A former SAVAK official’s attendance at a US demonstration has brought attention to divisions within the Iranian diaspora.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s secret police unit, SAVAK, which utilized harsh repression to suppress dissent when Iran was under his power, still bears scars from the torture that Amir experienced at their hands.
Amir got active in communist political activism as a student after growing up in a poor neighborhood in southern Iran. He participated in protests, studied forbidden books, and wrote for an underground publication.
He was detained by SAVAK in 1974 as a result of his dissident actions. Amir, who requested that his full name not be used out of concern for his safety, told the associated press over the phone of being electrocuted and subjected to hours-long cable beatings.
Later, when he went to the bathroom, he noticed his face deformed and bloodied in the water.
Amir was shocked to encounter supporters of the shah in what appeared to be an odd setting: a protest in the United States, given the brutality he had endured for his activism.
After Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died in September after being detained by Iran’s morality police, protests broke out in Iran and around the world.
Amir, who has been a resident of the United States for many years, was motivated to participate in rallies organized in his neighborhood by the protests taking place in his native country.
Yet the protests have brought Amir’s attention to the savage splits within the Iranian diaspora, particularly between those who view the shah and the nation’s present religious leaders as authoritarians and others who cherish their memories of the shah.
Now, I research the organization sponsoring a rally before I go, Amir added. “I don’t want to be among people who are going to be supporting the shah,” said the speaker.
Amir found it difficult to swallow banners featuring the late shah or his son Reza Pahlavi, but he was horrified to see Parviz Sabeti, a former senior SAVAK official, at a recent US rally.
Photos from the event on February 11 sparked a firestorm of debate, with some claiming that Sabeti’s attendance weakened calls for a democratic Iran.
Amir, who saw the images being shared on social media, said, “I thought this was unbelievable. “I felt as though Sabeti was making fun of us when I saw him. All of the beatings and torment came flooding back. It seemed like I was back in jail once more.
The Iranian-American community has a wide range of opinions on Iran’s political situation, and support for the shah is difficult to quantify.
More than 450,000 people have signed a petition on the website Change.org asking the younger Pahlavi to take the helm of the protest movement.
At the Munich Security Conference in February, Pahlavi told the news organization, Politico, that he shouldn’t be held accountable for his father’s deeds. People are aware of how important their job might be throughout a shift, he said.
Yet, for those like Amir, being forced to choose between the current Islamic Republic and those who supported the shah is a false choice.
“I hope that people in Iran will have the freedom to read and express themselves freely. Whether it be the shah or the current administration, the Iranian people don’t want to live in a dictatorship, he declared. I simply want the Iranian people to live in freedom.
Disagreements and, at times, antagonism have also arisen over how the US should engage with the current administration.
Such discussions have grown more contentious since the protests began, according to Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-born analyst, and reporter who lives in exile in the United States. Some people perceive any contact with the Iranian government as a type of appeasement.
“These are hard topics, and there is a lot of dispute within the diaspora,” Mortazavi told the associated press in a recent phone chat. But more ardent opponents of the regime have made an effort to paint as supporters of the dictatorship anyone who speaks out against things like the effects of US sanctions or in favor of negotiation.
Mortazavi claims that a surge of rape incidents and death threats have been directed against her and her family because of what detractors have called her “advocacy” for the government, which she vehemently refutes.
She claimed that because Iranians are unable to control the forces of repression, they seek out scapegoats out of frustration.
According to Mortazavi, part of the fierce online activity is propelled by accounts that appear to be bots. According to her, the existence of these automated accounts points to the participation of nations interested in promoting a more hawkish stance toward Iran.
The United Nations has voiced concern that Iran is getting closer to acquiring the materials required to make a nuclear weapon since the administration of former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from a deal that had prevented Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapon.
Yet, Iran has consistently refuted claims that it intends to develop a nuclear weapon.
The future of the present protest movement is still uncertain, even within Iran. The protests, in the opinion of many detractors, represent the strongest challenge to the current administration in recent memory. However, human rights organizations with international presence claim that a severe crackdown resulted in the deaths of hundreds of protestors, and Iranian security forces have been charged with using torture and coercing confessions.
Amir finds the playbook to be familiar.
“I left Iran in 1981 because I was aware of the nature of the Iranian people. The Muslim leaders who took over after the shah was overthrown in 1979, he claimed, “were the same as the shah. “The Iranian people opposed a tyranny.”
SAVAK (also known as Sazman-e Ettela’at va Amniyat-e Keshvar, meaning “Organization of Intelligence and National Security”) was the intelligence agency and secret police of Iran during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. SAVAK was established in 1957 with the help of the United States and Israel and was notorious for its human rights abuses, including torture, imprisonment, and execution of political dissidents, students, intellectuals, and religious minorities.
SAVAK was responsible for maintaining Shah’s regime and protecting him from opposition groups and individuals who opposed his rule. SAVAK used a variety of tactics to achieve these goals, including infiltration, surveillance, and repression of political groups, labor unions, and other organizations that were deemed a threat to Shah’s regime.
SAVAK was disbanded following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which overthrew the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. The new government under Khomeini accused SAVAK of crimes against humanity and many former SAVAK officials were tried and executed. Today, SAVAK is widely regarded as a symbol of Shah’s oppressive regime and is remembered for its brutality and human rights violations.