1982: Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, revolutionary foreign minister

Add comment September 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1982, Iranian revolutionary politician Sadegh Ghotbzadeh was shot in Tehran’s Evin Prison for supposedly plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

Ghotbzadeh had come by his revolutionary aspirations back in the 1950s and 1960s, after radicalizing as a teenager with the ouster of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh; he’d be kicked out of Georgetown University for neglecting his studies in favor of protesting the U.S.-backed Shah and enter a twilight world of professional revolutionary exiles.


In Paris with the Ayatollah Khomeini.

He eventually joined the circle orbiting the Ayatollah Khomenei, returning to Iran with him on the famous Air France flight of February 1, 1979. Ghotbzadeh would serve as the frequent translator and spokesman of Khomeini, eventually becoming Foreign Minister amid the tumult of the Iranian students’ seizure of U.S. embassy hostages in late 1979.

In those fraught months, the urbane Ghotbzadeh became a familiar face on American televisions. He was notable advocate within Iran for quickly ending the hostage standoff, and spoke openly about Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ronald Reagan‘s ongoing behind-the-scenes project to prevent a hostage deal that might redound to his opponent’s electoral advantage.* His distaste for the hostage confrontation, as well as his westernized accoutrements, quickly set him at loggerheads with the revolution’s growing fundamentalist faction, and he was forced out of the foreign ministry in August 1980.

He was destined for the tragedy of revolutions devouring their own: arrested in April of 1982, his former associations with Khomeini availed him nothing in the face of a revolutionary tribunal that condemned him for “masterminding a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic” and to assassinate Khomeini himself. Under torture, Ghotbzadeh confessed to planning a coup in a script right out of show trial central casting: “I am shamed before the nation. Free me or execute me.”

* This project succeeded so spectacularly that it’s still officially a kooky conspiracy theory in American political culture.

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1979: Major Bijan Yahyahi, prison torturer

1 comment April 13th, 2017 Headsman

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Courts went up in the very first days after the victory of the Iranian Revolution. These courts still exist nearing 40 years on but were oriented initially like many revolutionary tribunals towards clearing out hated servants of the old regime.

And like many revolutionary tribunals they developed a reputation for delivering justice more swift than measured — with one-sitting procedures where defendants faced hectoring judges and surprise charges without benefit of that “Western absurdity,” a defense counsel. For the Ayatollah Khomeini, revolutionary courts weren’t a probative exercise but a vehicle for delivering popular justice. “If the revolutionary courts did not prosecute them, the people would have gone on a rampage and killed them all,” he said of the courts’ targets.

This sentiment was echoed almost word for word by a spectator in this case, who (according to an April 13, 1979 New York Times profile) shouted at the judges during an adjournment that “if the court forgives him, the people won’t and will get him!” The major’s courtroom was packed with 200-plus spectators, many of whom could show the scars that the Shah’s torturers had left them.

Though he must have known he had no real hope at acquittal, Yahyahi fought his corner — for there was still the hope of a prison sentence, which his co-accused received, instead of death. Accused of abusing prisoners at Qasr Prison, Yahyahi protested that he had been forced to do it, that “the system was there, I didn’t create anything … I’m a nobody.”

“You wouldn’t understand it unless you put yourself in my shoes,” he explained unavailingly. “I asked for a transfer. I tried hard to get out. You must take that into consideration.”

A parade of witnesses described the torments of the Shah’s prison; Major Yahyahi’s rank at the facility was enough to condemn him for command responsibility, even absent witnesses who could link him personally this or that thrashing.

“It is not the individual who is on trial,” the mullah-judge presiding explained, repeatedly. “It is the regime.” The toppled regime, after all, had been convicted already.

Major Yahyahi’s trial (together with four others) consumed the court’s business on April the 12th. By that night Yahyahi was condemned to death; he was executed by firing squad the very next day, only one of ten people put to death around Iran on April 13, 1979.

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1984: Ten members of the Tudeh party

Add comment February 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the Islamic Republic of Iran completed its destruction of the Tudeh party with ten executions.

In the 1940s, the Tudeh was Iran’s largest mass party and a fair bet to take power in the near future but state repression after Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 had largely driven the Communist movement to the skulking margins.

Its fragments hung on underground, preparing and organizing for the proletarian revolution — an orientation that would leave the Tudeh entirely unprepared for the Iranian Revolution that really occurred. In fairness, few from Tehran to Moscow to Washington could read those tea leaves: who in the winter of the Cold War anticipated a great regional prize like Iran being captured by … the mullahs?

The Revolution released the once-banned party onto terra incognita as a minor outlet for leftward sentiment and perhaps a show of democratic good faith. But from the start it awkwardly existed on sufferance of an entirely incompatible regime. The venerable English journalist Robert Fisk, who covered the Iranian Revolution, filed a wry dispatch for the Times (Nov. 26, 1979) from the Tehran offices of Tudeh leader Nouredin Kianouri — unconvincingly trying to position his own movement within the events sweeping everyone along.

