Remembering Ebrahim Yazdi

13 Sep

[Prefatory Note: I am republishing in modified form a short tribute to the memory of Ebrahim Yazdi. My original text, including its Arab translation, can be found at this link– I had the privilege of knowing Dr. Yazdi, a pharmologist living in Houston until the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, for the last 35 years of his life. A close associate of Ayatollah Khomeini, Dr. Yazdi became Foreign Minister in the Interim Government established immediately after the revolution succeeded, but resigned following the seizure of the American Embassy in November 1979, the point at which the Iranian revolution was dramatically radicalized and theocratized. For the remainder of his life, although remaining a devout Muslim, Dr. Yazdi struggled on behalf of constitutional democracy within the frame of the Islamic Republic of Iran. For these activities he was eventally sentenced to eight years in prison, and released a few years ago for health reasons.


More importantly, as my essay tries to highlight, Dr. Yazdi believed that despite the formal theocratic trappings, the democratic spirit continued to flourish among the Iranian people, and was indeed gradually transforming the Iranian state from within and below. Such a perception is especially important as this positive development has been put at serious risk by the Netanyahu, Salmon, Trump confrontational and warmongering diplomacy that strengthens the hand of hardliners within Iran and correspondingly weakens the positions of those continuing Dr. Yazdi’s brave struggle for a pluralist, tolerant, and progressive future with normalized relations with neighbors and the world.]



Remembering Ebrahim Yazdi

For all those dedicated to the attainment of real democracy, the name and life of Ebrahim Yazdi is a precious legacy worth reflecting upon because it has so much to teach us today. Among those who struggled for an Iranian future that was Islamic, genuinely democratic, and humanly decent no one was more steadfast and clear about their commitment than Dr. Yazdi. He participated in the revolution that overthrew the Shah long before its victory was achieved, and yet he vigorously opposed the radicalizing tendencies that led to the take over of the Iranian governing process at the time of the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.


I first met Dr. Yazdi in the middle of 1978 when he led a group of student activists at an event organized at Princeton University where I was a faculty member. It was my first encounter with the religious wing of the overseas movement opposed to the Shah. I had been previously supportive of those opposing the American interference in the internal affairs of Iran, a reality that existed ever since 1953 when the CIA played such a major role in the overthrow of the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq. Until meeting with Dr. Yazdi I had not adequately appreciated the role of Ayatollah Khomeini as the real leader of this extraordinary nonviolent revolution unfolding in Iran that seemed to be growing stronger each day.


Some months later I had the opportunity to meet Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris, and was impressed at the time by his seeming commitment to resume a religious life and let post-Shah Iran be run in Tehran by political figures dedicated to establishing a humane relationship between the Iranian state and its people. I was struck by the degree to which the moderate views of Dr. Yazdi seemed also to inform the outlook of Ayatollah Khomeini, as well as Mehdi Bazargan, who had been my host during a political visit to in the midst of the climactic phase of the revolution in Iran and just prior to the meeting in Paris.

Dr. Yazdi was an early supporter of Khomeini’s leadership and encouraged a post-Shah governing process that would be guided by a strong constitution and led by officials selected by the people in fully free elections. However, this moderate vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran was opposed all along by various hardline elements in the Khomeini entourage, while this spiritual leader’s attitude seemed unformed when it came to the post-revolutionary governing process. The views of Dr. Yazdi seemed to win out at first as reflected by the character of the Interim Government, but gradually lost out, being decisively rejected after the embassy seizure that led to Dr, Yazdi’s resignation as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the Interim Government that had been earlier appointed by Khomeini to run the country immediately after the revolutionary victory and until elections could be organized.


No one has yet clarified whether Dr. Yazdi was correct in thinking that Khomeini was undecided as to how post-Shah Iran should be governed until around the time of the hostage seizure, which had been provoked by the Shah’s admission to the U.S. supposedly for medical treatment, although others suspected Washington’s counterrevolutionary intentions. Reading his lectures on the governance of an Islamic republic gave one sense, his early tendency to surround himself with secular liberal political figures in Europe and America created a different impression. I had several intelligent friends who were strong supporters of Khomeini’s leadership at first who became disenchanted later on, and chose exile or endured imprisonment and severe alienation. Dr. Yazdi never chose the path of disenchantment and alienation.


