As a student dissident in Iran, Amir Fakhravar was jailed and tortured for his pro-democracy political activism. Since moving to the United States in 2006, he has continued to take part in Iran’s opposition movement. He serves as the secretary general of the Confederation of Iranian Students and the president of the Iranian Enterprise Institute. Last week, Fakhravar’s 18-year-old-brother, Arash, was arrested by the Iranian regime. After three days of absence, the Fakhravar family learned that Arash had been arrested, beaten up and taken to the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran, then placed in solitary confinement in an undisclosed location. Amir Fakhravar spoke to Front Page about his brother’s arrest, Iran’s growing “green revolution,” and the best strategy for ending the mullahs’ three-decade rule.
FP: Can you tell us what happened with your brother Arash? What do you know of his current whereabouts?
Fakhravar: Arash is in the very middle of this fight. He became politically active in high school and now he goes to all the anti-government demonstrations. My mother always says, “Please talk to him.” But my response is: This is what he has chosen. We need to pay the price for freedom. The day after the Ashura festival, the intelligence services called my mother in Tehran. They said, “We know all about your son. He’s been involved in protests, making videos. Be careful or they will arrest him.” The day after the phone call, they arrested him. My mother didn’t know anything for three days. She called the police, but they didn’t know anything. So she went to the Revolutionary Court with my sister and they saw him there. He was beaten up and blindfolded, wearing a bloody shirt and handcuffs. They tried to take a picture but could not. Right now, he is still in the hands of the Revolutionary Court.
In the line of fire: Amir Fakhravar’s 18-year-old brother Arash is among the thousands of opposition demonstrators beaten up and arrested by the Iranian government.
FP: What are you doing to free Arash and what can those outside of Iran do to help?
Fakhravar: His best chance of survival is organizing a media campaign for his release. In Iran, my family cannot do anything. But from the outside we can do quite a lot. We created a Facebook page for him that now has 2,000 members. We can also write letters to the news media and human-rights groups to cover his case. This is probably the best thing we can do. We need to put more pressure on the government. They are afraid of free information.
FP: Your brother, like you, is active in the “green revolution” in Iran. How do you see what is happening inside the country right now?
Fakhravar: What has happened is that something many thought was a small movement has become a revolution. After the summer election, the government tried to strike fear into the people, but millions came out into the streets in Iran’s major cities. After seven months, they are showing that they are not going to give up. The recent death of Ayatollah Montazeri was a good excuse for this new generation to oppose the government because he had fought [Ayatollah] Khomeini for twenty years. The latest demonstrations have taken place during the Ashura festival, which is a symbol of the Islamic Republic and Shiism. This is a sign that they want to get rid of the mullahs and they are not afraid anymore. [Politician and presidential challenger] Mir Hossein Mousavi has said it best: We are not leading these people. They are leading themselves.
FP: So where does the leadership come from?
Fakhravar: This movement doesn’t have a leader, but things like Facebook help. We use social media to help organize events inside Iran. For instance, we are planning a demonstration in February to coincide with the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution. Earlier this year, I was giving a speech before Congress and I said, “Iranians don’t want a war. All we need are cell phones, cameras and computers.” Some of the Senators laughed at that. But it has happened. We are close to a cyber revolution in Iran.
FP: What are the aims of this revolution? What do the participants hope to achieve?
Fakhravar: Most of the demonstrators are young – 70 percent are under the age of 35 – and they are not motivated by partisan politics. They are not communists or Marxists or monarchists; they are not involved with political parties and they don’t want to be. Via the internet, they know a lot about American culture – perhaps more than many people here – and they want the things it represents: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. They are secular and they want a country where Islam is kept separate from the government. A free, secular, democratic Iran – that is their dream
FP: What do you make of the “pro-government” rallies that have been held in recent days? The government has tried to portray them as representing the true voice of the Iranian people.
Fakhravar: Actually, this what my brother was protesting when he was arrested. He was at a counter protest. For thirty years, the Iranian government has used petrodollars to create the illusion of popular support. These protests are designed to show that the government is strong and that it has real legitimacy. But the protests are staged. What happens is that the government will bus in people, usually poorer people from the countryside. They will give them food, and arrange for them to see the sites. For some of those people, it was their chance to see Tehran for the first time. They are being used to create these protests. But it’s not working. They had one of the pro-government protests in a big city near Tehran. Just 150 people showed up.
FP: How would you rate the Obama administration’s response to the protests in Iran? President Obama, for instance, has condemned the brutality of the regime, but the U.S. has not meaningfully supported the opposition.
Fakhravar: I think Obama just did not have any idea of what to do about Iran. So he decided that the U.S. would not become involved and would watch the situation unfold. This is not a football game, Mr. President. The Iranian government is killing the people, but during the past seven months the United States has done nothing positive to support them. It has done something negative, though. The Obama administration recognized the Ahmadinejad government as legitimately elected, which it is not. It also said it wanted to hold talks with Ahmadinejad. That was the wrong decision. It gave the regime legitimacy and hurt the democratic movement a lot.
FP: What should the administration do?
Fakhravar: First, it needs new advisors on Iran. Second, it needs to pass sanctions. By that I mean smart sanctions. The kind of targeted sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard that have been proposed will not be effective and will probably be watered down by China and Russia. Smart sanctions – on oil and gasoline – can help us. Petrodollars are the lifeline of the Iranian regime. If they can’t pay the salaries of the Revolutionary Guard, within two months they will be powerless because most of the Revolutionary Guard don’t believe in the mullahs. They believe in money. Right now, they are killing people for money. Take away the money away and you can collapse the regime.
FP: Some observers have called for a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Do you think that’s the right strategy?
Fakhravar: Not right now. At this moment, I believe it would be unhelpful. When you have an army in the streets – like Iran’s new generation – it is a sign that the mullahs’ reign is over. A strike on Iran would allow the regime to play the victim and would give it legitimacy. That is the last thing we need. To those who support a strike, my message is: Give us time. This June, there were four million people on the street in Tehran. It was the biggest anti-government protest in Iran’s history. Even during the 1979 revolution, you did not see that many people in the street. This is the Iranians’ fight against the mullahs, and they believe they can bring them down. If they had a little help from free countries, especially the United States, they could succeed right now.