Tudeh is involved in “the radical struggle against imperialism”, and “the struggle for the reorganization of social life, especially for the oppressed strata of society” … and in so far as it is possible, Tudeh — Iran’s oldest political party — stands for the same things as Ayatollah Khomeini.

That, at least, is the theory: and Mr Kianouri holds to it bravely.

Tudeh demands a “popular front” government in Iran and Mr Kianouri professes to see little difference between this and Ayatollah Khomeini’s desire for national unity. “Popular Front”, however, is not an expression that has ever crossed the Imam’s lips and it is difficult to see how Iran’s new fundamentalist religious administration could form any cohesion with the materialist aims of Mr Kianouri’s scientific Marxism.

The article’s headline was “Ayatollah tolerates Communists until they become too popular,” but Tudeh never fulfilled its clause: it was blown out in the 1980 election, failing to win even a single seat, and maneuvered ineffectually for two years until a crackdown shattered its remnants with over 1,000 arrests early in 1983,* heavily targeting Tudeh-sympathizing army officers.** (The aforesaid Mr. Kianouri was forced to make a humiliating televised self-denunciation in 1983, although he surprisingly avoided execution.)

Those arrests culminated in a large show trial of 101 Tudeh principals in December 1983-January 1984, followed by smaller trials of lesser Tudeh figures in several cities over the months to come.

Eighty-seven Tudeh officials caught prison sentences ranging from eight months to life; these “lucky” ones, along with hundreds of other Tudeh adherents arrested in the years to come, would later be well-represented among the victims of Iran’s 1988 slaughter of political prisoners.

That left ten† reserved for execution on February 25 on charges compassing espionage, treason, and the weapons they had once naively stockpiled to fight against a monarchist coup. Notable among them were four high-ranking military officers: Col. Houshang Attarian, Col. Bezhan Kabiri, Col. Hassan Azarfar, and the chief catch, former Navy Commander Admiral Bahram Afzali.

Formally banned in Iran, the Tudeh party does still exists to this day, an exile shadow of its former glory.

* The U.S., officially abhorred of Iran, was in this period covertly aiding Tehran to raise funds to illegally bankroll Central American death squads — the Iran-Contra scandal. According to the American Tower Commission investigation of those events, the Tudeh were one of the lesser casualties this foreign policy misadventure when U.S. intelligence about the Tudeh network, largely obtained via a KGB defector, was passed to Tehran as a pot-sweetener: “In 1983, the United States helped bring to the attention of Tehran the threat inherent in the extensive infiltration of the government by the communist Tudeh Party and Soviet or pro-Soviet cadres in the country. Using this information, the Khomeini government took measures, including mass executions, that virtually eliminated the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran.” (See Appendix B here.)

** Iran at this moment was two years deep into its war with Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, having in 1982 stalled out with a bloody and ineffectual offensive.

Other background of note: a different, Maoist party had in early 1982 launched a failed rising against the Islamic Republic.

† This doesn’t add up to 101. According to Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, “when a Japanese correspondent asked why the numbers of those sentenced did not tally with those originally brought to trial, he [Mohammed Reyshahri] hedged, it was rumoured some had died during their interrogation.”

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1979: Rahim Ali Khorram and Habib Elghanian, millionaire businessmen

1 comment May 9th, 2013 Headsman

Iranian Revolution firing squads claimed seven lives on this date in 1979, including two multimillionaire businessmen.

One of the businessmen was Rahim Ali Khorram, “an immensely rich contractor who built roads and airports for the government, and sometimes used his 2,000-man work force as a political shock force in support of the Shah.” That quote is from a New York Times profile of Khorram’s son, Hossain, who says that he himself was led out for a mock-execution not long after. (Hossain also says that his father was dead or dying of a heart attack as he was dragged out for execution.)

The charges against Khorram pere consisted of “operating gambling dens, cabarets and a prostitution ring* and feeding a man to a lion in his amusement park.” No lie. He was supposed to have an entire secret necropolis in that park stuffed with the bodies of his enemies. (New York Times, May 10, 1979.)

Habib Elghanian

The other businessman was the Jewish-Iranian plastics mogul Habib Elghanian.

Elghanian was the first Jewish person executed during the Iranian Revolution. His death on charges of spying for Israel, fundraising for Israel, and “friendship with the enemies of God” for having met with Israeli politicians, greatly alarmed Iran’s Jewish community: many fled the country, something Elghanian had pointedly refused to contemplate.

Though Elghanian allegedly claimed not to be a Zionist, he had investments and contacts in Israel — and a radio denunciation made clear to what extent such an association would be anathematized going forward.

