Until the present times, the rule of the last Persian Imperial dynasty, the Pahlavis, is in the larger public opinion still considered a rule of terror and human rights abuses which was justly criticized and eventually overthrown.
This short research will try to analyze the security apparatus, the human rights abuses and the political background, the justice administered, the compensation to the victims of these real or alleged abuses, the punishment of the responsible security structures and leading individuals through the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Courts.
On December 31st 1977 President Jimmy Carter visited the last Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Tehran and called Iran "an island of stability in the Middle East” in his speech. Just some months later, after a tireless international campaign for human rights in Iran, the empire fell into turmoil between demonstrations and violence from both armed opposition groups, leftist and Islamist, and from the government on the other side. The Shah, either because of his personal stoicism and resignation, or possibly because of his worsening health, left the country and months later died in exile, abandoned by his former friends and supporters.
The last Shah of Iran could be considered one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century. For his supporters was the man who gave Iran its modern face, built the infrastructure and industry, push through some social reforms, gave women a more equal status. We cannot forget the general situation in which he had to make his decisions and the crucial strategic position of Iran, an oil-rich country between the Soviet and the Western Block in the middle of the Cold War. He had to try to contain the tidal wave of communism, directly supported by the USSR and radical Islamism of the angry clergymen, who opposed his land reform and social reforms, like more freedom for women. Since much information is still classified, censored or altered for propaganda purposes by the current government in Iran, a sober and impartial historical analysis is still rare. In this short paper the author would like to concentrate mainly on the human rights issues which contributed to the outcome of the Iranian Revolution and the efforts for justice and its Iranian solution, retribution and rehabilitation of political prisoners.
CIA and SAVAK
The Iranian Revolution is frequently misinterpreted in more ways. It is said to be a mass uprising of a radically religious and traditional population against the reforms of the modernist and pro-Western Shah. One of the main exponents of this view is Michel Foucault. From the other side it is stressed that the Revolution was an uprising of various intellectuals, students, rightist and leftist elements against a repressive dictatorial regime demanding more freedom and liberal reforms. Another line notes that some opposition groups used terrorist practices: the extreme left, financed by the USSR and the religious extremists, like the Fada'iyan-e Islam group, assassinating important political figures, The People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a marxist-Islamist group, and the communist Tudeh Party, carrying out terrorist attacks against civilians and military personnel. Probably the most correct is the combination of the three, that the Revolution was a movement of extremely heterogeneous forces, practically opposed to each other and at their turn opposed to the Shah’s regime. It can be argued that the revolution has been triggered, or at least hastened, by the loosening of the repression and tight control over the radical opposition forces by the Imperial security apparatus.
In the second half of the 1970’s and until now, the reign of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is associated with the tyranny of his secret service, SAVAK. SAVAK, which is the acronym for Sazman-e Etelaat va Amniat-e Keshvar (سازِمانِ اطلاعات وَ امنیَتِ کِشوَر), which literally means Organization for Intelligence and Security of the Country. The purpose of the organization was to eliminate threats to the Shah’s rule from all subversive elements, leftists and religious extremists, but also liberal intellectuals. It has been reportedly created in cooperation with the CIA and allegedly the Israeli MOSSAD.
In 1983 in Paris Habib Ladjevardi conducted an interview with Fatemeh Pakravan, wife of the second chief of SAVAK and she connected the early stage of the security apparatus to the period of Mosaddegh as prime minister and minister of defense:
“[…] Dr. Mossadegh as minister of defense governed practically all the time under martial law. This is something again that people have forgotten. And also, that actually it was Dr. Mossadegh who put the seed of what came to be known as SAVAK.Q. [Reporter] Did he?
