Siavash Safavi is a dissident from Iran now living in Toronto, Canada. Born in Tehran he moved to the north of Iran with his family when he was very young. Seven years ago he fled Iran after being arrested for political protests against the regime and escaped to Canada via Turkey. Over Christmas, 2016 an Iranian newspaper listed him as one of their top 30 traitors to the country.
Safavi now runs the Civil Space Network alongside co-founder Daniel Bordman, which uses comedy to illustrate current affairs issues and promote classical liberal ideas. You can subscribe to the Civil Space Network YouTube channel, join them on Facebook and support them on Patreon.
He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about the current protests in Iran and his own story of escape from the Islamic Republic.
Clarion Project: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Siavash Safavi: I was born in Tehran but my family moved to the north of Iran near the Caspian Sea when I was little. It’s very temperate weather, between the mountains and the sea. I went to university there initially to study accounting. The second year I went to my dad and said either I can drop out or blow my brains out. So I switched to English literature.
Clarion: How did you go from studying English literature to fleeing the country as a political dissident?
Safavi: When I went to University for the second time, former President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been in power for about two years. When he came to power, the first thing he did was shut down all the student associations. They were the largest and strongest non-governmental organizations in Iran. Every university had one, which sent a representative to the national congress. They were very strong during the period of reformist President Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005).
Along with the others, our university association was shut down and its members were arrested. After a year of closure, five of us decided to reopen the association. We applied for it legally and they wouldn’t let us open it, but said we could run it unofficially. The first thing we dealt with was about surveillance. The administration was putting up cameras on the university campus in every classroom and to cover every inch of campus. So we gathered student signatures for a petition asking the university to let us know who would be watching these videos and what the purpose of the cameras was.
Although what we did was in no way illegal, we were sent to a disciplinary committee for it.
Next, we held an open-mic rally in the university, which we planned very secretly and we brought in the apparatus, the mics and everything, secretly. We had a good rally and were sent to disciplinary committee for that, too. We also ran a book club teaching classical liberalism and stuff like that. Things were going well until the second term elections of Ahmadinejad happened in 2009. Just before the election, the Iranian regime’s “Pravda” announced that Ahmadinejad was going to win with 63 percent. They called it an “Ahmadinejad tsunami.” Then two hours after the election, they announced he had won with 63% of the vote.
Watch Safavi on a Civil Space video explaining the Iranian Republic of Iran for Dummies:
Clarion: Many Iranians felt the election had been rigged. The Green Movement took off in Iran to protest the outcome. Three million people were involved in protesting before the movement was eventually and violently crushed.
Safavi: Two days later the intelligence forces kidnapped the political-secretary of the association. There were six of us on the board, I was head of communications. It was during the final exams period. We held a rally to ask the university dean where he was, because the dean was a member of the security council for the province. We wanted him to just let us know how this student of his was doing, where he was and how was he being kept. He didn’t respond.
On the second day, we had another rally. This time 4,000 students came out of 12,000 students overall. Final exams got cancelled and at around 2 pm the university started to get surrounded. First police came, then some army jeeps came with soldiers. Next some trucks came and dropped off the paramilitary Basij militiamen, with their faces covered and holding big sticks. Soon we saw every type of military the Islamic Republic has in front of our university. By around 5 or 6 pm, the university was completely surrounded so people couldn’t escape any more.
At around 9 pm, we realized that they were going to come in. So we started negotiating with the representative of the interior ministry who was there. We asked them to pull the Basij militia back so the girls could get into their dorm. Because there were so many protesters, we knew that the government couldn’t write everyone’s information down. This way the girls at least wouldn’t get into trouble because they could just say they were in the dorm.
They pulled the Basij back allowing the girls to go to their dorms and then came in and we surrendered. They told us they would escort us to the dormitories. But when we saw there was a colonel from the robbery and homicide division there, we knew he was not there just to escort us to the dorms. By the time we surrendered, there were only around 300 people still left. They packed us up onto buses and took us to the police station.
There was a university Basij representative there and a representative of university security. From that group of 300, they took out 30 people after taking names from the others and releasing them. From the remaining 30, they took out 10 people after consulting with the university security representative. So that was the six members of the board, two socialist students, one who was very active that day and one who was just a Sunni Kurd. The guard heard his name and asked if he was a Kurd and if he was Sunni and he said yes, so they dragged him alone.
Then they took us to the robbery and homicide jail. They put us in the jail and we stayed the night there. It was a big cell all together with one shared toilet. It was horrible. The next day they took statements from us. They didn’t let us speak to a lawyer or anything. The judge said we would spend two nights in jail while he decided what to do with us. Those two days turned into weeks, still with no contact with family members who didn’t know where we were or what was happening. I had spoken to my dad briefly when they took us away on the bus to let him know I wouldn’t be coming home soon and they were arresting us. He was very cool he said, “Yeah, they are arresting a lot of people.”
