For years, an old friend of mine has been insisting that Iran’s electoral system, though far from perfect, is still is the best means to a peaceful transition of power here: a real shift in stance for a man who started out believing in radical politics, even violence.
In the 1970s, he was a member of the terrorist opposition group, the MEK. It was one of the main rivals of the Islamists who sought to take power after the Revolution. But Ayatollah Khomeini wasn’t interested in sharing power. So thousands of MEK members were rounded up and send to jail. That was where my friend spent eight bitter years. He was lucky to survive; thousands of other MEK members were killed in prison.
This is his story.
At one stage in Evin Prison, I even took a cyanide capsule. But the dose was wrong and I removed it from under my tongue because I was arguing with fellow prisoners. The prison staff administered an antidote in time, and I survived – and went on to become the old man I am today.
For almost a year, no one outside the prison walls knew I was alive. Then, in the summer of 1988, a great purge of political inmates began. Hundreds of my friends were executed. My existence was once again acknowledged, and I officially re-joined the world of the living.
But inmates like me were the lost souls of Evin. We divulged secrets in those terrible years. Under torture I revealed, among other things, the locations of three top-secret MKO printing houses.
Please don’t be too quick to call me a traitor. After six months in jail, the soles of my feet were raw, and my right hand and elbow were wrecked. Several surgeries I underwent to repair the damage failed. Just look at my scars, and my atrophied bones.
Yes, I did please my interrogators by telling them what they wanted to know. I also renounced my membership of the MKO and pledged my admiration of and allegiance to the revolutionary theocracy, even as it was executing my comrades.
Since then I have lived with my nightmares – and with much soul searching. I decided that I would never again join a subversive political group, especially not an armed one.
My experience taught me that despotic regimes are toppled by equally despotic opposition forces who then take power and re-establish a new dictatorship.
So for thirty years now, I have voted in Iran’s elections, flawed as they are. I know that by choosing between candidates vetted by the supervisory Guardian Council, I am choosing between evil and slightly less evil, but I thought the alternative would be another revolution, and a fresh vicious circle of violence.
Now, though, widespread political despair has set in. How profound is it? Even some of my former interrogators from Evin have lost faith in the regime. I’m still obliged to meet them two or three times a year in a hotel, to swear that I will not re-join a guerrilla group.
They tell me that these days, they try to persuade their own relatives and friends not to vote. It’s a real change from even a couple of years ago, and evidence that more people from low- and medium-income backgrounds are boycotting the elections.
Even those who originally fought for this theocracy have lost faith. The government is a sham, with no interest in progress or innovation.
The situation leaves me in a quandary: one shared by millions of Iranians.
If I start boycotting the elections, am I admitting that I’ve been wrong all these years and quasi-democracy is not, after all, better than radical action? That in a country like ours, political change can only come through violent revolt, and through the hideous complexity of foreign interference – the kind of thing we witnessed in Iraq in 2003, when the US, the Kurds, Ahmed Chalabi and the Shia activists all rushed in to topple Saddam Hussein and sent the country into a tailspin?
If so, I will have been bitterly disillusioned not once but twice in my life.
In 1978 I joined a guerrilla group and made a commitment to violence and radical action. Then I changed my mind and turned to the ballot box. Neither approach has worked to give Iranians the governance we need.
In fact, election after election – in which I participated – has only deeper entrenched our theocratic despots. The current political impasse is doomed to be broken by yet another violent rebellion, one which its leaders will no doubt claim is “democratic”.
After all we’ve been through, what an unspeakable tragedy for my children and grandchildren.