Hostage-Taker, Reformer, Pessimist: An Iranian Life
Michael Slackman, The New York Times:
When he was a young man, Abbas Abdi thought the shah of Iran had to be overthrown and the United States needed to be punished for supporting the government. So he helped plan and stage the takeover of the United States Embassy and the seizure of 52 Americans, who were held hostage for 444 days.
Many years later, he thought the Iranian government needed to be more responsive to the people, so he helped to create the reform movement, which twice elected a president, Mohammad Khatami, and fostered hope of greater social and political freedoms.
Now, as Tehran and the West battle over Iran's nuclear program, and ideological conservatives control every branch of government, Mr. Abdi said he saw a country intoxicated by oil wealth and headed toward "social collapse." Both of his historic ventures — helping to form the Islamic Republic of Iran, and helping to develop the reform movement — are, by his own assessment, either finished or hurtling toward oblivion.
"The situation is now more like the situation in the Soviet Union before the fall of Communism," he said of the government. "The current system in Iran is not flexible and is not functioning anymore."
Of the reform movement, he said, "It doesn't exist." READ MORE
As much as anybody's life, Mr. Abdi's biography traces the evolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He rode the wave of the revolution: as a leader of the student group that seized the embassy; as an official in the early government; as a reformist writer challenging what he saw as a system grown corrupt and disconnected from the people; as an optimist, pushing for democratization; and then as a prisoner, punished and jailed by those who saw his personal evolution as a challenge and a threat.
Mr. Abdi is in a lonely place now, opposed to those holding power and sharply critical of those who led the reform movement. He said the reformers had failed not because their goals were wrong, but because they were too passive. "They did not want to pay a price," he said.
The man whose ideas once served as a barometer of change in Iranian society today expresses cynicism, disgust and concern. "Ahmadinejad's era will become like a tragedy in our history," he said of the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a characterization certain to further alienate — and even antagonize — Iran's leaders.
In 2003, Mr. Abdi was sentenced to five years in prison for work he had done running a polling outfit in Iran, and for conducting surveys in cooperation with an American firm. He was released in May 2005, after Iran's Supreme Court threw out charges of espionage. Since his release, he has slowly begun to emerge from a silence that seemed less a result of intimidation than of confusion about what comes next.
He says he is still not sure. Asked what his prescription would be to resurrect the reform movement, he said flatly, "Nothing."
HE spends his days in a small office in Tehran, a sparse garden-level room with a desk and some bookshelves, where he has resumed writing articles that challenge the system. Mr. Abdi, a trained engineer and self-taught sociologist, has a didactic style, thick ideas linked together to lead the reader to a conclusion, which may be a safer approach in Iran than merely saying what one means.
In one recent article, for example, Mr. Abdi argued that the legitimacy of the government rested in its being elected by the people — not in its being religious. It is an idea that cuts right to the heart of the Islamic Republic's theocratic system, with a supreme leader and religious officials whose authority supersedes all elected institutions.
Mr. Abdi is 56 years old, of medium height and medium build, with perpetual two-day-old stubble on his face and the aviator-style glasses popular among Iranian men of his generation. His low voice and earnest chuckle belie a man who continues to offer no apologies for helping to storm the American Embassy in 1979.
In a 1997 meeting in Paris with one of the American hostages, Barry Rosen, he rationalized how the events that occurred were meant to occur and that, in the end, proved a positive influence on the world. He and Mr. Rosen, he said, were effectively pawns in a war between countries and systems, and therefore holding Mr. Rosen prisoner was never "personal."
Mr. Abdi has become an unlikely and in many ways a lone voice in the world, saying the United States has far more moral authority today than it did back in 1979. He seems to respect, even like, his old nemesis, and finds room occasionally to compliment Washington. He even pointed to Iraq, saying that the United States had at least tried to build democratic institutions.
"Just compare America's interference in Kosovo with its interference in Vietnam," he said. "America has changed its policies. Back then it supported dictatorial regimes. But now, for example, it is putting pressure on the Saudis, on Egypt, and calling for change."
And why is America, in his view, promoting democracy over dictatorship?
"I think one reason behind the change is the occupation of the American Embassy," he said. "It gave them a shock to re-examine what they have done. We paid for it, we paid a dear price for it, but others have benefited."
IN the nuclear struggle between Iran and the West, which has reached a fever pitch recently, Mr. Abdi said he also saw far broader implications. Many people in the region have become radicalized, he said, particularly Sunnis, because of the occupation of Iraq.
Because they see their governments as being too close to Washington, they are looking more and more to Iran as a regional leader, he said. Should Iran be able to advance its nuclear program in spite of Western protests, he said, that victory will empower the government and, coupled with billions in oil revenue, stabilize its base of support for many years to come.
"If Iran manages to go into this nuclear program, it will not end here," Mr. Abdi said. "Fundamentalism will grow in the region."
Perhaps most ominously, he predicted that neither side would back down.
"There will be a conflict," he said.
Given his current assessment of the state of affairs in Iran, Mr. Abdi was asked if he had any regrets about his support for the revolution, or taking over the embassy. He said that as young people, and revolutionaries, their aim was to overthrow the government. It was still a worthy goal, he added. But beyond that, they had no idea really what system they wanted to replace the shah with.
"This is not the revolution," he said of the current leadership in the country. "I don't call it the revolution just because they call it the revolution. It is despotism. No despot admits he is one. They usually claim they are democrats."