Iran As A Cautionary Tale For Arab Spring Leaders?

The prominent Iranian dissident Ebrahim Yazdi was recently sentenced to eight years in prison, partly because he wrote a letter to Tunisia's Islamist leader that urged him not to go down Iran's path. Just over a year since Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, host Michel Martin hears from Yazdi's son, Youseph.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to turn now to a personal story to mark the anniversary of the Arab Spring, and it is something of a cautionary tale. Ebrahim Yazdi was the first foreign minister of Iran after the 1979 revolution. He was quickly sidelined by clerics and eventually became a critic of Islamic hardliners in Iran. Now Yazdi faces an eight year prison sentence for criticizing the government. That happened in part because of a letter he wrote warning the leader of Tunisia's moderate Islamist Party to watch out for the rise of fundamentalists in that government.

We wanted to know more about what lessons Mr. Yazdi wanted to pass on. So, we've called upon his son, Youseph Yazdi. He is the head of the Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design at Johns Hopkins University and he's with us now in Washington. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

YOUSEPH YAZDI: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: I just have to wonder that this must be a time of great anxiety for you. So I do want to ask how you are.

YAZDI: Well, thank you very much. It's a very stressful, difficult time but amazingly when I talk to my parents in Tehran they are very strong-willed, positive and they're the ones who are giving us emotional support, rather than the other way around.

MARTIN: And that is the way parents are, aren't they? So, but I do want to ask you to go back a little bit in history because I think it will be a surprise to many Americans thinking about that period that there was ever any struggle at all in Iran after the revolution between the hardliners and others. Could you just talk a little bit about that?

YAZDI: Yeah, it went by so fast that many people didn't notice it but Iran was at a crossroads right after the revolution and there were very powerful elements on both sides pushing the nation toward, or leading the nation toward freedom and democracy and an open, liberal democratic society with respect for religion, of course. And that was represented by the Freedom Movement of Iran of which my father's a secretary general. And then on the other side were more religious conservative elements who really had no history with democracy and no value for popular sovereignty.

MARTIN: So, that brings us to the present day. Talk a little bit about the content of your father's letter. He wrote in part, I pray that God protect you from repeating the mistakes we have made in Iran. And as I mentioned earlier, he wrote this to the leader of Tunisia's moderate Islamist party. What mistakes is he referring to?

YAZDI: In that period of time, that first year after the revolution when Iran was at a crossroads, a lot of the liberal democratic forces started squabbling amongst themselves, so the Freedom Movement was trying to rally all democratic opposition and democratic forces to make Iran more of a democracy.

But there was so much in-fighting amongst them that it resulted - and in the back of the scenes, there was a very powerful, well-organized, motivated, religious conservative movement that basically was able to bring forces out to the street. And I think the biggest mistake was among political leaders, that they did not realize the danger that faced them, that's waiting there, much more organized, much more disciplined forces.

And I think the same thing - I can see it in Egypt and places like Tunisia, where you have radical forces waiting in the wings, very powerful, organized. And they could step in at any minute and it's really important for democratic forces to unite and know the danger that's facing them.

MARTIN: A big part of your father's letter, in fact, is devoted to the importance of protecting minority rights and diversity of opinion. I think this really speaks to kind of a fundamental question that I think many people have about whether it is possible to have a fundamentalist presence as part of government because these people obviously deeply believe that their way is the right way.

Is it possible to have a coalition government with that point of view as part of it?

YAZDI: You hit the nail on the head. Can a very deeply devout religious person compromise when it comes to national interests? One of the elements of the letter is that even a devout person, when it comes to practicality and implementing practical rules and governance, that it's acceptable to make compromises because you need to do that in order to secure the benefit of the whole nation. You can't impose your values on the whole nation.

MARTIN: Well, the history of Iran would suggest that you can because they are.

YAZDI: You can at great peril. Not without harm to the nation. And, basically, that has happened in Iran and it has resulted in tremendous harm to the nation. I think that's the lesson; that religious people need to realize that compromise is acceptable. It's a practical part of our religion. If you look at the history of our prophet, he made great compromises in the course of his political campaign, and I think that's something we all need to take to heart.

MARTIN: You know, given your father's difficult history with the regime, post the revolution and post his service in the government, are you hopeful about this chapter, that this will have a positive end?

YAZDI: I think so, and part of it has to do with his experience here in the U.S. I mean, he was here in the '60s and '70s and, as you know, that was the heyday of the anti-Vietnam War Movement and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. And he was really inspired by the potential for nonviolent action to really change the reality of a nation. And that's been the path of the Freedom Movement over the last 30 years, nonviolent reform of the system.

And it's darkest before the dawn, to use a phrase that's been quoted a lot. But I think Iran is at that dark point, but the path that they've taken in nonviolent resistance is starting to show fruit; that within the regime itself, there's an erosion of support for the more radical elements and increasingly you see within the families even of regime supporters, there is a movement over in the direction of supporting a more open and free society.

MARTIN: Youseph Yazdi is the son of the well-known Iranian dissident, Ebrihim Yazdi. He, the younger Mr. Yazdi, heads the Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design at Johns Hopkins University, but he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you so much for joining us.

YAZDI: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, court watchers are saying the Supreme Court has just decided the most significant religious freedom case in decades. We'll dissect the case and what it might mean just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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