A. [Fatemeh Pakravan] Yes. Because he established -- you know at the time the Communist Party, the Persian Communist Party called the Tudeh, was extremely active because the Russians had hardly left Azarbaijan and the so-called democracy [democratic] republics, that they had instituted in Kurdestan and Azarbaijan, and were extremely strong. And Mossadegh was well aware of the danger it represented to have these people infiltrating every activity in the country. So he established something called the National Council of Security, presided
Dr. Mosaddegh was the Prime Minister of Iran from 1951 to 1953. He was overthrown by a coup d’état orchestrated by the British MI5 and the CIA because of his efforts to nationalize the Iranian oil industry, in British hands since 1913. After the account of Mansour Moaddel and other historians, “In a crucial respect, the empirical evidence seems to support the Left's argument that the state's repressive policy was to destroy all the political groups and provide stable conditions for the inflow of international capital. Evidently, the Shah, in order to resolve the oil issue in a manner acceptable to his international guardians, needed effectively to silence the nationalist leaders and the Communists. Right after the coup, the political parties and organizations associated with the National front including the Iran party, the Iranian People's party, the Party of the Nation of Iran (Pan Iranian party), and the Toiler's party – were all disbanded and their publications discontinued. Members of the Front were either killed, imprisoned, exiled or co-opted. The suppression of these parties was so pervasive that not only were the communication network between party leaders and the rank and file broken down but also National Front leaders lost contact with each other. The Tudeh (Communist) party was repressed with a much higher degree of intensity. After the coup an estimated 3,000 Tudeh militants were arrested. Many Communists were shot and murdered in prisons, many professors and students were put in jail after being arrested at night. The organizational power of the Tudeh was effectively demolished when its units in the army were discovered in 1954 and over 500 officers were arrested.”
The first chief of the reorganized SAVAK was general Teymour Bakhtiar, appointed in February 1958, but according to some sources as early as September 1953 a U.S. Army Colonel working for the CIA has been sent to Iran to establish an intelligence cell and work with Bakhtiar, that time military governor of Tehran. In March 1955 that person has been replaced by a team of 5 CIA officers. One of them was Major General Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf. These people trained the personnel in intelligence and reportedly in torture techniques, drawn from WWII Germany. SAVAK operated two prisons in Tehran (the Komiteh and Evin facilities) and more suspected. SAVAK's torture methods included electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails.
In 1961 Bakhtiar resigned himself or has been dismissed by the Shah because of distrust and in 1970 assassinated in exile in Iraq, probably on Shah’s order. General Hassan Pakravan took his place. He was again dismissed in 1966 and replaced by General Nematollah Nassiri, the Shah’s childhood friend, who finished arrested by the Shah in the last year before the revolution due to general mistrust in his officers. The last chief (6 June 1978 – 12 February 1979) was Lieutenant General Nasser Moghadam, another Shah’s friend. The last three SAVAK chiefs have been executed shortly after the revolution. In the early 1970’s Shah created an extra Special Intelligence Bureau inside his Niavaran palace in Tehran and its chief was Major General Hossein Fardust, former deputy chief of SAVAK.
The accurate information about SAVAK are still classified by the current Iranian regime and any information is strongly biased either by the enemies of the Shah who try to exaggerate the numbers of the security personnel, or the sympathizers, who try to diminish it. Therefore it is impossible to assess the real strength and influence of the whole system. Some sources estimate the number of secret agents as high as 60,000, the Islamic Republic claims 15,000 full-time personnel and thousands of informants, sources sympathetic to the Shah estimate the staff between 4,000 and 6,000. It was predominantly a civilian organization but it had close ties to the military and many members served simultaneously in a branch of the armed forces.
The Human Rights Issue
While the support of the United States for the Shah and the help of CIA in creating a strong authoritarian rule was in line with the former US foreign policy of “realpolitik”, ruthless and calculating, supporting local despotic regimes in change for their loyalty. In Carter’s eyes, recent foreign policy makers, notably Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, had promoted a policy that defended American interests at the price of disregarding morality and America’s duty to uphold a high standard in the world.
Jimmy Carter entered his office on January 20th, 1977 and in his inaugural speech he stated, that America's “commitment to human rights must be absolute” However he refrained from a public criticism towards the Shah, because he was aware of the importance of the American-Iranian relations. He kept his remarks for personal interaction with the monarch fearing to disturb the stability in the region and the crucial cooperation between the two countries, but the Shah found himself in the middle of a ferocious media campaign. In 1975 Amnesty International declared that “no country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran”. “When the Shah and his wife, Empress Farah, came for a state visit to America in November 1977, in Williamsburg, Virginia, about 500 Iranian students showed up, enthusiastically applauding. However, about 50 protestors waved hammer-and-sickle red flags. These unlikely Iranians were masked, unable to speak Persian, and some were blonde. The U.S. media focused exclusively on the protesters. Wrote the Shah: “Imagine my amazement the next day when I saw the press had reversed the numbers and wrote that the fifty Shah supporters were lost in a hostile crowd.””
