As a former political prisoner, I have been asked on many occasions what has kept the mullahs' regime in power in Iran for twenty five years. After all, the overwhelming majority of Iranians loathe them; their oil—driven economy is in shambles, with a majority of the population below the poverty line or very close to it. Internationally they are condemned as the most active sponsor of terrorism and major proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. So, what is their secret?
There are several reasons for their longevity. Iran's geography, its oil and natural gas resources, and the European Union's policy of engagement are among them. In this article, however, my focus is on the main factor: the unbridled, systematic, and highly organized suppression of Iranian citizens and dissidents. Iran's democracy movement must bring this structure of terror down before genuine change can be realized.
As a young student activist, I spent three years in the women's ward of one of Iran's prisons simply for engaging in political activity to promote democratic rights and encouraging others to get involved. It was in prison where I saw first—hand how the mullahs shield their tyrannical rule behind walls of suppression.
In Iran, a unique mixture of religious authority and demagoguery, combined with a bottomless coffer, and topped with unbounded capacity for savagery, has created the horrific machinery of terror and fear, which has served to preserve the ruling theocracy so far.
Similar to Europe's age of inquisition, Iran's apparatus of suppression legitimizes its barbarity under the cloak of religion. It has turned a sacred and compassionate religion into a tool to sanction killings, torture and destruction. Mosques and Friday prayer congregations have become instruments for spreading hate and vengeance.
Incapable of leading a nation of 35 million toward democracy, prosperity and progress, Khomeini—led clerics quickly realized after the 1979 revolution that they could hold—on to power only through a police state. They Set—up such organizations as the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Islamic Revolutionary Courts, the paramilitary Bassij force, and other agencies.
My time in prison was marked by unimaginable savagery of the prison officials and visiting mullahs towards prisoners who challenged the mullahs' political and ideological legitimacy, and their claim to be God's vice—regent on earth, by calling for popular sovereignty. They therefore were condemned for 'waging war on God.' This legitimized their torture and execution.
Female prisoners like me were brutalized even more. The mullahs' misogynous worldview goes through seismic jolts when they see women standing up to them. Many of my childhood friends ended up in the prison. Despite undergoing ceaseless physical and psychological torture, including rape, they remained defiant to the end. Many of them were snatched from our prison cells in the middle of the night and sent to the gallows. Some were buried in unmarked graves and at least two were pregnant when they were executed.
Relatives of political prisoners are denied access to universities, employment, traveling abroad and anything which requires government approval. Many relatives have been imprisoned just for sympathizing with their loved one's political views or with the democratic opposition. Some relatives are even executed. In my cell, two teenage sisters were detained simply because they had refused to appear on television and denounce their activist brother, who had already been executed. Both were executed a few years later.
Torture is also used for made—for—TV confessions about how the opposition organizations and activists are basically corrupt and worse than the regime. The mullahs seek to sow fear, confusion and doubt in the minds of people in order to undermine the quest for a regime change. This also explains why the mullahs continue to flog, amputate limbs, gouge out eyes, hang, and stone people to death in public.
Despite such pervasive, systematic all—around suppression and tens of thousands of political executions, Iran's ruling mullahs have failed to silence Iranians. Iranians continue to challenge the regime through demonstrations, strikes, uprisings and other means. But as long as the mullahs' machinery of suppression is in place, the regime will continue to crackdown, kill, arrest, and do whatever is needed to put down dissent.
On their own, the mullahs will never abandon the suppression of Iranians, close down their torture chambers, send away the firing squads, and dismantle the gallows. Therefore, Iran's democracy movement, which rightly seeks the toppling of this regime as the necessary first step to establish a secular democracy in Iran, must be empowered to tear down this wall of suppression. When that happens, the world would see how fast the mullahs' regime would crumble.
It is not enough just to applaud Iranians' courage and their aspirations for a democratic government. Defending and safeguarding the human rights of Iranians and all Iranian dissidents must be the main component of any policy in support of Iran's democracy movement. Thousands of political prisoners who have died in the hands of mullahs and hundreds of others who are in their dungeons right now deserve this recognition.
Roya Johnson is vice president of the US Alliance for Democratic Iran.