Prof. Sadegh Zibakalam, once a supporter of the Islamic Republic, has been more and more outspoken in his criticism of the regime. Some Iranians in exile are still suspicious of him, given that he is apparently able to avoid punishment and even retains his post as a professor at Tehran University. More in Zibalakam’s recent remarks can be found here: “Most Iranians don’t want Israel to be annihilated – Tehran prof.,” by Benjamin Weinthal,, April 2, 2023:
In a series of eye-popping comments from the Iranian Prof. Sadegh Zibakalam, who teaches at the reportedly antisemitic Tehran University, he slammed the Islamic Republic of Iran for its avowed policy to destroy the Jewish state.
Tehran University Prof. Zibakalam said in a panel discussion that was posted to the New Harf channel on the Aparat Portal website on March 14, 2023, that “You people say that you are on a mission to annihilate Israel. Who gave you this mission? The Quran? God? The Prophet? The constitution? Who? Let’s have a public opinion poll. IRNA, ISNA – all those regime outlets – can conduct it. If 50% plus one person of the Iranians say ‘yes’ then by all means, we should annihilate Israel. But I completely believe that not even 10% would say they want to annihilate Israel. [The regime] says that we should annihilate Israel, but 90% of the Iranian public says: ‘Why? How is this our business? This is a conflict between the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews. What does this have to do with us?’“
The US-based organization Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) first translated Zibakalam’s statements and posted the broadcast of his critique of Iran’s clerical regime.
Zibakalam said “Why was there a revolution [in 1979]? Because there were no free elections, no free press, no freedom to establish political parties and groups, and because there were 5,000 political prisoners and these prisoners were tortured.”
Zibalakam is making a point: the very conditions that prevailed under the Shah’s regime – the lack of elections, no freedom of the press, the lack of political parties, the torture of thousands of political prisoners – were what prompted the Revolution, yet, as Zibalakam’s audience knows all too well, these same conditions characterize the current regime in Iran also. None of the goals of the secular opposition to the Shah were met; in the theocracy that has ruled Iran since 1979, the repression has only gotten much, much worse.
He added that “But we are not saying these things. Why can’t we say these things? Because I would be spitting on my own face if I said that we [carried out a revolution] so that there would be free elections, and so that the judiciary would not be a servant to the ruling regime.”
Banafsheh Zand, an Iranian-American expert on the Islamic Republic, told The Jerusalem Post that “Zibakalam supported the revolution and the Khomeinist version of Shia Islam, which has always been an abject contradiction to the actual branch of Islam. Anyone with any knowledge of the nature of the two main branches of Islam and any honesty would have known that fact. That said, during the last decade or more, he has been openly criticizing the regime. He has done things like refused to walk over, and has walked around the US and Israeli flags that the Khomeinist regime has painted on the floors of their administrative buildings and offices.”
Zibakalam, it is true, originally supported the revolution, convinced like so many opponents of the Sha, that they would be able to overwhelm the Muslim fanatics who supported that aged cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, but instead it was Khomeini and his fanatical followers who crushed, imprisoned, killed, or caused to flee into exile, members of the secular opposition to the Shah, while keeping the “moderate” Shi’a clerics from power as well. For more than a decade Zibalakam has criticized the regime. He has flaunted his defiance of the regime by refusing to walk over Israeli and American flags painted on the floors of buildings at Tehran University. Is the fact that he has not been punished by the regime a sufficient reason to distrust him? Or does he simply have powerful friends, such as the former Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, and former President Mohammad Khatami, who have been protecting him?
Zand added that “But unlike other former regime supporters who have turned their backs on their past mistakes, and openly defy the regime, Zibakalam has not been arrested and jailed, which is one of the reasons why he is considered to be duplicitous and a phony. That said, he clearly understands that the end of the regime is drawing near and he should be encouraged to step up his criticism and even attack the Khomeinist brass.”
