This past March Tehran University political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam said the unspeakable. In a wide-ranging foreign-policy debate with conservative journalist Seyed Yasser Jebraily at Islamic Azad University of Mashhad, videos of which have circulated widely on the Internet, Zibakalam blasted the Iranian government’s oft-stated goal of destroying Israel.
Sitting with Jebraily at a small, microphone-studded table, Zibakalam, dressed in an open-collared shirt and dark blue sports coat over his trademark suspenders, first argued that conservatives’ anti-American rhetoric was harming Iran’s national interest. Then he turned to Israel, saying that cries of “Death to Israel” do the same.
“Who gave the Islamic Republic of Iran the duty of destroying Israel?” he asked sarcastically to the audience’s thunderous applause. “Did the Iranian people have a referendum and say they want to destroy Israel? Did the parliament pass a law saying that we should destroy Israel?”
When hard-line hecklers tried to interrupt they were quickly shouted down by the crowd. “Twenty-four hours a day you have the radio, the television, Kayhan newspaper, the parliament, the Friday sermons,” Zibakalam boldly replied. “We have two hours here—one for me and one for Jebraily. You are so authoritarian and dictatorial that you disrupt even this.”
Make no mistake: This is dangerous speech. Though Israel and Iran had close relations before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and Israel continued to support Iran through the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, today questioning Iran’s official stance against Israel is taboo. But Zibakalam does not shy away from controversy, on Israel or anything else. The 67-year-old academic and former revolutionary is the most outspoken critic in Iran today.
Especially as nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic intensified over the past two years, he has been traveling the country engaging in public debates, publishing in the local and international press, and using his significant social-media presence to support the Iranian negotiations abroad and greater freedom at home. Among other recent campaigns, he has spoken out against Iran’s nuclear program, claiming that it is a waste of resources that brings negligible economic benefit, and has lambasted hard liners’ criticism of the just-concluded talks with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (known as the 5+1) saying that they represent a historic opportunity for Iran.
When asked if he is worried about crossing red lines, Zibakalam just laughed and said: “I’ve already crossed them.”
Sadegh Zibakalam was born in Tehran in 1948 into a political family. His father was a supporter of the charismatic left-wing Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, famous for his nationalization of the Iranian oil industry in defiance of British interests. Mossadegh’s overthrow in a 1953 CIA and MI6-orchestrated coup d’état helped solidify Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s authoritarian rule.
Zibakalam’s own political involvement began while he was a student in chemical engineering at the U.K.’s Bradford University in the late 1960s. The head of the university’s Islamic student society, like many other Iranian students studying abroad at that time he organized and protested against the shah. Upon his return home to Iran for a visit in 1974, he was arrested by SAVAK, Iran’s secret police, and spent two years in prison. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution Zibakalam briefly held various minor positions in the new regime before returning to the United Kingdom. He completed his doctorate in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in 1990 and then came back to a position in the Department of Law and Political Science at the University of Tehran, where he continues to teach today.
As is the case with many former revolutionaries, Zibakalam’s beliefs have shifted over the past 36 years. He is numbered among a group of former regime insiders, most prominently former president Khatami and the 2009 presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, currently under house arrest, who have become advocates of a more open society.
“I was anti-West, anti-U.S. I was anti-Israel. I was very much what the Islamic regime is at the moment,” he said of his revolutionary student days. “But subsequently many of us, even those students who took part in seizing the American embassy in 1979, have changed. We have realized after three decades that being anti-West may be important, but political freedom is much more important.”
He argues that while hard-liners claim that the West is opposed to Iran’s nuclear activity because they do not want a revolutionary country like Iran to prosper, he says that the real reason for American and European opposition lies elsewhere: in Iranian rhetoric and action against Israel. “The reason that the West is nervous and opposes our nuclear program is because Iran has stated very precisely and officially that Iran is going to destroy the state of Israel. Therefore the Israelis—as well as everyone else—can be worried about this country becoming engaged in uranium enrichment. That’s why the United States, Israel, and Europe are against our nuclear program. If we had not stated that we are going to destroy the state of Israel, none of this would happen.”
