Mostafa Tajzadeh’s candidacy for President of Iran has caused a stir in Iranian political circles. The reformist activist announced he would run in the June elections on Sunday, April 25, and two days later, in a five-hour Clubhouse chatroom session, he took questions about why he was running and responded to criticisms.
“I am sticking to the ballot box because there is no alternative, neither for me nor for the world,” he said.
Who is Mostafa Tajzadeh, and what he has been doing in the more than 40 years since the Islamic Revolution?
An old photograph of Mostafa Tajzadeh voting next to Ayatollah Khomeini, and his wedding invitation card bearing a picture of the founder of the Islamic Republic, are two of his more iconic documented moments in the 1980s. Tajzadeh himself has said that at the time, he and other like-minded people a similar mindset to today’s Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, an extreme fundamentalist group.
For almost 10 years now, however, Tajzadeh has had critical things to say about the 1980s. As such, now that he is running for president, all criticisms generally directed at the reformists at large are being put to him.
Tajzadeh’s family comes from Harand in Isfahan province. But he was born in Tehran in 1956, the third child of six. He says he received his high school diploma in 1975 and the same year went to the US to study. However, in the late summer of 1978 when tremors of the upcoming revolution were already shaking the country, he returned to Iran with just three semesters of mechanical engineering under his belt. While in the US he joined the Iranian Students’ Islamic Society and was a founder of Falaq (“Daybreak”) group, which advocated armed uprising.
After his return to Iran, he and other groups opposed to Pahlavi monarchy founded the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (not to be mistaken with the People’s Mojahedin Organization, which opposes the Islamic Republic).
In 1980, when Prime Minister Mohammad-Ali Rajai flew to New York to attend the UN Security Council, Tajzadeh was one the 13 who accompanied him. What made this event all the more memorable was that, at the Security Council, Rajai showed reporters the scars on his feet, inflicted on him by torture under the Shah’s regime. He also delivered a fiery speech that was typed up by Tajzadeh.
Two years after the revolution, on the Eid holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, he married Fakhrosadat Mohtashamipour, a cousin to both Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, who later became a minister of interior, and Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, a future interior minister under President Ahmadinejad. They were married at Al-Javad Mosque at Haft-e Tir Square in Tehran.
The “Revolutionary” Wedding Invitation Card
Tajzadeh’s wedding invitation card was covered with a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini and printed text celebrating the Islamic Revolution. He belonged to the left wing of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization and, at the invitation of Bijan Zangeneh, Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, joined the staff of that ministry and remained there until the resignation of Mohammad Khatami as the Minister of Culture. At the same time, he became a member of a political council that Prime Minister Mir Hossein Moussavi had created.
Tajzadeh continued his education after the end of Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and in 1992 was put in charge of House of Iran in Paris. But a few months later, when Khatami resigned from the Ministry of Culture, he returned to Iran. He then had to abandon pursuing a PhD in political science when he joined Mohammad Khatami’s headquarters in the campaign for the 1997 presidential election, which led to victory for Khatami.
Tajzadeh is best known for his activities in the second half of the 1990s, when he served as a deputy under two interior ministers and, for a month in 1998, as minister himself. In those years he was under constant attack from the principalists. He was accused of inciting students during the July 1999 student protests, which were provoked by an attack on the students’ dormitory in Tehran, and his name came up many times during the impeachment and trial of Abdollah Nouri, Khatami’s interior minister, who ultimately received a prison sentence.
During the protests Tajzadeh was seen riding a motorbike nearby, and since he was then a deputy interior minister, this made news. For years after it was mentioned whenever the protests were discussed. Many of the principalists still accuse him of inciting the students whereas he himself says he rode a motorbike just once and was never among the students.
Banned from Government Jobs
Tajzadeh is known for having been one of the most important organizers of Iran’s city and village council elections in 1998. But most of the news and controversies about him were triggered during the elections for the 6th parliament in 2000, when his disputes with Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Guardian Council, first began.
Following the overwhelming victory of reformists in those elections, Tajzadeh was repeatedly named as a prospective next head of the Interior Ministry’s Elections Headquarters. But in 2001, Jannati and the Guardian Council struck back and accused him of electoral fraud. As a result, he was barred from holding any government job for three years. He did not appeal the verdict.
Twenty-one years later, in a political gathering, it was Tajzadeh who now accused Ahmad Jannati of electoral fraud. It was because of this fraud, he claimed, that Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, a principalist, had entered parliament after votes cast for the journalist Alireza Rajaei were invalidated by the Guardian Council.
After he was driven out of the interior ministry Tajzadeh never held down an important role again. For a while, he was a member of the board of directors of Tehran municipality’s Green Grocery and Fruit Markets Organization. In January 2004, he spoke out in support of a sit-in by the reformist members of 6th parliament protesting against the disqualification of more than 80 of their number by the Guardian Council from the next parliament. Because of his protracted absence from the political arena, his intervention was met with ridicule by some newspapers like the conservative Kayhan.