Rather than withdraw from the political arena after removing himself from a position of governmental authority, Dr. Yazdi entered the opposition, forming a political party, the Freedom Movement of Iran, which was dedicated to the democratizing of Iran by legal means. He even sought the presidency as the party’s candidate in 2005. It is a tribute to Dr. Yazdi’s courage and perseverance that he never lost faith in this democratizing mission, and believed that despite all the adverse Western criticisms of the Iranian government, the people of Iran were increasingly learning, and even practicing, the true virtues of democracy, and more significantly, that this pattern of practice was slowly but surely transforming the reality of the Islamic Republic of Iran in desirable directions.


It is this faith in the Iranian people and the related conviction that democracy, if it is to take root, must be grown and nurtured from within a country and in harmony with its distinctive political culture that is the core belief of Dr. Yazdi. As such, Dr. Yazdi’s view clashed with America’s ‘international liberalism’ that acted as if democracy could be imposed from without, a position that reached its disastrous climax by the attack on and occupation of Iraq after 2003, an intervention partially justified under the banner of ‘democracy promotion.’


Dr. Yazdi was sentenced to prison by a military court during the Shah’s rule for anti-government activity and then imprisoned in Iran under similar charges, being released only after an international campaign appealed to Iranian authorities on grounds of health. The legacy that Dr. Yazdi leaves behind is the profound political message that not only can an Islamic orientation toward governance be combined with democratic pluralism, tolerance, constitutionalism and a receptivity to all that modernity has to offer, but that is must be so combined if humane governance is to be achieved for Iran and other countries seeking to embed the best of their political culture and religious traditions in their political institutions.


A crucial part of this message, which few have so far grasped in the West, is that this process of democratization is presently being realized by the Iranian people and many of their leaders despite many past mistakes and in the face of criminal abuses by the regime, and that democracy can arise unexpectantly when a convergence of ethics, religion, and politics takes place.


Dr. Yazdi’s way of interpreting Iranian developments is being dangerously obscured in the West by the current aggressive postures adopted and inflammatory propaganda disseminated by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. We who wish for peace and justice can only hope that Dr. Yazdi’s vision comes to prevail in Iran and is respected by the world, and especially by the United States. Although his lifelong preoccupation was Iran, Dr. Yazdi’s deep engagement with democracy has universal applicability, and never more than now, and not only in the Islamic world, but wherever people seek to live together in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding, somewhat along the lines that Jacques Derrida had in mind when he spoke of ‘democracy to come.’

6 Responses to “Remembering Ebrahim Yazdi”

  1. Beau Oolayforos September 14, 2017 at 1:16 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    As you wrote in a recent piece, the US would do well at this point to engage Iran, especially Dr Yazdi’s kindred spirits, and to distance ourselves from the brutal hypocrisy of Israel and the medieval tyranny of the Saudis. We read now of King Salmon “consolidating power”, arresting (and, once again, beheading?) numerous imams who happen to disagree with his ugly, grinning visage.

    As you emphasize, democracy and self-determination are unique, home-grown creations, which do not come from Beltway think-tanks. It is one of the most vital issues of our age, that the peoples of Kashmir, of Palestine, of Yemen, and all the rest, find a way to express their legitimate political will. We could help them, but first we need regime change at home.

  2. Gene Schulman September 14, 2017 at 5:13 am #

    “wherever people seek to live together in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding….”

    Unfortunately, so few.

    Nice piece about a nice man, Richard. And nice to have you back.

    • Oded Yinon Plan is dead September 14, 2017 at 10:32 am #

      You believe anything, don’t you? Yazdi was a CIA asset along with Sadegh Qotbzadeh, who became foreign minister after Iraninan revolution. Since these two individuals were living in America for many years, and Yazdi was actually A US CITIZEN, and Sadegh Qotbzade a CIA agent, both had close relations with state department like Ghani, in Afghanistan a CIA agent and US citizen, then Khomainie used them as a channel to negociate with American against their puppet, the Shah.
      Qotbzadeh, on behalf of the CIA, later staged a secret plan to topple the Iranian government, where it was exposed and later he was executed by Khomainie’s order. In fact, he asked for execution since he failed.

      Yazdi was not pro democracy, only wanted power to serve the US interest, like so many other puppets, Ghani in Afghanistan, Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya – a CIA agent and US citizen serving US interest in Libya.
      There is a camp in Iran where the foreigners call them ‘reformists’, many are traitors where they argue in order to get the trust of the mass murderers in Washington, Iran should give lots of concessions and ask for nothing from the mass murderers. This group where behind selling of the nuclear program. This view is rejected by the other views that the foreigners call them ‘hard liners’. The ‘reformists’ including Yazdi sold Iran nuclear program, yet US still keeps all the sanctions on Iran. The Trump regime let by the ziofascists including illiterate ‘advisors’ having only a BA degree, are advising the illiterate president on Iran and the Middle East to serve the interest of Isdrael. All are Israel firsters.

