastern region of Iran, Ebrahim Yazdi came from a well-to-do family (his father being a trades merchant). His formative years took place during the time of Mohammad Mossadegh’s government, the prime minister who had delivered a breath of democratic fresh air to Iran (before being deposed from power by a CIA-backed coup d’etat after having nationalized the oil industry). Yazdi was studying pharmacology at the time, at the University of Tehran; in ‘59 he went on to complete his studies in the United States at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This was where his militant political stance against the Shah’s regime took shape in the 1960’s, at which point he was working as a doctor (having even received citizenship). In ‘61 he joined the Freedom Movement for Iran, founded by Mehdi Bazargan; in ‘63 he contributed in the establishment of the Islamic Association of Students in Iran.
Over several years he worked to knit together an international network of contacts (which, at the time, also involved organizing camps for guerrilla warfare in Egypt and Lebanon). In 1972 Ayatollah Khomeini, who had by then emerged as charismatic leader of the opposition to the Shah (then in exile in Najaf, Iraq), nominated Yazdi as his representative in the US. When, in ‘78, Saddam Hussein’s regime forced Khomeini to leave Iraq and he was denied entry into Kuwait, it was Yazdi who hosted him at Neauphle-le-Chateau, on the outskirts of Paris.
During this French exile, Yazdi often acted as spokesman to Khomeini – along with other young Westernly-educated revolutionaries such as Abolhassan Bani Sadr and Ghotbzadeh. He represented the liberal, moderate and constitutional side of a revolution which was inclusive towards all sorts: from the most fundamentalist Islamic factions to the ‘Islamic nationalists’ such as Yazdi himself as well as, on the left, the communist party, the liberals; the intellectuals, the enlightened bourgeoisie and the more popular factions. None were excluded. Perhaps those such as Yazdi thought that, following the revolution, Khomeini would have settled for a role as ‘spiritual guide’ at his theological seminary in Qom. As we well know, this was not to be.
During those first months of 1979, following the Shah’s exile, Ebrahim Yazdi became Minister of Foreign Affairs for the first ad interim post-revolution government of which, Mehdi Bazargan, the leader of the Freedom Movement for Iran, was prime minister (and Bani Sadr the first President of the Republic in Iranian history). In those months, whilst the elections for the constitutional assembly (which subsequently laid out the blueprint for the Islamic Republic) were being prepared, Yazdi contributed in the establishment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The objective of this was to create order amongst the proliferating revolutionary militia and simultaneously exert control over an army suspected of nurturing a nostalgia for the monarchy. Yazdi worked for the international recognition of the new government – in the spring of ‘79 he met with the US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance at the UN Council in New York. The following September he represented Iran at the summit of the Non-Aligned nations where he was warmly received by Fidel Castro.
In short: Ebrahim Yazdi has been an artifice of the Islamic Republic and of his constituency – and has never ceased to defend it. His permanence at the government, however, was very brief: once the Shah was ousted, it wasn’t long before the more extremist factions took the upper hand (“The power struggle between the various groups and currents broke out at the dawn of the revolution, such is the way things are”, Yazdi had told me with great tranquility the last time we met, in 2009).
