iranwire.com – Members of religious minority groups in the Islamic Republic of Iran have faced institutional repression and neglect ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Among them are not only adherents to non-Muslim faiths such as Christians, Jews and Baha’is, but also Sunni Muslims, many of whom fought alongside their compatriots to bring about the overthrow of the Shah and were then left out in the cold.
One of these Sunnis was Nasser Sobhani, a former vocal supporter of a Sharia law-based Islamic government in Iran who parted ways with the new regime shortly after the revolution and was later executed in early 1990. A former close friend told IranWire about Sobhani’s fallout with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his subsequent life underground and his eventual arrest and death sentence.
Born in October 1951 in the village of Duristan, Nasser Sobhani was still a young scholar when he took part up arms against the then-Shah of Iran in his home province of Khuzestan. Initially an ardent believer in the principles of Islamic Revolution, he worked closely with the Sunni cleric and Kurdish political thinker Ahmad Moftizadeh to form the Central Council of Sunnah (Shams): a unified front for Sunnis to interact with the Shia-majority revolutionary government, which assumed that Ayatollah Khomeini’s promises of respecting democracy and pluralism would be kept.
It rapidly became apparent that they would not be. Ahmad Moftizadeh became a critic of the regime after Shia Islam was declared the country’s official religion in the constitution and Sunnis were removed from political positions. As a consequence, Moftizadeh was arrested in the early 1980s and spent the best part of a decade behind bars.
A former friend of Nasser Sobhani told IranWire that in the early days, he and other Sunnis had truly believed that if an Islamic government came to power in Iran, state-sponsored oppression and corruption in the country would cease and be replaced by a just system. “Nasser’s demand was for an Islamic government to rule,” they said.
“He also criticized government of Saudi Arabia at the time, saying this system was not fair either. During the Shah’s reign he fought against the government, and after it fell he was involved in the Islamic Revolution for almost another nine months. He really hoped that something would change for the better. Only when he was finally convinced this would not happen did he publicly state his opposition to the new regime.”
As a prominent local Mamousta (a Sunni term for a scholar) who had initially been in favor of the revolution, Sobhani fell foul of some local Kurdish opposition groups. “The IRGC and the army arrived in Paveh city,” his friend remembered, “to confront the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and the Komala Party, which were then trying to gain autonomy from the new government. An armed struggle broke out.
“The Kurdish forces believed that Moftizadeh and Sobhani were cooperating with central government. It was said at the time that if they found either of them, they would kill them – even though Sobhabi had nothing to do with the regime by then. It was for this reason that Kak (brother) Nasser went into hiding for a while, in the mountains.”
During the same period, the friend said, Nasser Sobhani had in fact criticized two of his once-closest friends – Mullah Ghader Ghaderi, Paveh’s Friday Imam, and military commander Sardar Jamil Babaei – for siding with the new regime: “He petitioned them both, saying, ‘Wait and see whether or not this government is what we really wanted.’”
Sobhani belonged to the school of Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, an Islamic scholar and jurist regarded as one of the founding fathers of Islamic modernism. Accordingly, he believed that the “authentic hadiths” were the result of the Prophet’s understanding of the Qu’ran during the period in which he lived, and some latent interpretations were forgeries contrary to the spirit of the Qur’an. For this reason, Sobhani was opposed to such practices as the killing of apostates and death by stoning.
In the early days of the Islamic Revolution, Sobhani had advanced these views at numerous meetings with politicians and Sunni scholars in Kermanshah, Qom and Tehran. In addition he was part of the congress appointed to evaluate the final draft of Iran’s new constitution – and as part of this, had three meetings in Qom with Ayatollah Khomeini himself.
Three Clashes with Ruhollah Khomeini
Sobhani’s old friend told IranWire that at the time of his meetings with the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Nasser Sobhani was both “clear and sympathetic” in tone. At the first meeting, he had outlined the demands of the people of Kurdistan and the Sunni population to Khomeini.
The second meeting took place after the regime’s troops had arrived in Kurdistan to confront the Kurdish opposition parties. “After the troops left, Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali [Khomeini’s newly-appointed Sharia judge and head of the Revolutionary Courts] came to the city of Paveh.
“It was the month of Ramadan. At midnight, someone informed Kak Nasser that Khalkhali had arrived at 11pm and had had several people executed by firing squad, without so much as knowing who they were. Kak Nasser was horrified. After morning prayers, he went to Khalkhali’s place of residence and an argument broke out between them. Kak Nasser asked, ‘On what basis did you shoot these six people? Who were they? What was their crime?’. Khalkhali replied: ‘It does not matter to me in the slightest who they were or what they did, or whether they committed a crime or not. I had them shot that they would learn a lesson.’ Nasser told him, ‘This is not what we had a revolution for. I will go to Mr. Khomeini tomorrow to protest.”
Sobhani made representations to Ayatollah Khomeini the following day. According to an eyewitness who was present on the day, he told Khomeini the new system was “not based on justice”. He was assured by the Supreme Leader in return that everything was being “taken care of” and that no-one was being oppressed.
