Taghi Rahmani: "West, pay attention to Iran's cry of pain"

by Joshua Evangelista

When Narges Mohammadi was just a little girl, her mother asked her to never, under any circumstances, enter politics. The price to pay, in a country like Iran, would have been too high. Evidently, Narges decided not to listen to her mother. At 52, she carries out her political activities from Evin maximum security prison, where repression has increased since she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, the European Day of the Righteous, she will be honoured at Milan Garden of the Righteous and her husband Taghi Rahmani, a historian and a journalist exiled in Paris and a profound connoisseur of Iranian prisons, will be there to represent her. “The most arrested journalist in Iran”, he was called some time ago by “Reporters without Borders”.

How is your wife Narges? Only a few days ago her father died and we know that her health conditions are precarious.

“After Narges was awarded the Nobel Prize, the Islamic Republic imposed even worse prison conditions on her and of course she was not allowed to attend her father’s funeral. But Narges continues to resist”.

Last Monday the outcomes of last Friday’s parliamentary elections were released. Abstentionism seems to be the most interesting fact: the highest since 1979 Revolution. Narges, from prison, called for a boycott of the polls. Can this be considered as half a success?

The regime is indeed being forced to take steps backwards. Two out of three Iranians did not vote. Even some of those who did turn up left ballots void. This happened despite Khamenei’s threat to those who would not go to vote, as he claimed that not voting meant hating one’s country and Islam. Undoubtedly, this result has been achieved thanks to the struggle of Iranian women and men who joined the movement that started after Mahsa Amini’s death. And women in prison are an integral part of this fight. I believe that this struggle will continue”.

You know the repressive system very well. What is living in Iranian prisons like?

“Iranian prisons are in fact a punishment by the regime to stop social movements. The very presence of prisoners is a real symbol of the existence of repression: every time a movement of protest arises, the number of people arrested increases. After Mahsa Amini’s death, 30,000 people were arrested. But this does not prevent the fight.

What is being done from outside to help political prisoners?

“Narges has always supported the struggle of female prisoners and called for the help of civil society and international bodies. International society effectively supported the struggle of the Iranian people at the beginning of protests. And those who consider her as a Righteous have grasped the meaning of the protest. At the United Nations, she called for gender apartheid to be listed as a crime against humanity. Because Iran has, indeed, created institutionalised gender apartheid. And it is a paradox, since the number of female university students in the country is higher than the number of male students”.

Narges also speaks of gender apartheid in the message she sent to the organisers of Milan ceremony. It is striking that she not only dwells on the condition of Iranian women, she also mentions Afghanistan. Does her battle have an international outlook?

“The condition of women is an international issue. In Afghanistan women cannot even go to school and North Africa does have the same issues. It is a widespread system and states must advocate to destroy it”.

How can one advocate for that?

“Western civil society must become more sensitive. Western states only look at their own interests and do not have sufficient exchange with their own civil societies. After 1990, and even more so with the digital revolution, states have become much closer. I mean that if fundamentalism is taught in an Arab or Iranian university, this can also have fallouts in other places. This is why the democratisation of each country is crucial for everyone. However, states follow their own economic interests. The Islamic Republic relies on this and it is the citizens of western states who also pay the price of it. We are all interconnected: every war, every repression leads to a number of economic hardships and price rises burdening people, but not those who are in charge. The result of Western sanctions has been exactly this. Now Iranian oil continues to be sold, at a lower price, to the Chinese. The press and civil society must tell the truth of what is happening in Iran and put pressure on their states. Otherwise there is a disconnect that hurts everyone and that is the risk of distorted use of technology”.

Technology played an important role in the “Woman Life Freedom” movement, which was the latest chapter in a long history of activism against the regime, very often carried out underground. After all, you met your wife because Narges attended your clandestine history classes in the 1980s. Decades later and taking into account the thousands of people arrested and killed, what do you expect?

“The regime that rules Iran was born out of a revolution and is therefore very hard to be eradicated. Regimes that are born this way have two possible paths: democracy or chaos. In my country, the latter has been taken. Every state is founded on four pillars: cultural, social, economic, political. This regime has no cultural, social or economic growth connection with people. Everything is maintained only by repression. Official figures from Tehran claim that 75 per cent of Iranians are fed up with theocracy. However, I do not know how the transition to a new system will take place”.

Haven’t you made up your mind about that?

“There are three possibilities. If civil society becomes stronger, through trade unions and professional associations (including the teachers’ association), it may put pressure on the regime. Otherwise it will be street protests to the bitter end. And then there is a third option, which I fear. They bring down the ayatollahs’ regime and put a sort of Putin in power. To prevent this from occurring, the role of Western societies is pivotal. Maybe thanks to these a ‘new South Africa’ can happen”.

Do you think that Iran’s aggressive international policy may be a new engine for popular discontent? According to reports, the country is affected by hunger and yet Tehran finances wars and armies throughout the Middle East.

“The Islamic Republic is so powerful thanks to the United States. Isis in Iraq has grown, indeed, due to strategic decisions made by Iran and the US. It may sound strange, but US policy greatly impacts repression in Iran. What it did in Iraq, leaving Afghanistan: these actions greatly benefit the regime in Tehran. But this also applies to the conflict in the Middle East: while Israel bombs Gaza, Iran wins and bribes Hamas. The point is that the Islamic Republic finances wars to maintain the status quo at home. If Western countries made an impact to achieve peace in the Middle East, it would be easier for us in Iran as well. And, once again, sanctions hurt people but not the power”.

According to Gariwo’s definition, the Righteous are those who fight for human dignity even at the cost of their own lives or with extreme suffering. This seems to be the case with Narges. Such suffering is shared by your family. What future do you see for your children, who have suffered so much from being away from their mother?

“I want to make one thing clear. Fighting families are numerous in Iran, we are just one of many. We would like to go back to Iran, my children have not seen their mother for nine years. They suffer a lot, but I try to tell them about the long journey to freedom for their country and that this fight will be important for the development of their personalities. The fact that Narges will be recognized as a Righteous in Milan may ease some of the pain of those who are fighting”.

What do you miss the most about Narges?

“I must admit that I miss everything about her very much. When you love someone you always want to be with them. But the one you love is always in your eyes and inside you, as the verses of Iranian poet Baba Tahir read”.

(Published in “Avvenire” on 06/03/2024)

Joshua Evangelista, Gariwo Press office and Communication

6 March 2024

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