Anyway the Shah felt the pressure from the U.S. administration and trying to conform to these new conditions he began to relax restrictions against political protesters in the spring of 1977. The liberal opposition used this opportunity and started their campaign against repression by a short letter demanding “the respect of constitutionalism and human rights.” Other groups of intellectuals, like the “Writers Association” begun to meet regularly, SAVAK arrested less people and the Shah allowed the Red Cross to inspect the prisons. It was clear that the Shah wanted to meet the requirements and the relations seemed to improve.. But in reality, human rights were just a façade, not the main agenda, which was made clear during a meeting in Washington in November 1977: oil prices, weapons deals and global economic issues. But the political climate in Iran already reached a point of no return. The opposition became outspoken, the foreign media coverage of the opposition was extensive. BBC offered much space to Khomeini who aired his speeches to Iran and the clashes with SAVAK and the security forces intensified. The US administration started to distance itself from the Shah. In December 1978, Carter stated that although his administration would “prefer the Shah to maintain a major role in the government,” it was “in the hands of the Iranian people” and he would not intervene with U.S. forces to bail out the Shah. Actually the U.S. administration had already made some attempts to contact Khomeini and assure him about their support.
After he left the country for an exile, from which he was to never return back, he stated: “I did not know it then – perhaps I did not want to know – but it is clear to me now that the Americans wanted me out. Clearly this is what the human rights advocates in the State Department wanted … What was I to make of the Administration’s sudden decision to call former Under Secretary of State George Ball to the White House as an adviser on Iran? Ball was among those Americans who wanted to abandon me and ultimately my country.” – Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran
Revolutionary Courts, Sadegh Khalkhali and the Justice of God.
The opposition movement against the Shah and the revolution itself brought about a certain number of casualties between shooting during demonstrations and repression by the security forces. This numbers have also been used to judge the officials of the overthrown government, anyway they differ greatly. After Ayatollah Khomeini the number of men, women and children murdered by the Shah’s regime was 60,000. This number is also in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. A deputy of the Iranian Parliament during the American Hostage crisis stated the numbers even higher, 70,000 killed and 100,000 wounded. Anyway, the most recent research done by a respected and since jailed historian Emadeddin Baghi at the Martyr’s Foundation (Bonyad-e Shahid - بنیاد شهید) found much lower numbers. The Martyr Foundation has been explicitly founded after the revolution to compensate the families of the fallen fighters. In the archives of the Martyr’s Foundation Baghi found 3164 dead among the anti-Shah movement between 1963 and 1979 and only 744 identified in Tehran. The coroner’s office states 895 and Tehran’s main cemetery Behesht-e Zahra counts 768 martyrs.
The relatively low number of victims for a time span of 16 years and a nation of roughly 30 million is frequently credited to Shah’s general reluctance to use force and his resigned attitude towards the will of the masses, that he was "unwilling to massacre his subjects in order to save his throne".
In the mentioned interview the wife of the SAVAK chief, Fatemeh Pakravan points out that SAVAK always looked just like its chief shaped it. While Nassiri was known as the one who promoted torture, General Pakravan was known for his conciliatory views and he frequently visited Khomeini, whom he saved from execution and who could thank him his title of Ayatollah. Anyway Pakravan was one of the first people executed. “One of the things that my husband used to say after he finished, after he left that
The Shah, before he fled to exile on January 16, 1979, left the government of the country to Shahpour Bakhtiar, a conservative liberal and his party, the National Front. Bakhtiar, in his speech in the Parliament on January 11, 1979, announced a plan of 17 points which included the dissolution of the SAVAK, the gradual elimination of the martial law, punishment of the violators of human rights, liberation and payment as compensation to political prisoners and a larger role for religious leaders in the drafting of legislation. Unfortunately he wasn’t permitted to realize this plan. February 1, 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini arrived to Tehran and on February 5 decided that Mehdi Bazargan will become Prime Minister. Shahpour Bakhtiar has been forced into exile and assassinated in Paris August 7, 1991 by Iranian agents.
Effectively, political prisoners have been freed. According to contemporary reports, their number was a little more than 3,000.
