Earlier this week, we wrote about Ali Akbar Saeedi Sinjani: a writer who was jailed and finally murdered in custody for his critical open letters to Ali Khamenei. He wasn’t the only one punished for trying to contact the Supreme Leader. Since the 1990s Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, one of Iran’s best-known journalists and a staunch defender of free expression since his student years, has spent a total of 13 years in prison, including three in solitary confinement. His crime? Writing letters.
In 2000, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader that showed the extent to which the two had lost hope in each other. “The majority of Iranians are unhappy with you,” Tabarzadi plainly stated, “but the security forces crush them.” He paid for this observation with years behind bars.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1980s Tabarzadi had been one of the few right-wing members of the Office for Strengthening Unity, an Iranian student organization. He also founded a parallel group called the Union of Students and Graduates’ Islamic Societies, at whose events Ali Khamenei had sometimes given speeches as then-president of the Islamic Republic.
But then in the 1990s, this same group founded the quarterly Payam-e Daneshjou (Students’ Message): a publication that sometimes criticized the Mostazafan Foundation and its then-head Mohsen Rafighdoost, a Revolutionary Guards officer. The Mostazafan Foundation is the biggest holdings company in the Middle East, and is also under the direct control of the Supreme Leader.
Payam-e Daneshjou also investigated Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s family and businesses associated with him: something that would be unthinkable in today’s Iran. In early 1995, the magazine received documents from someone calling themself the “Director-General of Tax” of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs. It appeared to show some businesses run by associates of Hashemi Rafsanjani had engaged in massive tax dodging.
At that time, the Finance Ministry and the Intelligence Ministry were at loggerheads over the extensive and shady business activities being carried out associates and friends of Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian. The Intelligence Ministry, in turn, had accused that same director-general of corruption, and even had him abducted and tortured.
Payam-e Daneshjou published the documents. In the aftermath, the newly-exposed Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote in his diary on July 29, 1995 that he had asked the intelligence minister to “follow up” on both that director-general and the revelations reported by the magazine.
Heshmatollah Tabarzadi told IranWire that he was then summoned by the Intelligence Ministry and interrogated by a security official using the alias Siadati. The man’s real name was Mohammad Saeedi, and he later a member of the nuclear negotiating team under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During the administration of Hassan Rouhani, he was made managing director of the Islamic Republic Ports and Shipping Organization – but in 2019, he was arrested and was charged with receiving $4 million in bribes.
Tabarzadi spent some time in detention for publishing the revelations about Rafsanjani’s business concerns. But he was undeterred, and his magazine continued to publish reports that put further distance between him and the government.
In 1996, Ali Moghadam, then-deputy director of communications at Khamenei’s office, invited members of the Union of Students and Graduates’ Islamic Societies to come and speak to him so he could convey their concerns to the Supreme Leader. Tabarzadi said that in the meeting, Moghadam read them a message from Khamenei that read: “I am unhappy with Tabarzadi and I am cutting off my correspondence with him. But members of the Union can continue to communicate with me.”
No Backing Down
After this reproachful message was delivered, Khamenei’s office then asked Tabarzadi to write him a letter. It wasn’t said, but this was clearly expected to be a letter of repentance. Tabarzadi did write to Khamenei, but instead dug his heels in, saying that he had in fact adhered to the aims of the revolution by publishing the truth. According to sources close to the Supreme Leader’s office, Khamenei tore up the letter on reading it.
In his diary for October 26, 1997, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote that he had recently been Khamenei’s dinner guest. Among other things, the pair had talked about Tabarzadi’s perceived statements against “guardianship of the Islamist jurist” (Velayat-e Faqih): the founding principle of the Islamic Republic.
Not long afterward, Payam-e Daneshjou was banned and Tabarzadi was arrested by order of Saeed Mortazavi, who had yet to become notorious as a “Butcher of the Press”. Tabarzadi was released, but was rearrested in late spring 1999 and this time, was interrogated for 110 days.
