On May 3, Deutsche Welle, the German international broadcasting corporation, awarded outspoken Iranian pro-reformist university professor, political scientist, author and analyst Sadegh Zibakalam its Freedom of Speech Award. The news met with harsh commentary from some critics of the Islamic Republic, many of whom used the hashtag “#ShameOnDW” to express their dismay on social media.
In interviews, Zibakalam, who is currently appealing a prison sentence, has stated that he is ready to defend the Islamic Republic with his life, and that if Iranian intelligence and security agencies ordered him to be silent and not give interviews to foreign media, he would obey. In the eyes of many critics, this goes against free speech and therefore he does not deserve the award.
When IranWire questioned Deautsche Welle's spokesperson Christoph Jumpelt on this point, he replied with one sentence: “Freedom of expression is something that Deutsche Welle wants for everybody in the world.”
In its statement, the broadcaster announced that Zibakalam was being honored with the award “for his courageous repeated criticism of the Iranian government.” And Deutsche Welle director General Peter Limbourg said: ”The award aims to encourage civilian society in Iran while at the same time criticizing the government for its decision to persecute Zibakalam for stating his opinion."
In March 2018, the Revolutionary Court sentenced Zibakalam to prison for “spreading falsehood” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” following an interview he gave to the broadcaster about the January-December nationwide protests in Iran. The court, presided over by Judge Abolghasem Salavati, also banned Zibakalam from all political and social activities, as well as any participation in the media, for two years.
Zibakalam is currently awaiting the verdict of the appeals court. IranWire asked him about Deutsche Welle’s Freedom of Speech Award and the criticisms directed at him.
People have used the hashtag “#ShameOnDW” on social networks to criticize Deutsche Welle giving you the 2018 Freedom of Speech Award. Why the criticism?
There are those who believe that there is no hope for this system. They believe this system cannot be reformed and there is no chance that it will change for the better. They say there is no alternative to doing away with the system.
They condemn me not only for receiving the DW award, but also for my role in the last year’s presidential election, or the parliamentary elections of 2016, for which they reproach me and accuse me of affiliation with the regime and with the system.
Some of the questions that they ask are justified and I do accept the criticism. To be honest, when I think about it, I do not find the courage to look people in the eye and tell them, go and participate in the 2019 elections. I do not know about [former president] Mr. Khatami and the reformists, but I do not have the courage to do this.
Now, some of the criticisms have been directed at Deutsche Welle. They say that DW has given its Freedom of Speech Award to somebody who works to entrench the regime. The criticisms directed at DW are even harsher because they say I am a mercenary, that I cooperate with Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Service, that I am playing a role and that I am a pawn of the regime.
But what about Deutsche Welle? Is Deutsche Welle also a pawn of the regime?
In interviews you have repeatedly said you would defend the Islamic Republic regime no matter what. Perhaps that is why your critics believe you are a pawn of the regime?
Today, May 6, 2018, I repeat that I would defend the system with all that I’ve got. With apologies to you and to many Iranians, I even go one step further and say very clearly and bluntly that if this system is in danger of falling down — and by this system I mean this parliament, this Supreme Leader, this Guardian Council, this [hardliner newspaper] Keyhan, and so on — I would defend it with all my life, regardless of whether it falls because of a domestic uprising or because the US or Israel attack Iran. I hate guns and bullets but, if necessary, I would take up arms and defend the system so it would not fall.
This type of statement is what your critics refer to, and which prompts them to ask: how can you give a freedom of expression award to a person who defends a regime that has always restricted freedom of expression?
My defense of this system is not because of its nature or its performance. As a political activist, I have ideas, goals and wishes that can be summarized as “democracy.” I know that this makes my opponents more angry and they say, “What the heck? We thought he would say he defends the system because of Islam, Shi’ism and Velayat-e Faqih [the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist].” They say, “you are so shameless to claim that these are your goals.”
Nevertheless, I do defend the Islamic Republic system. If we want to grade the Islamic Republic for democracy, what would be its grade? If [on a scale of 0 to 20, with 20 being the best grade] we give the US, Norway and Germany a grade of 18 or 19 and North Korea a grade of 1, then I would give the Islamic Republic a grade of 7 or 8. Of course, a monarchist might give it a zero.
But it is not important how you grade it. If this system falls, that grade of 7 would fall to 1 or 2, and God only knows when it would climb back to 7. Let me put it clearly, as a political scientist. The 80 million people of this country — whether inside or outside of Iran — are so polarized, so disunited and so afflicted with mental anarchism that if five opponents of the Islamic Republic come together and are told that God has given them the power of toppling the regime and ask them what should replace it, you would get not five but 50 different opinions from those five individuals.
We will witness such [levels of] anarchy and chaos that Syria would look like a joke. The civil war that would follow cannot be even described. And I am pretty sure that the Iran that would emerge would not include Khuzestan, Kurdistan, Sistan and Baluchistan and Azarbaijan [provinces that are home to major ethnic and religious minorities]. So, at this moment, we have but one choice, and that is to push ahead with reforms and changes within this system that many hate. I believe this is doable.
Where are the reforms? In economic, social, and civil rights? In foreign policy areas?
Look at the fact that [hardliners including] Elias Naderan, Mehdi Koochakzadeh, Hamid Rasaei and Morteza Agha-Tehrani are no longer in the parliament. It is a step forward when hardliner, tyrannical and bullying mindsets are no longer there.