If questioning official rhetoric on Israel is taboo, casting doubt on the country’s nuclear program is even more so. In the eyes of many of Iran’s political elite, the program is much more than simply a technical or military boon. Iran’s ability to pursue advanced nuclear technology is seen as a symbol of the country’s self-reliance and freedom from outside influence, which was one of the major goals of the revolution against the shah’s American-backed regime.
“You must remember that up until a few years ago the nuclear program was holy; people worshiped the country’s nuclear program,” Zibakalam explained, referring to the period of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency from 2005 to 2013. “Now all of a sudden, someone is saying: What is the benefit of this?”
Despite this criticism of the program overall, he argues that the nuclear agreement represents a historical turning point for Iran on par with the Islamic Revolution. As he wrote in Politico in March, the agreement means that anti-Americanism will no longer be considered an unquestionable orthodoxy in Iranian politics. This change will pull the rug out from under conservatives who use opposition to the United States to justify their policies internally and internationally and will strengthen reformists and other moderates who seek more engagement with the West.
To those in the United States and in Israel who doubt the sincerity or trustworthiness of the Iranians to keep up their side of the bargain, Zibakalam offers the results of the 2013 presidential elections as proof. While hard-line candidate Saeed Jalili received only 8 percent of the vote, winning candidate Hassan Rouhani received 50 percent. “Rouhani does not believe in the ideology that says that Israel must be destroyed,” Zibakalam said. “I would say to Israelis, I would say to Americans, for heaven’s sake, those Iranians who believe that Israel must be destroyed are less than 8 percent. The majority of the Iranian people are not the enemies of the West, nor the enemies of the United States. They do not believe in the annihilation and destruction of the state of Israel.”
From Israeli officials’ harsh reactions to the recently signed agreements, it is clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government does not agree with this assessment. Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst Meir Javedanfar says that in Israel Zibakalam’s criticisms can serve as a healthy corrective. “He is a nightmare for those far-right Israelis who think that the only solution to the Iran problem is a military one,” he said, “and that the only way to deal with Iran is by attacking.”
Given his flouting of so many red lines, how is it that Zibakalam, unlike many other critics of the regime, is not in prison? Though he has had close calls—he was sentenced in 2014 to 18 months for publicly questioning the benefit of the country’s nuclear program, a sentence that was reduced to a fine on appeal—the professor himself admits that he is often asked this question. Some even assume, with a typically Iranian conspiratorial logic, that he is a covert government agent.
According to Abbas Milani, director of Stanford’s Iranian Studies program and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Zibakalam is protected by a constellation of factors: his background in the religious student movement; his apparent closeness to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful former president who was a pupil of Ayatollah Khomeini and one of the leaders of the Islamic Revolution; and his status as a professor at the prestigious University of Tehran. One can add to Milani’s list the fact that Zibakalam’s brother Saeid, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tehran, is a supporter of former President Ahmadinejad who has publicly attacked Rouhani’s government and the nuclear negotiations.
“Finally, the regime does need to show that there is a sense of pluralism in Iran,” Milani continued. “There are people who say equally radical things, but they don’t have the kind of venues that he does. For example, he is regularly on television, which is not something that is afforded to too many Iranian intellectuals.
“Remember what some of the radical elements of this regime did to Saeed Hajjarian, who was one of the brain trusts of the intelligence industry and one of the founders of the regime’s intelligence apparatus. The minute he began to criticize and act against the status quo, they tried to kill him. He is still in a wheelchair. So this is not a regime that goes lightly, even with allies who have turned critics. I’m not trying to undermine the value of what he is doing, or say that it doesn’t take courage to do it. I’m saying that that constellation has given him a special position.”
For ordinary Iranians, Zibakalam’s appeal is straightforward. “I don’t know how to measure support, but I think that he speaks for a lot of people,” Milani explained when asked how broad a following Zibakalam has inside Iran. “Every time that he appears on one of these shows on television and engages one of these clerics, I see that it very quickly becomes a subject of interest and people send the links to one another. To say that he is a supporter of Rouhani means, at least, that he speaks on the same wavelength as 18 million Iranians who have voted for Rouhani.”
Zibakalam described his own popularity in even more simple terms. “This is what people told me: ‘Professor Zibakalam, you are simply saying what is going on in our hearts, only we can’t say it.’ ”
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Samuel Thrope is a Jerusalem-based writer and the translator of Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s The Israeli Republic.