“Khomenei’s response shocked and angered him,” the friend says. “It was unbelievable for him to hear such an answer from someone who said that he wanted to implement an Islamic system. There, he parted ways with Khomeini.”
One of Sobhani’s other complaints against the new regime was Article 117 of the new constitution, which stated that any would-be president of the Islamic Republic must be a Shia Muslim. “He also expressed his critical view of this to Khomeini,” the friend told IranWire. “He demanded to know why, in a country with so much diversity, such a restriction should be in the constitution.”
In autumn 1979, Sobhani gave a sharply-worded speech alongside Ahmad Moftizadeh expressing his new stance at the Hosseinieh Ershad in Iran. Then, for the third time, he went to visit Ruhollah Khomeini together with a group of friends and associates.
“At this meeting there was a clash between him and Khomeini,” the friend reported. “He told Khomenei, ‘We thought you were going to come and do justice. But this is not justice.’ His friends quietly warned him that this was the leader of the Islamic Revolution, and he could come to harm. But he said: ‘I’m not afraid of anything. I will not die until the day God decrees. I must speak the truth, and the right thing for us to do is to protest.”
Another source has told IranWire that during that third meeting, Nasser Sobhani had called Khomeini a “liar” for remarks he had made about the revolution while still residing in Paris. At this point, Khomeini reportedly stood up and left in a rage. From that moment on, it seems, Nasser Sobhani was on the government’s blacklist.
A Decade of Exile, Then Arrest
Almost immediately after the last fiery exchange with Khomeini, Nasser Sobhani and his family embarked on a new life underground. For almost 10 years they lived under pseudonyms in different cities, including Shiraz and Bandar Abbas – all except for his seven-year-old daughter, stayed behind with her family in Paveh so that she would not miss out on going to school.
During this period, Sobhani made two illicit trips to Pakistan to attend Sunni gatherings. Then in 1988, he travelled to Turkey to participate in the eighth Kurdistan National Congress. When asked by his friends why he did not emigrate outright, he reportedly told them: “I am a citizen of this country. I consider myself accountable. I stay here and try to do as much as I can.”
On June 2, 1989, Sobhani finally came back to Kurdistan province after a long absence, visiting Sanandaj to see family, friends and like-minded people before making a trip with some of them to the town of Marivan. But less than a week after Sobhani arrived, security forces raided the home of his host, Farooq Farsad, and arrested Sobhani.
Despite all their please and correspondence with judicial officials, and frequent visits to Sanandaj Prison, Sobhani’s family was never permitted to see him during his detention and most of their letters went unanswered. On October 26 that year, some 42 prominent Kurdish scholars signed a petition to the prosecutor of Sanandaj Revolutionary Court requesting the same. Their efforts came to nothing, and the details of what happened to Sobhani within those prison walls remain sparse.
Sobhani’s wife, Jeeran Ali Moradi, was pregnant at the time. Together with her three eldest daughters and her brother-in-law she beseeched both local politicians and her MP to let her see her husband. All she received in return were empty promises. When their child was born on November 13, Sobhani’s brother wrote a letter to him in prison, inviting him to propose a name for the baby.
The letter was handed over to prison guards. A few days later the family received a short reply from Nasser Sobhani, scrawled on the same sheet of paper, in which he suggested the name Najibeh for his newborn daughter – and added that he was “fine”.
The available evidence suggests that Sobhani was transferred between Sanandaj Prison and Evin Prison in Tehran several times before his death sentence was signed by Iran’s first Minister of Intelligence, Ayatollah Mohammad Reyshahri. He was executed on March 19, 1990 in Sanandaj Prison.
His friend told IranWire, “We have evidence that he was taken to Sanandaj Revolutionary Court that night, on the pretext of being transferred to Kermanshah Prison, and was asked to write a letter of repentance.
“When he refused to do so, he was informed that he was sentenced to death. They asked him if he had any last requests, and he asked for some time to pray. Then they executed him, and his body was secretly buried in the Golzar Shohada Cemetery.”
It was not until almost a month and a half later, on April 26, 1990, that Sobhani’s brother was summoned to the Sanandaj prosecutor’s office and informed that he had been executed. The family were warned not to attempt to hold a funeral. Nasser Sobhani’s last will and testament, as well as many of the manuscripts and books that were confiscated at the time of his arrest, have never been returned to them.
‘His Weapon was the Pen in his Hand’
Shortly after news of the execution of Mamousta Sobhani became public, Sunni scholars across Iran began to protest. They sent a letter to Ali Khamenei, who had recently become the new Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, while 25 close friends and associates demanded a meeting with Reyshahri.
“Nasser Sobhani did not take up arms,” one of those in attendance told Reyshahri. “He had no military affiliation and did not insult any religious authority or sanctity in his lectures on various topics. Why did you execute him?”
According to those who were present, Reyshahri replied: “Yes, Nasser Sobhani never took up a pistol, but his weapon was the pen in his hand. We had to break his pen, which we broke.”
More than three decades after his execution at the age of just 39, Nasser Sobhani has no tombstone to mark his grave. A tree planted by his father is the only sign of his final resting place.