Striving to consolidate his power, Khomeini established armed forces and new organizations whose aim was to assure his predominance: the Revolutionary Council, the Revolutionary Guards, Revolutionary Tribunals, Islamic Republican Party, and Revolutionary Committees (komitehs). Mainly the Revolutionary Tribunals (Dadgah-e Enqelab-e Eslami دادگاه انقلاب اسلامی) and the Committees had to administer justice and punish the officials of the fallen regime. The Committees were looking for perpetrators and contra-revolutionary signs among people. They are criticized for violence, arbitrary arrests, confiscation of property and baseless accusations upon personal rivalries, jealousies and antipathies.
Two revolutionary tribunals were set up in the capital Tehran, in Qasr and Evin prisons, others in most major cities and there was also a traveling tribunal for the main judge, Hojjat-ol Eslam Sadegh Khalkhali, who later became known as the “hanging judge” for the scores of death penalties he issued. He became famous with the quote in an interview with Le Figaro: "If my victims were to come back on earth, I would execute them again, without exceptions." The first death senteces have been issued and carried out just two weeks after the arrival of Khomeini, on February 16, 1979. In the first two months the number of executed rose to cca. 200, by January 1980, it reached cca. 582, another 906 executions have been carried out until June 1981, the date when elected leftist president Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr has been impeached and the leftist and liberals have been definitively doomed by Khomeini, in the 12 months after this event, Amnesty International counted another 2,946 executions. When Khomeini officially condemned the Leftists, paradoxically many of former political prisoners, who fought against the Shah and served prisons terms, have been sentenced again to prison and in later years many of them executed.
The Revolutionary Court still exists and under its jurisdiction fall the following:
All of the offenses against the internal and external security of the Country, combating and behaving in a corruptly manner on the Earth, which is in Islamic terminology called Mofsed-e fil arz.
Uttering slander against the Founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Honorable Leader.
Conspiracy against the Islamic Republic of Iran or carrying arms, use of terrorism, destruction of building against the Islamic Republic.
Engaging in espionage for aliens.
All crimes involving smugglings and narcotic items.
The cases pertinent to Article 49 of the Constitution of Iran, which concern misuse, fraud and theft of public resources.
Since the first days the summary trials have been much criticized by public figures such as the Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and even Shi’a clerics Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari and Hassan Tabatabai-Qomi. The trials were not public, there was no jury, and a single judge decided the matter at hand, frequently deciding only upon his own discretion and knowledge, which is a specific feature of Shi’a Islam, based on the principle of ”Intellect”, ‘Aql (عقل) and Ijtihad (اجتهاد), deciding upon one’s own effort. In general, the trials can be a matter of only hours or minutes and the guilt can be proven just on the basis of “popular repute”. The concept of defense attorney was dismissed as a “Western absurdity”  To any criticism Khomeini responded by saying that "criminals should not be tried, they should be killed." Sadegh Khalkhali stated “The revolutionary courts were born out of the anger of the Iranian people and these people will not accept any principles outside Islamic principles.”
In the first months after the revolution, 248 military officials have been executed, among them 61 SAVAK officials, including three former chiefs, Pakravan, Nassiri and Moghadam. But also high ranking government officials such as Farrokhroo Parsa, first female minister in Iran (Minister of Education) and outspoken supporter of women’s rights, Gholamreza Nikpay, deputy Prime Minister and Amir Abas Hoveyda, Prime Minister. The new government was trying to obtain the extradition of the Shah, to try and execute him, but unsuccessfully.
Some scholars concluded that the role of Ayatollah Khomeini was decisive and his will to put to death most people associated with the previous regime determined the whole form of the mock trials. Sadegh Khalkhali in an interview with a New York Times reported states: “Everything I did, I did under the holy authority of the Imam. I did only what he wanted.”
Abbas Milani, an Iranian scholar, reports the accusations of Khalkhali against Hoveyda: “Amir Abbas Hoveyda, son of Habibollah, birth certificate number 3542, issued in Tehran, born in 1298 (1920), previously minister of the deposed royal court, and the Shah’s ex-Prime Minister, a citizen of Iran, is accused of:
1. Spreading corruption on Earth
2. Fighting God, God's creatures and the Viceroy of Imam Zaman (the transcendental 12th Shi’a Imam, the messianic savior, whose deputy Khomeini considered himself and the Islamic government)
3. Acts of sedition detrimental to national security and independence, through forming cabinets that were puppets of the United States and England and defending the interests of colonialists.