Then they took us to a special ward for political and religious prisoners in a different prison. While we were there, each of us was interrogated a few times. We were also beaten. I had my face smashed into the ground a few times. After about a week, there they sent in these three big criminal looking dudes into our ward. It turned out one was a gang leader who was there for murder and necrophilia. I could write a book just from meeting this guy who was in jail for murder and necrophilia.
Because they didn’t get anything in the interrogations, they sent them in to basically beat us up a bit, scare us and show us a “good time.” What saved us — because we were all nerdy students — was that one of us, the most athletic one, was a wrestler. He started to suck up to the leader, who was called Mahmoud Dinosaur, and say, “Hey, do you go to the gym? You look well built” and stuff like that. So the guy said, “Yeah, I go to this gym,” and our friend said, “Oh wow, I go there all the time too. Do you know this guy? He is my best friend.” And then Dinosaur said, “Yeah, he is my cousin.”
And that’s how we were not raped in prison.
Mahmoud Dinosaur told us the gang were sent here to rape you, but you guys seem cool so we won’t. And they had raped many other people. So a few days later, they allowed our families to visit. After another couple of weeks they took us back to court again, and the judge sent us home on bail.
A couple of months later our sentences came and we got six months. The judge said they were not going to enforce the sentence right away. When they give it to you, you have 30 days to hand yourself in and go to prison. So basically, they wanted to hold it over our heads, or maybe the prisons were full — we don’t know.
So the three of us from the association decided we were going to escape, because we didn’t want to go to prison again. We found a smuggler to take us over the Turkish border.
We used to joke that our smuggler was going to be the next minister of transportation after the regime was overthrown. He took less money than the others and even gave discounts to those who couldn’t afford his price. He paid all the drivers who picked us up in advance. We drove to one point, then another car picked us up and took us to another point, then from there another car took us to another point and so on until we were right up by the border in the mountains.
The border is a little canal with a small barbed wire fence. There is a small road there where patrols come and go and our smuggler had spotters there to tell him when the patrols come and go. We jumped over the border and ran down the hill and there were some horses to meet us there. We rode down into Turkey with a can of gasoline — we had to smuggle some gasoline as well — and then got picked up by a truck which took us to a small town. The next morning, a car took us down to the city of Van in southeastern Turkey. Because it was New Years, we stayed indoors for a few days until everything re-opened. Then when it did, we went to the UNHCR and filed for asylum.
I stayed there for a year until the Van earthquake happened and my house was destroyed, then moved to another city in Turkey and then to Canada.
Clarion: Can you tell us about some of the differences between living in Iran and living in the West?
Safavi: The biggest difference is the freedom, obviously. People in the West really don’t understand what it means to not fear the government and not fear even walking in the street and having tension. Even walking with a girl or being a little drunk, you wonder what’s going to happen, if I’m going to be arrested. On every street, there is a picture of some ayatollah staring at you and some religious text. You see police on the streets.
On the hijab issue, the reason the regime will never give in regarding the hijab is because that is one of its foundations. By having to enforce this rule, they can remain in people’s lives every day. The most personal aspect of your life is clothing.
Of course it’s good that people in the West don’t understand that way of living. Why would you want to have an idea about fearing the government like that? But you have to realize it is very important that we don’t have that fear. So we have to be very careful not to give that up.
Clarion: So reports that mandatory wearing of hijab in Tehran has been lifted are not true?
Safavi: That’s a lie, that’s fake news. We tried to raise awareness about it, we told everybody but they are not listening. The news was that the chief of police said women without a hijab (or a bad hijab) would not be arrested. But he never said that. What he said was women with no hijab or bad hijab will not be sent to prison. They will be arrested, but they will be sent to mandatory morality classes. Nobody talked about no hijab, it was just The New York Times that said no hijab is ok in Iran now. Even the police clarified, saying, “We will arrest you, but it won’t go on your record, we will just put you in a mandatory morality class.” And then a couple of days later, because all this propaganda went out, the police issued another statement saying, “No, we will arrest you.”
But The New York Times, none of them care, they just want to say good things about the regime in Iran.
Clarion: How widespread is resentment against the Islamic Republic in your opinion?
Safavi: Everyone in the country hates them. And the people are crying out of desperation, out of frustration, and they are literally in the streets saying, “We will die, we will die, but we will take back our Iran.” That’s what people were chanting in Zanjan and in many other cities. Protests are taking place in 66 cities. That’s revolution scale. Cities as small as a population of 50,000. You never see small cities like that get involved in big riots. It’s always big cities. But this time it’s everywhere.
Clarion: How are people communicating?
