Things could have turned out very differently for Shahram Rafizadeh.
The 44-year-old journalist and poet might have ended up dead, like some of his writer friends back home in Iran. Several of them were murdered in a series of political assassinations that began in the late 1990s.
Instead, Rafizadeh now lives outside of Toronto, where he writes about Iranian politics for the website Iran Wire and for Radio Farda, the US government-funded Farsi language radio station that broadcasts out of Eastern Europe.
He also continues to write poetry. One of his more recent poems, he says, is a harsh critique of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. And another is a melancholy one about not being able to go home, called “The Spring of Freedom.”
Rafizadeh wrote the latter one in 2011, as the Arab world started to erupt in popular uprisings aimed at toppling autocratic rulers. Those protests made him wonder if Iranian exiles like himself might ever be free to go home.
When it comes to freedom of expression, the Islamic Republic of Iran is among the worst of the worst. The country is ranked 169th, out of a total of 180 countries, on the 2016 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
Rafizadeh looks every bit the intellectual — glasses, leather jacket, cigarette. As a child, he would wake up early and recite Persian poetry out loud, annoying his father and his siblings.
Back in the 1990s, he made a name for himself in Iran as a newspaper reporter covering human rights. But at heart, he’s still a poet.
“If you want to write poetry in Iran, you really have to write about politics,” Rafizadeh says.
“The [Iranian] government intrudes into your personal life no matter who you are. That’s why, after the murders started happening, I decided to write political poems,” he says.
That string of murders began in 1998 and one of the first victims was a well-known poet named Mohammad Mokhtari, a friend and mentor to Rafizadeh.
“Other intellectuals were killed, too,” he says. “The Iranian regime was murdering innocent people just because they dared to call for political change and reform.”
Rafizadeh managed to shine a light on the killings with his writings in the pages of pro-reformist newspapers. But only for a time.
Eventually, Rafizadeh was arrested.
“I spent 86 days in a cell that was 1.5 meters by 2 meters,” Rafizadeh says. “And I was tortured.”
Even after he was released, pending trial, he says authorities threatened to harm his children if he didn’t make public statements saying he was treated well in prison and that his past writings were false.
Rafizadeh says he did what he was being pressured to do. But he adds that, “the Iranian public knew who was lying and who was telling the truth.”
“Other journalists besides me wrote about the human rights situation in Iran and we did have an impact,” Rafizadeh says. Nonetheless, he felt he had to leave the country after the courts sentenced him to 20 lashes and nine months in prison. He escaped into Turkey in 2005. Two years later, he got asylum in Canada.
Rafizadeh’s personal story is detailed in a new book called, “Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran,” by Laura Secor. She chronicles what happed to Rafizadeh and other civil society activists, writers and thinkers who were part of a larger pro-reform movement that rose to prominence in the late 1990s.
“The scene was really flooded with young people who were very enthusiastic about taking part in building a better future in Iran,” Secor says.
“But, as it happened, there is in Iran what you might call a ‘deep state.’”
The deep state as Secor describes it is made up of hardliners from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its intelligence agencies, and the judiciary. None of these political actors are entirely answerable to Iran’s elected government. That enabled the hardliners to launch a brutal crackdown against the pro-reform camp of then-president Mohammad Khatami and his supporters. The crackdown began in in the late '90s and continued into the early 2000s.
“The tragedy of those years was that, by the end of Khatami’s second term, a lot of Iranians were disillusioned. They felt that they had brought these [pro-reform] people into power, but that [the reformists] were not able to be very effective,” Secor says.
“Even when their own people — their own [pro-reform] supporters were being harassed or imprisoned or endangered by the security apparatus, the reformists were not able to effectively confront that deep state.”
Another character in Secor’s book is Asieh Amini, who confronted Iran’s judiciary to enforce a ban against the stoning of women accused of “chastity offenses.” Her chapter about Amini was also published in the New Yorker.
Many Iranian reformist intellectuals, Secor says, came to the conclusion that the real fight for reform is going to involved a political battle with the judiciary.
“You can fight for rights and freedoms in the political space all you like, but if there is not judicial protection of them, that is a fundamental problem,” she says.
So, should the pro-reform camp in Iran be hopeful?
“I see the behavior of the Iranian electorate as a reason to be hopeful,” Secor says.
Voters in Iran went to the polls in large numbers for February’s parliamentary election to support a list of moderate and reformist candidates, and to block the agenda of the political hardliners. Secor says this was a triumph of strategic voting on the part of the pro-reform side of the Iranian public.
Despite all the setbacks, Secor says the space for political participation in Iran is still being contested. At the same time, “There’s still some sense that ordinary people have a right to, and have some hope for, finding space in the system,” she says.
Shahram Rafizadeh says a couple of things give him hope for the future.
First, he names the nuclear deal that Iran reached with the US. Rafizadeh says the deal should remove pressure from middle class Iranians who have suffered under economic sanctions. And second, there’s the electoral system.
“When people voted for the moderates and reformists in the recent parliamentary election, that was an act of resistance against the Supreme Leader and the hardliners,” he says.
“And that is meaningful.”