4. Plotting against national sovereignty by interference in elections to Majlis (Parliament), appointing and dismissing ministers at the behest of foreign embassies.
5. Turning over underground resources: oil, copper and uranium to foreigners.
6. Expansion of the influence of American Imperialism, and its European allies, in Iran by destroying internal resources and turning Iran into a market for foreign commodities.
7. Paying national revenues from oil to Shah and Farah (the Shah’s wife Farah Diba) and to countries dependent on the West and then borrowing money at high interest, and enslaving conditions from America and Western countries.
8. Ruining agriculture and destroying forests.
9. Direct participation in acts of espionage for the West and Zionism.
10. Complicity with conspirators from CENTO and NATO for the oppression of the peoples of Palestine, Vietnam and Iran.
11. Active member of Freemasonry in the Foroughi Lodge according to existing documents and the confessions of the accused.
12. Participation in terrorizing and frightening the justice seeking people including their death and injury and limiting their freedom by closing down newspapers and exercising censorship on the print media and books.
13. Founder and first secretary of the despotic "Rastakhiz of the Iranian People" party.
14. Spreading cultural and ethical corruption and direct participation in consolidating the pillars of colonialism and granting capitulatory rights to Americans.
15. Direct participation in smuggling heroin in France along with Hassan Ali Mansour.
16. False reporting through the publication of puppet papers and appointing puppet editors to head the media.
17. According to minutes of cabinet meetings and of the Supreme Economic Council, and the claims of private plaintiffs, including Dr. Ali-Asghar Hadj-Seyyed-Djavadi, and taking into account documents found in SAVAK and the office of the prime minister, and the confessions of Dr. Manouchehr Azmoun, Mahmoud Jafarian, Parviz Nick-khah, and the confessions of the accused, since the commission of the crimes is certain, the prosecutor of the Islamic Revolutionary Court asks the court to issue the judgment of the death penalty and the confiscation of all your [Hoveyda's] property.” 
Many of the charges reflected uninvestigated rumors. Abbas Milani agrees with this notion when he described the essence of the court's ambience: “It became clear that rules of evidence, notions of innocence until proven guilty, and a dispassionate judge, dispensing impartial judgments based on incontrovertible evidence, were all alien to this court … Gossip had the authority of fact, as evident in article fifteen of the indictment, and unsubstantiated rumours were taken as proof of guilt.”
The former chief of SAVAK, Hassan Pakravan was among the executed too. In the already mentioned interview of Habib Ladjevardi with his wife Fatemeh Pakravan she recalls the evidence gathered against her husband for the trial: “Because my son told me -- because, you know, somehow all the secrets come out -- that the interrogator told somebody, who told my son, that when they opened his file, his so-called file ... they never allowed my son to see him, because they said the instructions were going ... the inquiries were going on. It wasn't true, because when they opened his file, there was only one piece of paper. And that was the testimony of a young man, who had been arrested under my husband and who gave a testimony to the human
The cultural, religious and political background that shaped the post-revolutionary efforts for justice in Iran allowed its realization only on a very limited scale. The religious differences and ideals of Islamic justice on Earth, acclaimed and defended by the new government, apparently served only as an excuse for an indiscriminate persecution and elimination of the fallen regime’s political and military elite and of its new rivals in the quest for power after the Revolution, originally achieved with joint effort. The human rights have been practically or politically abused by most of the actors: the Shah’s regime used the repressive apparatus, imprisoning and torturing to retain the power and silence liberal dissent, but also to keep the leftist and religious extremists and terrorists at bay. The Western powers used the human rights situation as a lever of pressure on the Shah’s government because of various political manoeuvres, calculations and hidden goals in the extraordinarily strategic Middle East region. The Western media but also the propaganda around Khomeini and other organizations of the opposition used the exaggerated human rights record to launch a smear campaign against the rulers, which ended by their ousting and establishing a rule of terror and deliberate executions after summary trials in the name of God. Khomeini and the propaganda of the new regime used and created its own interpretation of human rights which was useful at that moment, just to smash them again just weeks after rising to power. The case of Iran should serve as a memento for the global community, to approach the issue of human rights with alertness and without political bias and calculations.
Just to conclude, again the words of Fatemeh Pakravan: “And he
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