      Iran never sell its interest to serve the ziofascists’ agenda. The Oded Yion plan will be buried soon. We never allow partition of the regional states for the interest of the mass murderers and occupiers.
      Only dummies in America follow the zionist trap. What do you expect from the dummies?

      • Gene Schulman September 16, 2017 at 2:43 am #

        Nope, I don’t believe ‘anything’, or everything. But I’ll certainly believe Prof. Falk’s nuanced essay over your ‘illiterate’ screed. At least he has a PhD. What are your credentials? And why do you hide behind a pseudonym?

      • Kata Fisher September 20, 2017 at 8:08 pm #

        Hi, there You unknown stranger!

        A Note:

        Folks with PTSD and undetected and treated Brain Tumors are complicated to communicate within a way that is effective. In addition to that medicated /, substance use will hinder effective communications of any part of fractions that relevant for transition the meanings of the concepts. In addition to that, you may imagine that it is exactly same as reasoning with a drunk person.


        It may be only possible for Special Rapporteur to safely and comprehensively legitimately change/overthrow man-made governance that is/has been expired in relation to the standards and expectations of the times. Political upheavals are / may no longer legitimately work well in the frameworks of legitimately practiced/implemented International Law.

        If changes do not correctly address civil-eccalistical purpose — then self-determinations are / may be evil and invalid, and the only thing that is accomplished is a judgement upon all that are involved. (I see that was the case of Iran). I may not be wrong — that was my reflections.

        It may be possible that Dr. Yazdi did not accomplish what he truly was called to do because he took part in overthrowing (illegitimately/civilly-eccalisticaly illegitimately) Shah of Iran/his Family.

        Changes in Iran that much more democratic have to come legitimately trough civil-eccalistical leadership within the people of Iran, and absolutely no outside influence — which is not legit diplomacy.

        Nuclear security/nuclear deal must be strengthened in juridic person framework, and diplomacy that is legit is the only way to that and any further work toward the changes.

        Iran is doing just fine where they are right now and will do much better. Iran may need slight changes that they come along with their legitimate Juridic Person — as they continue to take their office.

        The United States needs Absolute Reform in Juridic Person. In such conditions, it is almost impossible for the United States of America to go about changes in Iran, and they must rely on new diplomacy’s within other countries — for example France to continue to further work in Iran, specifically.

        If outside forces start to twist things in the bad will — they will have judgement upon them-selfs. That is what happens, and it is not possible to avoid that. It gets worse.

        That is what I understood on that this far as I had reflections.

        The only person in the entire world I would absolutly love to meet is Supreme Leader of Iran and Dali Lama.

        Does anyone here know Supreme Leader of Iran, personal? His personal friends?

  3. Laurie Knightly September 19, 2017 at 12:45 pm #

    Given that it’s impossible to briefly summarize a complicated life like Yazdi’s, there are some statements in question such as ‘a pharmacologist living in Houston till 1979’. Born in Iran in 1931, he came to the US in 1961 as an anti-Shah dissident. As the US/CIA was pro Shah at that time, what is the story here? In 1966, he transfers his Freedom Movement, which was cosponsored with Qotbzadeh et al, to Beirut, spent some time in Egypt for anti-Shah politicizing,, and completes his PhD at Baylor in 1967. He becomes a US citizen in 1971 and Iran convicts him in absentia – 1975. In 1978 and ’79 he serves as Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s ‘advisor’ in both Iraq and Paris. He separates politically over US hostage taking and returns to Iran following the ’79 revolution – in and out of govt. He’s arrested again in 1997, and later released for health reasons.

    If this chronology is accurate, it’s not that easy to categorize Yazdi’s geopolitical position – albeit difficult to have one in a volatile world. A future ‘Islamic and democratic society’ however, seems antithetical in concept. An interesting rivalry exists between Najaf[Iraq] and Qom[Iran] involving the competing Grand Ayatollahs, numbered about 64. as to the power seat of superiority. Doubtful that much democracy is at issue.

    Essays like this are useful in trying to gain some insight into a very difficult area of study. An individual filled with ethical principles must still attempt their adoption in various degrees of conflict/beliefs and opposition, and must be evaluated in context.

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