In the early 2000s Tajzadeh was the host and organizer of regular meetings involving a number of academics to discuss theories on religion and its relationship with the modern world. In 2003, after his three-year ban from holding government jobs expired, Tajzadeh was first hired as an advisor to then-Deputy Minister of Science Hadi Khaniki, and was then appointed as an advisor to President Khatami.
He was also appointed as the director of the National Library but, with the ascension of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005, he was replaced by Ali Akbar Ash’ari. He wanted to continue his job at the office of the president but his application was rejected.
During campaigns for the 2005 presidential election, Tazjadeh had also been a senior member of the campaign team for Mostafa Moeen, the Islamic Participation Front’s candidate. Some believe Tajzadeh was the conduit between Moeen’s campaign and the Freedom Movement of Iran and that was why Moeen’s campaign spokesman talked about bringing in the so-called Nationalist-Religious Activists into the cabinet if the reformists were to win the election.
Seven Years in Evin Prison
Eight years after he was dismissed from his job as deputy interior minister, Tajzadeh again made the news in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election. Just one day after votes were cast, he and several other members of the Participation Front were arrested.
He was convicted of "assembly and collusion against national security" and "propaganda against the regime" and was sentenced to six years in prison and a 10-year ban on political and press activities. But for the next seven years, news about his life in prison, his time in solitary confinement, his hunger strikes and his letters from inside continued to make waves.
One of the best-known prison letters by Tajzadeh was published in 2010 on the anniversary of his arrest. He dedicated this letter to Neda Agha Soltan, a young woman he called the “Green Movement Martyr”, who was shot dead during 2009 protests. He apologized for errors committed by himself and fellow revolutionaries, especially during the first decade after the 1979 revolution.
Unlike other imprisoned members of the Participation Front, he was never sent to the common ward of Evin Prison and throughout his incarceration he was kept either in solitary confinement or in similar conditions. His wife Fakhrosadat Mohtashamipour believed Ali Khamenei and his son Mojtaba were responsible for his husband’s treatment, and the judiciary had played no role in his case. In letters she wrote to the wife of Mojtaba Khamenei, she called on her to ask her husband why Tajzadeh was kept in isolation.
In 2014, while still in prison, Tajzadeh was sentenced to yet another year behind bars on new charges. After his eventual release in 2006, he took part in many debates with political figures, mostly principalists, and in media appearances revealed fundamental changes to his original beliefs and ideology.
An Avalanche of Questions
Disappointments under the Rouhani administration have made Tajzadeh’s candidacy an instant target for a barrage of questions and critiques. One of the first political figures to react to the news of his candidacy was Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, the former reformist mayor of Tehran, who said Tajzadeh could not win even if the Guardian Council gave him its approval to run.
Furthermore, Ahmad Jannati is still the secretary of the Guardian Council. The old disputes that led to his conviction for electoral fraud might well have a bearing on Tajzadeh’s would-be candidacy.
Several commentators have asked what Tajzadeh would do if he is disqualified as a presidential candidate. Would he join in a boycott of the election, or would he throw his support behind another candidate? Boycotting the election goes against his own proclamation that he is “sticking to the ballot box”. But on the other hand, his support for another candidate is likely to weaken his position among his supporters. He himself has said that if the reformists support figures like Ali Larijani, former speaker of the parliament, it would mean the death of the reformist movement.
In the Clubhouse chat room, Tajzadeh said he had originally proposed that Reza Khatami, a former deputy speaker of parliament and President Khatami’s brother, run for president together with Mohsen Safaei Farahani, a reformist politician, as his running mate. But when Reza Khatami refused the offer he decided to put himself forward.
Most of the critiques put to Tajzadeh during the Clubhouse session were about the relationship of the reformists with the government, and with actviists, protesters and dissidents inside Iran who have lost all hope that the situation will improve.
Tajzadeh said he believes that a nation that can overthrow a government is also able to force the government to accept the results of an election – but, he said, the reverse is not true, meaning in some cases people can force the government to accept the results of an election but are not able to overthrow it.
Among the principalists, one of the harshest attacks against Tajzadeh came from Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, which tried to put him down using words such as “completely unqualified for candidacy”, “political midget” and “brawler”.
Tajzadeh has a very difficult road ahead. First the Supreme Leader must agree that he can even be qualified as a candidate, and then he must win a majority vote. His supporters believe that his clear and no-nonsense policy positions will gain him the support that he needs, but other reformists say his extreme position is going to discourage people from voting for him.
What is certain is that Tajzadeh is going to have a much more difficult time with those malcontents and dissidents who already have lost all hope in so-called reform.