Victory is not only when we have a Nelson Mandela, a Mahatma Gandhi, a Mohammad Mosaddegh [the Iranian premier who was deposed in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1953], or a Mehdi Bazargan [the first prime minister after the 1979 Islamic revolution]. It is a step forward when the hardliners are not there.
The difference between me and the opponents of the regime is that they say we must have Nelson Mandela, while I say that is not possible because, in the process of getting a Mandela or a Gandhi or a Mosaddegh, the country will be destroyed. At the moment we must reduce the levels of radicalism and extremism. This is possible. And even if it is not possible, we must make it possible.
It is a fantasy to think that if this system is overthrown it would be replaced by a democratic and secular system and that the people would vote in a big referendum for the constitution of that ideal republic. The fact is that I am afraid of the collapse of the regime. I am afraid of the anger, the rage and the hate that was piled up inside the generation of the 1990s and now is being transferred to the generation of the 2000s.
I see my own students, who are full of anger and rage. Like a hand grenade or a stick of dynamite, they want to blow up everything. How can you calm down these young people? With what referendum? Ask them with what they want to replace this system. They have no idea. Would that the authorities realize what burning fire is lurking beneath these ashes and try their best to prevent a blow-up and an explosion.
You just explained why you would defend the regime. But there is another question that is often raised. You have said again and again that if the security establishment tells you not to talk to the media you will obey. Can you talk about this?
Yes, this has happened. After [the disputed presidential election of] June 12, 2009, they contacted me and told me not to talk to the BBC, Voice of America or Radio Farda. I said okay, I would not talk to them. But they did not say I must not talk to others. I talk to others and say what I believe. But what I meant was that if the Guards or the Intelligence Ministry, etc., have problems with me talking to other media outlets, then they should tell me not to talk to them.
But this goes against freedom of expression.
Against freedom of expression? I am not living in New York. If they tell me “do not talk,” then I have to stop talking. Now I have been sentenced to 18 months in prison for talking to Deutsche Welle!
You must take into account the conditions in Iran. In 2013, after Mr. Hassan Rouhani became president, a number of professors who had been forced into retirement returned to the universities. I thought this was something that benefited the regime so I gave an interview to the BBC and talked a lot in support of the Islamic Republic. But the day after, the Ministry of Intelligence summoned me and told me: “Didn’t we warn you against talking to the BBC?” “Pardon me,” I said, “I thought that now that the government has changed and Mr. Heydar Moslehi [President Ahmadinejad’s Minister of Intelligence] has been replaced by Mr. Mahmoud Alavi, I can talk.” They said no, and that the order was still standing.
So I have a little bit of room in which I can maneuver. I might not say many things but I believe in what I do say. So rest assured that even if I were in New York right now, I would answer your questions the same way that I did right now.
There's a video of an interview you gave early after the revolution. In it, you defended the idea that Iran must have its own native technology even if this technology was 50 years behind the West. What do you say about this today?
Which of us did not have such ideas early after the revolution, I ask you? Let me tell you only one anecdote from that time. Sometime after the revolution, Imam [Khomeini] moved to Qom and there he came down with a heart problem and was taken to Martyr Rajaei Hospital. The Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas —there was nobody more Marxist or revolutionary than them — issued a statement. Since they do not believe in God, they could not ask God in their statement to restore Imam’s health. So they wrote that they wished health for the “Exalted Leader of the Iranian People.”
Now you ask why Sadegh Zibakalam had such ideas and beliefs at that time? I said those things in the climate of that time. Who did not say things like that at the time? Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari [a cleric and journalist who was defrocked, spent four years in prison and who later escaped to Germany], Abdolkarim Soroush [a scholar of Islam and who Time magazine listed as one of its 100 most influential people in 2005] or Abdolkarim Lahiji [the lawyer and human rights activist who now lives in France]? We all said things like that. But they belong to 40 years ago and now that time is gone. As it happens, a person deserves criticism if he does not change anything in his political and social beliefs and does not evolve in 40 years.
There are those who say you should not accept this prize because the Germans sold chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein.
Many people told me on Instagram that I should throw back the award in the face of the Germans because they gave Iraq chemical weapons. I did not answer them on Instagram but now I will tell you: If I were to do such a thing, I would first give Mr. Putin a hard blow, who now everybody [in Iran] praises. Because every armament in the Iraqis’ arsenal came from Russia — from their tanks and their artillery to their armored vehicles and bombers. I mean if we are to spit on somebody’s face for giving armaments to Iraq during the war [with Iran in the 1980s], Russia must be the first, not Germany, not the US and not Britain.
Do you think this award will help freedom of expression in Iran?
I do hope they will allow me to go to receive the award because, I believe, it would benefit this regime. Whenever I talk to foreigners I tell them that turning your back on the Islamic Republic and refusing to talk them never helps freedom of expression in Iran. I tell them it would only help the hardliners if they break relations with the Islamic Republic.
I believe that if we have more friendly relations with Europe, perhaps the hardliners would be forced to respect certain things. But if there are no relations with the free world, they can make whatever mischief that they wish to. A little bit of a relationship with the European Union can help those who want democracy in Iran.
More on Sadegh Zibakalam and his views:
Rouhani Has no Power to Free Karroubi, August 2017
Sadegh Zibakalam: I Will Not Trample on the American Flag, November 2016
Iran, Saved from the Brink of Crisis, January 2016
What would a nuclear deal mean for Iran?, March 2015