Q&A: Iran’s hostage taker-turned-reformist

Meet Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, a key player in the US hostage crisis which shook international relations for decades.

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh has called for a thawing of relations with the United States [Soraya Lennie/Al Jazeera]

Tehran, Iran – Al Jazeera correspondent Soraya Lennie spoke with Ebrahim Asgharzadeh – revolutionary, hostage-taker and now, vocal reformist, on the eve of the 35th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

Soraya Lennie: Describe the revolution. For you, how did it come about?

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh: I was a student at Ariamehr Industrial University back then. In the atmosphere of that time, the religious and populist forces had the lower hand… The revolution and the social changes of that time were the result of the union of two important forces – the urban forces of students and academics, and the movement of the poor and the lower classes of society that made up the network of mosques and religious gatherings all over the country.

The shah was ignorant. He thought the communists were the major problem. He was not aware of the influence of religious groups. They thought the shah’s regime wanted to destroy religion – we [students and academics] questioned why we had only one political party.

The shah did not have a social class. He supposed that he had formed a middle class supporting him. In the late 1970s, street demonstrations accelerated [and] a lot of the shah’s supporters fled – they would not stay and fight. The shah found himself without supporters, just the army.

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And the army recruited its soldiers from the lower classes of society. They sent their children to military service; but then all of a sudden the soldiers started fleeing too. It caused the shah’s regime to fall from the inside. And maybe the pace of the shah’s overthrow caused us to make many mistakes. If the shah had resisted, and we had had to establish parties and progress the revolution, by a coherent organisation, after the revolution we would have managed the country better. 

Ayatollah Khomeini was a charismatic leader and it was only much later – before the revolution – that the masses began to follow him as a serious alternative. That led the intellectuals to believe that armed battle was not a remedy any more. They could not advance in that way.

The parlimentarist battle had also failed before. The 28 Mordad coup [the 1953 coup d’etat] showed that [Prime Minister] Dr [Mohammad] Mossadegh, who was the symbol of the parliamentarists, fell. Armed forces and revolutionary forces that had a regime change policy failed, too. They were all being suppressed.

The Shia clergymen were very conservative. Still, Imam Khomeini had presented a revolutionary and political interpretation [of religion] which the Sunni clergymen did not approve of. They said he was a political activist. But the people of Iran accepted his view. People’s belief in him made the intellectuals understand that a new force was changing the equations.

In the late 1970s, the equation of power was completely unbalanced. Mosques and large demonstrations showed that the path on which Ayatollah Khomeini was walking was the path people wanted to take… That is why, although the revolution was the result of the union of the clergy and academic forces, religious and intellectual, the main driving force and the winner was the clergy.

After the revolution, the clergy held most of the government positions, although it was not the deal at the beginning of the revolution. Even Imam Khomeini himself had left for Qom and stated that he was not a part of the government. But there were incidents that empowered the seminaries and the clergy and after a while all the intellectual forces were put aside and the clergy possessed the revolution.

SL: Weren’t you afraid of SAVAK, the shah’s secret police force?

EA: We were romantic students. Romanticism in the sense that we could change the world. We were not afraid of anything. We thought if we did something, afterwards we would be able to make a paradise for sure, a very ideal society.

We sympathised with a lot of European students who demonstrated against the Vietnam War. You know, battle is an international language; it is a feeling, it is something that ties you with many of the liberating forces in the world. That time because of the conditions of the Cold War, many countries were seeking independence and the American government was using military models, military dictators, and then nations would foment revolutions in Algeria, Egypt, Cuba, and other countries; and they were successful, all of this made the students’ opinion about revolutions and social changes positive.

We did not think that revolution could worsen the condition at that time. We thought that revolution could cause improvements. We saw everything as good or bad, black or white. We said that because the shah was completely black he had to be omitted. And about his removal and what would substitute him, well, we said we would think about that later… And that formed a political romanticism in the student movement and made us consider everything as possible.

SL: The hostage crisis took place eight months after the revolution – what happened in that time that led you to the US embassy?

Everything was possible for us. They could not frighten us by saying there was SAVAK or the shah’s military force, which was the strongest in the region. The important point of those battles was that there was no fear anymore… When the fear was gone and the people came to the streets, we understood that the regime was over.

I was arrested once; however, I was also arrested after the revolution, too. And I will probably be arrested if there is another regime in the future. But back then in the university, I was arrested in a student demonstration and was put behind bars. But the number of these arrests was increasing so much that it lost its effect and the fear was gone.

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EA: The events that happened in the first eight months of the revolution, the country’s situation and the background of the 28 Mordad coup [the 1953 coup d’etat] made society… so sensitive about a subject called the enemy’s plot; for example, everyone thought there was a [foreign] hand behind all the sabotage. And that collective belief, which had dominated us for about 25 years, was that America would not let any change happen in this country.

So… when the shah went to the US, we came to the conclusion that there was a plan. So we presented this idea of occupying the American embassy. That idea was just for a short while, for 48 hours. We said we would go there and stay for two days and then everything would be over and we would protest. Then people from all over the country swarmed around the embassy and then the event turned into a student protest movement and then a national movement. We were completely shocked.

We either had to keep the Americans or deliver them to the government. At times we decided to deliver them to the Revolutionary Council and later, after the election of [President Abolhassan] Banisadr’s government, people protested and did not let it happen; all of this formed a complex web. And the White House’s precipitancy in solving the problem transformed a student movement into a chronic problem, which enslaved Iran and America’s relationship for 444 days.

SL: How do you feel about that particular incident and what you did?

EA: You cannot review historical events so easily and put them aside. It happened. We were a part of that history.

SL: What about the effect on US-Iran relations and on the people of Iran?

EA:I do not agree at all with those who say that occupying the American embassy is still an obstacle to renewed relations… At times, there have been good conditions for friendship. Now there are forces in the area like Israel and Saudi Arabia who are not happy even with the preliminary movements in nuclear agreements.

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In Iran, there are also forces that are not happy with it. But we, who were the leftists at the beginning of the revolution and believed that Iran… had to leave the American gravitational circle and become independent, say it’s a game of halves; the first half was the discontinuation of relations and beginning of independence. But the second half is that we should be able to establish relations based on mutual respect.

SL: Should the US and Iran fix relations?

EA: [In voting for Hassan Rouhani as president], people had made up their minds… because people believe that there must be interaction with the outside world.

It does not mean that relations with America will be established tomorrow. We have a difficult path before us. Both countries have constantly shouted slogans against each other for three decades. They were enemies. Step by step they have to clear the misunderstandings, lessen the verbal tension, prepare the rudimentary needs for the interaction of the two nations and then the governments step forward to see how it’s possible to establish relations.

In my opinion, the path that [US President Barack] Obama and Rouhani have chosen is correct and also supported by the majority of both societies in America and Iran.

If Rouhani cannot interpret the people’s message from the presidential election, he will fail.

People do not believe in conflict policy. We do not live in that past any more.

Follow Soraya Lennie on Twitter: @sorayalennie

Source: Al Jazeera