According to him, the downfall began in November 1979, when a group of revolutionary students occupied the US embassy of Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage (‘the hostage crisis’ would last 444 days, marking the beginning of the Islamic Republic’s international isolation). When Khomeini expressed his support for the occupation of the embassy, Bazargan and his government resigned in protest: Yazdi later expressed his conviction that the fall of the ‘moderate’ government was actually one of the objectives of the revolutionaries. In any case, Yazdi would never step foot inside the chambers of power again. In 1980 he was elected as a deputy but was subsequently banned from putting himself forward for the position. After all this was amongst the most difficult periods in Iran’s history, a time of internal repression and war: in September ‘80, the Iraqi army invaded Iran and the defense efforts reunited the country under a common cause – but it also allowed extremist factions to reinforce their hold on the government (it was thus that Bani Sadr, deposed on behalf of a parliamentary vote, was forced into exile). In ‘81, during a series of arrests amongst moderates (including the execution Ghotbzadeh), Ebrahim Yazdi accused the Islamic Revolutionary party to have used “Stalinist and anti-Islamic methods”. In ‘83, when Iran succeeded, following strenuous battles, to ward off Iraqi forces at the border, the Movement for Freedom pronounced itself against the war prosecution (which, instead, carried on until 1988): for this, the party was ostracized and heavily repressed by the factions who were by then in power. Yazdi himself had been arrested multiple times and had his passport confiscated. In 1990, shortly after the passing of Ayatollah Khomeini, he was denounced as “footman of the US”. In ‘95, following the death of Mehdi Bazargan, he took on the presidency of the Movement for Freedom in Iran – which, by then, was reduced to a mere symbol, at most a movement of opinion, not quite illegal but barely tolerated. Only when reformist president Mohammad Khatami was elected in ‘98, inaugurating a period of political and social easing, was Yazdi’s voice publically heard once again. By this point he was very much out of the political games but remained an icon in the eyes of young political reformists as a reference point in the debate regarding Islam, democracy and social transformations. Nor did he hold himself back: we saw him expose himself whilst protesting the exclusion of renowned reformists from candidatures, against the recurrent waves of arrests endured by journalists and the opposition as well as signing various appeals – which often saw him being detained, interrogated and sometimes jailed. In may of 2003, at the winding down of the Khatami presidency when the US army had installed itself in Iraq, President George W. Bush included Iran in his ‘Axis of Evil’. There were some in Washington who hypothesized a potential ‘regime change’ in Tehran. Yazdi said that the only foreseeable way to change Iran would be interally: he made the appeal to “consolidate the reform process from within the system, as the reformists request”. He refuted the threats of military intervention: “It seems as though the United States are aiming for this. But this is not what we want: the change has to occur internally. Many here have doubts on the intentions and objectives of the US in the Middle East. Democracy is not a good that can be imported, nor can it be imposed by military interventions”. (These statements were collected for il manifesto, May 1st 2003.)
A liberal muslim, supporter of democracy who, however, never renounced the Islamic revolution to which he contributed. The last time I met him was in 2009, shortly after the elections which gave a second (contested) mandate to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whilst the Iranian TV was announcing the seven deaths at the end of a manifestation of support for the defeated reformist candidates. That protest signalled “the most serious political crisis experienced by the Islamic Republic in its thirty-year history”. Even in hindsight, there is no doubt about it. It spoke of the “desire for change” of the Iranian people after “years of suffocated liberties, arrested social activists, persecuted students, journalistic, literary and cinematographic censorship” (we now know that Ahmadinejad’s second mandate, inaugurated by the repression of those public protests, ended up being much worse).
To the question of whether he would have expected such a protest, Yazdi’s reply was “no”, elaborating: “Nobody expected such a reaction as was seen in these days. You see, those on the streets are, for the most part, youth. 70% of Iran’s population is under thirty years of age, born after the revolution. What are the ideals that have been transmitted to them? Thirty years ago millions of women had protested against the Shah, challenging the traditional culture which saw them closed indoors. The politicization of women revolutionized Iranian society and it is they who are mothers to today’s protesting youth. They fought for their respective rights and freedom which are now saying ‘what we see is not what we fought for’. I don’t think these protests will end soon ”. In fact, the manifestations lasted for several months. A change “is now unavoidable”, said Yazdi. According to him, however, the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic was not in question and this opinion was shared by many reformists and opponents: “There’s room for change within the system and all of the opposition, who now contests the vote, is loyal to the Islamic Republic. Rather: the constitution has been violated and this undermines the legitimacy of institutions” (on the manifesto, 16 June 2009).
Ebrahim Yazdi was arrested shortly thereafter for “attempting to convert the government of the velayat-e-faqih (‘supremacy of the jurisconsult’, the primacy of the cleric over political power) to a democratic power”. How paradoxical. He was once again condemned in 2011, to an eight year sentence nonetheless, for ‘threatening national security’, the standard accusation for any dissidence.
Having already been suffering from poor cardiac health and a tumor, Ebrahim Yazdi was able to live to witness the beginning of the Rouhani presidency, whom he supported. Freed from prison for humanitarian reasons, he died in Izmir, Turkey, where his tumor was being treated. After thirty-five years of political marginalization, the Iranian press from all sides of the spectrum honoured his life on their first pages. The daily reformist paper Shargh was entitled “Death of the freedom fighter inclined to dialogue”.
In a tweet, Rohani remembered him as “a pioneer in the resistance [to the Shah] throughout the darkest hours of tyranny”.
Translated by Liam Mac Gregor-Hastie