Safavi: The regime is basically cutting off internet. In every area, that is problematic; they shut off internet. Telegram, the number one popular communications app in Iran, is completely down. They also shut a few other communications apps. WhatsApp is still available, but I don’t know what the deal with that is or why it’s still available. They can still use the internet, but they can’t upload videos.That means people won’t be able to get news out about the protests taking place in their small towns.
And then the mainstream media, The New York Times, The Guardian and all of them start asking, “Hey, is it ok for the Iranian people to want a better future? How do we feel about this?” Here is the headline of an article in The Guardian: Iran’s Enemies Would be Wise Not to Wish for Regime Change.
The people are doing it! Who the hell are you! It’s like if someone was eating something for dinner and someone else came in and said, “You know, these guys eating dinner is a problem.” How is it any of your business?
Clarion: Some people are worried that it could turn out like Iraq or Syria and if there would be regime change, and what would come afterwards would be worse. Can you speak to that?
Safavi: That is the biggest fallacy that everybody makes, and I understand that. It’s the same region so since they don’t actually know the geopolitics and demographics of the region. They just see Iraq, Syria and Iran next door, so they think they’re all the same.
Iran, unlike every single other country that had a problem like this, (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, etc.), is a melting pot of different ethnicities that have been together as a country for thousands of years. They strong national identity. It is an Islamic identity, but luckily, the Islamic Republic — the first fundamentalist, radical, jihadist regime in the world — beat it the hell out of people.
It’s not that everyone hates Islam. They just don’t want it in politics anymore. They just don’t want to see it in the streets anymore. In western Iran, the Kurds — about whom everybody says want independence — were demonstrating in the streets chanting, “Independence, Freedom, Iranian republic.” Thirty-five years ago (at the time of the 1979 Revolution) that chant was “Independence, Freedom, Islamic republic.” Now Kurds also are saying Iranian republic. In Khuzestan, which is an Arab populated area, same thing. Everybody is focused on Iran.
Secondly, every other country with these problems were very hardcore fundamentalist countries run by a secular dictator. Fundamentalists wanted to overthrow the dictators. Iran already did this 35 years ago. Iran was ahead of the whole region. So people tasted Islamic fundamentalism and they don’t want it at all.
You see the biggest demonstrations in Qoms, the Vatican of Iran, the most important Shiite city in the world. Qoms and Najaf are where all the ayatollahs are trained. That’s where the seminaries are. And in Qoms, people came out onto the streets and said, “We don’t want the Islamic republic,” which blew my mind. In Mashhad, where the shrine of Imam Reza is, people said the same thing.
I’m getting this information from videos that are coming out; we have contacts in Iran; we’re calling people. I’ve been in Iranian politics for 15 years, so I’ve been speaking to a lot of people.
And many people are chanting the name of the former king. People are apologizing, literally apologizing, for the revolution of 1979. Some people want to see the shah return, by no means all of them. But that is an option. Reza Pahlavi, the son of the previous shah is still alive. I don’t mind if he returns or not, that’s for the people to decide in a referendum.
I don’t care, as long as it’s a liberal democracy. It could be a constitutional monarchy. It could be a representative republic or a parliamentary system. I don’t care. As long as it is agreed in a referendum and it is a liberal democracy. A constitutional monarchy could help in that people need a symbol right now. The Islamic republic has beaten people into submission, beaten their daughters in front of them in the street. Do you know what kind of effect that sort of thing has on people, to see those kinds of things every day? How traumatized they are?
So a constitutional monarchy might, in a way, be a safe feeling, restoring tradition and national pride, I don’t know.
So these other countries (Syria, Iraq, etc.) are moving towards Islamic regimes. We had them. We had ISIS. Thirty-five years ago, “ISIS” came to town. The difference was there were no cameras, no internet or satellites. Nobody found out the evils they did in this country.
Clarion: What are some of things the Islamic Republic did that people didn’t find out about?
Safavi: When the Islamic Republic came to power in 1979, for the first year they just executed anybody who had anything to do with the previous regime. The first female minister of health, for example. They executed her for sexual misconduct or some similar trumped up charge. The head of the Jewish community, one of the first guys to go.
In the military, every army officer above a certain level was killed. Two years later, Iran basically had 17 high-ranking officers left. Eleven were killed in one go in an “accident,” and a captain became the head of the Iranian ground forces. This is even though the army stood aside and said we are not going to participate in the revolution. Yet, they still got purged.
Then they went through the ethnicities. Kurds took the worst of it. They massacred Kurds. They sent helicopters and just bombed their whole region. In Ahvaz, [an Arab minority region], there were massacres of all political activists. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps went to Ahvaz and carried out street executions. They killed most of the political activists on the spot, in their houses or wherever. The Turkomans and Baluch were also persecuted. Sunnis got the worst of it.