Imam Ali Had No Torture Chamber
The Islamic Republic had named 2000 the year of Imam Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law and the first Shia Imam. A few months after his release, Tabarzadi wrote a letter to Khamenei under the title “Ali Had No Torture Chamber”.
In his letter, Tabarzadi posed the question: “How similar is the rule of Ali Khamenei to Imam Ali’s Rule?”. First he mentioned Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri’s recent, explosive revelations about the torture and mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s. Then he moved on to talking about a detention center first run by the Shah-era Joint Anti-Sabotage Committee, where Ali Khamenei had been held before the Islamic Revolution. After 1979 this facility had been renamed the Towhid (“Monotheism”) Detention Center, and it was where Tabarzadi had, in turn, been held and questioned.
While there, he wrote, he could hear the harrowing cries of other students who were being tortured. “Your excellency Mr. Khamenei,” he wrote. “The forces under your government... had turned Towhid into a hell... I asked God for death over and over again. Even the noise of the generator that the torturers turned on when they were torturing the students did not cover up their screams.”
He also talked about the detention of Ezzatollah Sahabi, a pro-democracy activist and opponent of the Shah who had split with Ayatollah Khomeini over the way the Islamic Republic was going. “For a long time,” Tabarzadi wrote, “this old man has been interrogated under pressure, and has been kept in solitary confinement, in an unknown location. What do you want from Sahabi? Just suppose that this honorable man does confess – under pressure – that he wanted to overthrow your government thorough publications, meetings and speeches. How could anyone overthrow your government with words?”
Tabarzadi was arrested a few months after writing this letter, on April 18, 2001. He spent two weeks in the Defense Ministry’s detention center, which according to him, was even harsher than Towhid. After two weeks he was transferred to the Revolutionary Court, where somebody who called himself “Mohammadi” came and told Tabarzadi he had been sent by Khamenei’s office to talk to him.
They talked, but nothing came of it. Tabarzadi was transferred to Eshrat Abad Detention Center. At the time, a number of religious-nationalist activists and members of the Freedom Movement of Iran, who had recently been arrested en masse, were being held in the same facility.
A Flurry of Reproaches
This time, Tabarzadi was released nine and a half months later. But he was undiscouraged, and continued to send letters to the Supreme Leader. He and his associates also founded the Iran Democratic Front, which advocated his new positions, including his opposition to the principle of Velayat-e Faqih.
On March 15, 2009, Tabarzadi wrote another letter to Khamenei in which he objected to the harassment of his family by security agents. He wrote that somebody had phoned his wife Mahboubeh Alinaghian and summoned her to the Intelligence Ministry for questioning. After Khamenei received Tabarzadi’s letter, the same person called her again, telling her: “You shouldn’t have told your husband we summoned you.”
Tabarzadi was then arrested yet again in December 2009 during the Green Movement protests that followed the disputed presidential election that year. He was sentenced to 74 lashes and eight years of imprisonment, and released in June 2015.
While still in jail in 2014, Tabarzadi also wrote an open letter of protest over the arrest of his son Ali, who had been calling for a rally in support of animal rights. Describing the officers as “Khamenei’s violent, savage and unfettered agents”, he wrote: “Khamenei must know that if they do not release Ali as soon as possible, if they do not return what has been taken and do not apologize to the family, they themselves will lose a great deal more.”
In a separate missive, he wrote: “If you are looking for evidence that this revolution, this regime, this people and this country have been betrayed, do not invade Tabarzadi’s home and do not take away Ali (I am already your captive.). Go to Khamenei’s home... Find the evidence that Mojtaba [the Supreme Leader’s son] has hidden, to see where the dollars belonging to this country are going.”
A year after his arrest Tabarzadi filed a complaint against the Supreme Leader, and asked lawyers to take it to the international courts. Then in 2018, he wrote Khamenei a final, furious letter, focusing on the irony of Khamenei having criticized autocracy under the Shah of Iran. “It seems you’ve forgotten that the Shah ruled for only 37 years, while you have been the unchallenged ruler for 40!”