He was a disgrace to the Jews in this country. He was an individual who wished to equate Jewry with Zionism … the mass of information he kept sending to Israel, his actions to achieve Israel’s designs, the colossal sum of foreign exchange and funds he kept transferring to Israel; these are only samples of his antinational actions; these were the acts used to crush our Palestinian brethren. (Source)

Weirdly, this execution has made news more recently: the Stuxnet computer worm, which is widely thought to have been engineered in Israel to attack Iran, contains the string 19790509. It’s been hypothesized that this apparent reference to May 9, 1979 might allude to Elghanian’s execution.

* Alleged clientele: the already-executed Gen. Nematollah Nassiri.

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1979: Twenty-one by revolutionary courts of the Iranian Revolution

Add comment May 8th, 2013 Headsman

At 5 a.m. today, 21 people were shot in Tehran by sentence of the previous day’s revolutionary court — the largest mass-execution since the Iranian Revolution three months prior. “Revolutionary courts consolidate the gains of the revolution,” exulted an official newspaper.

While the bulk of this morning’s condemned were lower-ranking Savak personnel or former policemen, several distinct VIPs were also shot along with them.

Gholam Riza Kianpour

The names of all 21 people executed this date can be perused by date-searching the Iran Human Rights Memorial database.

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1982: Khosrow Khan Qashqai

Add comment October 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1982, Khosrow Khan Qashqai was publicly hanged in Shiraz.

A member of the pastoral Turkic Qashqai people of southern Iran, Khosrow returned from exile* with the Iranian revolution. These were the revolution’s hopeful first days, when SAVAK was gone and a new world was possible.

Before it went all pear-shaped.

Not long after Khosrow’s constituents sent him to the new Iran’s new Parliament, relations with the emerging theocratic dictatorship soured, sending the Qashqai leader fleeing to the hills one step ahead of the new secret police in 1980.

Khosrow et al held out for two years before succumbing to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards — a grim period throughout Iran, marked by growing suppression of political dissidence and the ruinous war with neighboring Iraq.

Thirty years on, Qashqai still labor under discriminatory cultural restrictions and even property expropriation that the U.N. has charged constitutes a campaign of “ethnic restructuring”.

* The Shah kicked him out for having backed Mossadegh.

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1979: Four Generals of the Shah

12 comments February 15th, 2010 Headsman

Shortly before midnight this date in 1979, Iranian royalist Generals Mehdi Rahimi, Reza Naji, Manuchehr Khosrodad, and Nematollah Nassiri were shot in a Tehran school courtyard after a snap trial by the newborn Iranian revolutionary regime.

General Mehdi Rahimi.

The Iranian Revolution had only just overthrown the remains of the absconded Shah’s regime; the country observes the “Decade of Fajr” over the first 11 days of February, commemorating the “Dawn” of the Islamic Republic from the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to the fall of the luckless loyalists installed by Pahlavi on his way out the door.

In this uncertain situation, the new regime seized its newfound authority … violently.

General Rahimi — probably the most voluptuously eulogized of the bunch — still pulls tribute for his loyalty to the collapsing monarchy, and his salute to the Shah even when in revolutionary custody.

Lower-profile to posterity, Naji had once governed Isfahan under martial law; Khosrodad was a general of the air force; and Nassiri headed the hated secret police SAVAK.

All were convicted of the catch-all charge of “corruption on earth” (just imagine what they’d do with the banksters!), and upon a quick confirmation of sentence from Khomeini, immediately shot. (Their property was also confiscated.)


See? Shot.

The notorious hanging judge who chaired the drumhead tribunal later recalled in his memoirs

The first people I tried and punished for their deeds were Nematollah Nasiri, head of SAVAK, and Khosrodad, air force commander; Naji, martial law administrator of Esfahan, and Rahimi, martial law administrator of Tehran and head of police force. … All the people who were sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunals were the best examples of ‘corruptor on earth’ and they were executed as such.

A Corruptor on earth is a person who contributes to spreading and expanding corruption on earth. Corruption is what leads to the decline, destruction and the deviation of society from its nature. People who were executed had strived in spreading corruption and prostitution, circulating heroin, opium and licentious behavior, atheism, murder, betrayal, flattery, and, in sum, all these vile qualities. These people’s problems were aggravated by the fact that they did not repent once they saw the people’s revolution.

I believed at the time, and I still believe, that all the parliamentarians and senators, all governors, heads of SAVAK and police, who held office after 1963 and the Imam’s boycott, should be sentenced to death. High-ranking ministry officials who were instrumental in the survival of the [Shah’s] apparatus and who, for getting close to the Shah and his family, would accept any humiliation are all convicted (condemned).

To sum up, all the people that I condemned and who were executed in the early days of the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunals and later in the Qasr prison were all corruptors on earth and, based on the Quran, their blood was a waste.