Then they went after all the political dissidents, because there was just been a revolution and hundreds of different groups were involved. So they rounded up all the socialist groups. One by one they sent them to prison and executed them. Tens of thousands were executed in the first two years after the revolution.
The estimates are that over 100,000 were executed in the first three years. Then they went after the People’s Mojahedin Organization, who were the only ones left who were sort of religious. They started a civil war with them, killed a lot and sent a lot to prison. Then the prisons were full and the scene was empty from any political players. They killed or imprisoned all of them or forced them to leave the country. So, in a span of three years, they emptied the country of any intellectual or political power except themselves.
Then Iraq attacked Iran. The reality is that [Ayatollah] Khomeini’s ideology when he came to power was exporting the revolution. He announced it, “We will export revolution in the region.” And the first country they started to export it to was Iraq. Iraq has a large Shiite population and Iran started to cause problems.
Saddam Hussein sent a lot of messages asking to negotiate, asking them to stop exporting this ideology. They didn’t, so Saddam attacked with the help of the United States and other backers. Iran defeated Saddam in less than two years. Every square meter of Iran that was taken by Saddam was taken back. Iraq was kicked out of Iran.
Then the Arab countries and America said ok, let’s sit down and make peace, and we will pay you all the damages and more for what has happened. Khomeini said no, that the road to Al Aqsa goes through Iraq. He pushed through and then Saddam pushed back and used chemical weapons.
It got to a point where nobody in Iran would go to war because they knew they were just dragging it out to kill the youth. So Khomeini started sending people to schools to sell schoolchildren keys to heaven. That’s why we find photos of so many child soldiers from the Iran-Iraq war. Khomeini guaranteed to them that if they would become a martyr, they would go to heaven. A massive number of 13-14-year olds went to war and got killed. They would just send them over minefields, using them as cannon fodder.
After the war, they realized that the army was very weak, and they still had tens of thousands of prisoners that they had locked up right after the revolution. The regime couldn’t keep them all forever. Some of their sentences were going to end, and the regime was weak.
So they took them into a room and asked them one question. Based on whether or not they would believe the prisoners, not even their answer, they would decide whether or not to execute them. Around 4-15,000 were executed in prisons in about two weeks before the end of the war.
These are just some of the atrocities of the Islamic Republic until 1988.
Clarion: Do you think these protests are going to continue?
Safavi: In these situations, you really never know. There is sometimes a switch that brings the whole thing down and which wasn’t even planned. That’s what happened in the Soviet Union. It wasn’t supposed to happen, the regime wasn’t supposed to fall, but it did. The army was supposed to take over, but people were just tired. So you never know.
But this time, it’s in small cities even. Usually demonstrations happen in the big cities because the middle class is in the big cities. And the regime brings forces from small towns and areas to the big cities to shut down any demonstrations and kill people and beat them up. That’s how they do it in Iran.
During the Green Movement (in 2009), with all the might of the people, it was really just three cities. The main focus was Tehran. A little bit Isfahan, a little bit Shiraz and other cities, but Tehran was the main focus. So they choked Tehran, and it was done. I was in the streets, every few steps there was a soldier.
But now the protests are happening in small towns. There are two groups of people in the streets: One group is political, comprised of those who hate the regime; the other group also hates the regime but would never have come out of their houses into the streets if it wasn’t for the economy. They would have been too afraid to come out, but because of the economy, they literally can’t eat anymore,so they have come out to protest. And both are screaming, “No to the Islamic Republic.” They are chanting their hatred for the regime.
Clarion: What can people living in the West do to support these protests?
Safavi: You can support them just by spreading the word, fighting the fake news, shaming the news agencies and outlets that are trying to discredit Iranians rising up in every city. I’m talking about The New York Times, The Guardian, Reuters, which put up a photo of Benjamin Netanyahu for some reason under the title “Ten people killed in Iran.”
The other thing is to send messages to politicians. For example, Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada where I live, still hasn’t taken a stand.
Clarion: People have argued that Western leaders taking a stand in favor of the protesters will be bad for the protesters. What do you think?
Safavi: That’s B.S. That was when reformists were running the show, when they still had some credibility. They were basically the safety valve. But now one of the biggest chants in universities is “reformists, fundamentalists, your story is over.”
The protesters need international support.
Clarion: Let’s talk about your organization Civil Space Network. What is it and what do you do?
Safavi: When I came to Canada and saw the political atmosphere here, after two years I started Civil Space Network, a political video channel with my friend Daniel Bordman. He is a stand-up comedian, and I was doing stand-up comedy at the time, too. We started working on political fallacies and informing people about basic concepts that they might not hear truths about. We are basically moderate, conservative, classical liberal fellows, and we realized that there is no voice like that in Canada.
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