Is Zibalakam really “duplicitous and a phony” in his opposition to the regime? He does not appear to be. Years ago, he made a public apology for having taken part in Iran’s so-called “Cultural Revolution” that among other undertakings, purged the universities of Western influences by changing curricula and discharging professors deemed too Westernized. He deeply regrets his support for Khomeini and his clerical rule. And he is clearly angered by antisemitism. Almost a decade ago, in February 2014, he publicly recognized the State of Israel, a brave deed when the regime continually denounces the Jewish state as “illegitimate,” the Little Satan that must be destroyed. Amidst all the anti-Israel hysteria whipped up in Iran by the regime, Zibalakam has refrained from all criticism of the Jewish State.
Zibakalam earned a PhD in political science from the University of Bradford in Britain. The Shah’s government imprisoned him for two years due to his criticism of the monarchy.
Having been jailed by the Shah’s police for two years made him acceptable, at first, to Khomeini and his men. But over the decades, Zibalakam soured on the regime – not just for its “excesses,” but for its very essence, its oppression, its barbarity, its fanaticism. And while he was not imprisoned, the regime made it difficult for him to reach a wider audience by banning him, albeit temporarily, from both the traditional and social media.
In 2018, the Iranian regime’s opaque judiciary banned Zibakalam from media work, social activities for a period of two years. The regime’s crackdown on Zibakalam resulted from a 2018 interview he gave to Deutsche Welle’s Persian outlet, in which he said internal public discontent was the primary factor of upheaval in the nation that year.
Before the media ban in 2018, Mizan, an Iranian regime-controlled news agency affiliated to the judiciary, said he was facing allegations of “spreading propaganda against the state through giving interviews to foreign websites and trying to discredit the Islamic Republic’s ruling system.”
For at least the last five years, Zibakalam has with increasing virulence been attacking the regime through interviews with foreign media. In 2018, he was banned from both the traditional Iranian media and social media, but he could still speak out at the university where he taught. And when that two-year ban ended, he went right back to criticizing the regime. And yet he has not been arrested, which makes some Iranian dissidents in exile wonder if he truly is one of them. What must he do to persuade them that he’s one of them? He’s proved it, again and again. At no point in the last decade has he been anything but critical of the regime, and he has publicly flaunted his disagreements.
Zibakalam said during the March interview: “What percentage of the Iranian public says ‘Death to America’? What percentage says ‘Death to England’ or ‘Death to France’? What percentage accepts your policy of becoming Russia’s servant?”
Zibakalam has never been able to stand those screaming crowds denouncing the Great Satan, America and the Little Satan, Israel. He proclaims that only 10% of Iranians want to “annihilate Israel,” and he clearly stands with the 90% opposed. He despises the decision of the Supreme Leader to provide Russia with Iranian drones and other military aid. I do not see him as in any way helping the regime.
Sheina Vojoudi, an associate fellow for the Gold Institute for International Strategy, told the Post that “Zibakalam is a reformist. The opponents of the Islamic republic don’t trust him. He’s like Mostafa Tajzadeh. They criticize the regime from inside Iran but they don’t believe in regime change. They want to save the Islamic Republic.”
Where is the evidence that Zibakalam wants “to save the Islamic Republic”? That might have been true a decade or more ago, but it is certainly not true now.
Vojoudi, who fled the Islamic Republic due to persecution, told the Post that “The reformists speak well like Mohammad Khatami, Mohammad Zarif, Hassan Rouhani, Tajzadeh, Zibakalam but we call all of them regime’s sly fox, because whenever the regime was about to fall they saved it because the people believed that they really want to change something but it’s not true. The only power in Iran is Khamenei, his son and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The reformists only want more of a share of the power.”…
The charge that Zibakalam is one of the “sly foxes of the regime,” only pretending to be against it but really trying to rescue it from complete collapse, strikes me as unfair, given how long he has been outspoken in his criticism. Some Iranian critics abroad are so consumed with rage at the regime that they cannot conceive that Zibakalam, who once supported Khomeini’s revolution, because he still lives in Iran, and has not been imprisoned, can be trusted to be a sincere critic of the regime, and not someone urging just enough modification of its policies to ensure its survival.
I take Zibakalam’s dissent at face value. For more than ten years, he has been moving steadily away from the regime that he formerly, to his great and public regret, supported. He seems especially moved to criticize the regime’s antisemitism. Does he sound like someone of whom we should be wary? Does he sound like he’s trying to save an intolerable regime? Isn’t he, rather, someone we should celebrate?
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