(The executions were announced on February 16, and that date is sometimes cited as the execution date. Feb. 15 appears to be more strongly attested to me. Whatever the clock said, these men’s deaths marked the start of a juridical bloodbath.)

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1990: Pastor Hossein Soodmand, apostate

6 comments December 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1990, Hossein Soodmand, a Muslim who had converted to Christianity in the 1960’s, was hanged for apostasy under the sentence of a sharia court in Mashad, Iran — the last known apostasy execution in the Islamic Republic.

Soodmand’s post-conversion ministry in the Assembles of God church was not the sort of thing to endanger life and limb under the westward-looking Shah. But after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, there was a new sheriff in town.

Soodmand was not the last convicted or condemned for the crime — and converting to Christianity is still a crime — and his story has been back in the news of late because he may be in danger of losing his generation-long grip on the milestone.

In fact, he could lose the distinction to the next generation of his own flesh and blood.

The hanged pastor’s son, Ramtin Soodmand, was arrested in August, ostensibly for anti-government propaganda. But having followed his father’s evangelical footsteps, there was considerable fear — only slightly abated by his subsequent release on bail — that he could be put on trial for his life.

Amnesty International even put out an action alert for him during his detention, as a prisoner of conscience.

Around the same time, the Iranian legislature voted overwhelmingly for a measure to codify apostasy as a capital crime: confusingly, apostasy isn’t yet among the state’s statutes, but can be referred to sharia courts empowered to levy verdicts out of the Islamic religious tradition. (Besides Christians, Iran’s Baha’i are the other most likely defendants.)

The fact that these courts’ occasional death sentences since Soodmand have not been carried out is itself a telling indicator that the juridical disposition of apostasy cases in Iran is very sensitive to political pressure.

Small comfort to Ramtin’s sister Rashin Soodmand, who lives in London, and gave this moving interview to the Telegraph while her brother was still in a Mashad prison. In it, she describes her father spurning a bargain to abandon his illicit denomination in exchange for his life.

Of course, my father refused to give up his faith … He could not renounce his God. His belief in Christ was his life — it was his deepest conviction.

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1954: Hossein Fatemi, before the blowback

11 comments November 10th, 2008 Headsman

At dawn this date in 1954, the last Foreign Minister of democratic Iran was shot in Tehran.

It was a year since the dramatic events of 1953, when a CIA-backed coup d’etat overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh (or Mosaddegh, or Mossadeq, or Mosaddeq) for contemplating oil nationalization.

Over several chaotic days of “Operation Ajax” (or TPAJAX), the Mossadegh government repulsed a first coup attempt, then succumbed to another.

After Mossadegh initially appeared to have maintained his hold on power, the autocratic Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled for his life to Iraq and thence to Rome. Fatemi, Mossadegh’s forceful young foreign minister, excoriated the Shah in words that themselves raised the specter of execution.

A traitor is afraid. The day when you, O traitor, heard by the voice of Teheran that your foreign plot had been defeated you made your way to the nearest country where Britain has an embassy. (Quoted in the New York Times.)

Either way, it was high stakes for all concerned in oil country. There’s been contentious debate over the extent to which the affair was also a Cold War proxy conflict — or whether the involvement of the country’s Communist party was incidental, a smokescreen, or an outright stalking-horse for the west.

The coup against Mossadegh has emerged as a major historical turning point — and after the Shah was himself dramatically overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, not necessarily so successful for American foreign policy goals as it seemed at the time.

Appropriately — in fact, with eerie prescience given the events that then lay a generation in the future — a recently declassified 1954 CIA report on the coup made the first known use of a neologism that has since grown increasingly familiar: blowback.

Possibilities of blowback against the United States should always be in the back of the minds of all CIA officers involved in this type of operation. Few, if any, operations are as explosive as this type.

Maybe those possibilities should be in the front of the mind.

Today, there’s a street named for Fatemi in Tehran, and — strange to say — still some number of Americans who anticipate the greeting due liberators should they ever manage to roll a tank down it.

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1979: Eleven by a Firing Squad in Iran

13 comments August 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the only anonymous photograph to win a Pulitzer Prize captured nine Kurdish rebels and two of the Shah’s policemen executed by firing squad in revolutionary Iran.

This shot, one of a series taken of the event with the permission of the judge who condemned the men to immediate death in a half-hour trial at the Sanandaj airfield, ran the next day in the Iranian paper Ettela’at, whose editor prudently kept the photographer’s identity secret. Within two days, the stunning photo had rocketed around the world.

It won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography the following spring, still credited anonymously.

Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal revealed — with the photographer’s permission — the identity of the man who shot this indelible image: Jahangir Razmi, who had gone on to a career as one of Iran’s top photographic journalists. He came to New York to collect the prize 27 years late.

The article breaking the story is still available on the Journal‘s website, and on the personal site of reporter Joshua Prager. An NPR story discussing the search for Razmi’s identity is here.

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