High-level defectors from Iran's regime claim last year's violentprotests came close to toppling the leadership. Click here toreplay our live online chat.
Sunday, July 25, 2010 - 20:32

The images of brutaility on Iran's streets made headlines around the world a year ago, as huge protests took place in Tehran over the disputed election of President Ahmadinejad.

But a new investigation shows that all was not well within the country's leadership too; three members of Iran's military elite, who have since fled the country, have told of deep rifts and open dissent in the ranks.

They also describe the measures used to crush the protesters, including rape and torture, and the leaders with a plane on standby to get them out of the country if their regime collapsed.

The men were tracked down in Turkey and Thailand by UK-based Guardian Films and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

WATCH - Unfortunately Angus Stickler's report is no longer available on the Dateline website for copyright reasons, but it can still be viewed on the Guardian's website. This story is also available there with Arabic subtitles and in Farsi.

LIVE CHAT - Replay our live online chat with producer Chavala Madlena.

EXTRA - You can also still see our recent profile of Iran's Maestro, Mohammad Shajarian, who's an outspoken critic of the Ahmadinejad government.

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Photos: Javad Moghimi/Guardian Films

Live Chat

Journalist Chavala Madlena from the Guardian in London helped produce the story on the defectors from Iran’s regime. She was online for an hour after the program on Sunday 25th July to answer your questions.

The chat ran from 9.30pm-10.30pm AEST, so apologies to viewers of later showings, but Chavala was only available online for a limited time. Anyone who missed the chat can replay it below or leave comments on the story here



How could any of us forget those gut-wrenching pictures last year of a young Iranian woman dying on a street in Tehran during wild protests against the Ahmadinejad regime? Neda Soltan was gunned down by government sharpshooters. They were deeply moving images. Neda's death, of course, became a symbol of the pro-democracy protests and the brutal crackdown that followed. Well, it seems that crackdown worked - Ahmadinejad's heavy-handed response became too much even for some of his trusted insiders. Tonight's report from the UK's Guardian TV features a couple of outspoken and incredibly brave Iranian defectors.

REPORTER: UK Guardian Television

Enduring images on the streets of Tehran a year ago - unsurpassed brutality meted out on the people of Iran. Now a 3-month investigation by the 'Guardian' and the Bureau of InvestigativeJournalism has penetrated the very heart of Iran's military elite - the Revolutionary Guard, the defenders of the revolution. These men are breaking every taboo and openly criticising their leadership. They speak of rifts and open dissent in their ranks. They tell us how theregime was gripped by panic and nearly collapsed.

MOHAMMED TORKAMAN, FORMER SECURITY LOGISTICS OFFICER (Translation): They were terrified. They had prepared themselves to leave the country and flee to Syria just in case the regime was tocollapse. Khamenei's Airbus 330 was waiting, ready to get them out of Iran.

The Revolutionary Guard are the backbone of the Iranian revolution - Khamenei's fighters. It is they who make the laws and enforce them. We have gained unprecedented access to recently defected high-ranking officers who have now turned on the regime. All these men have defected - fled the regime and are now part of an international diaspora scattered across the globe.

The tourist delights of Cappadocia, in central Turkey a strange place to meet a man who was at the heart of the Iranian regime.

MOHAMMED TORKAMAN (Translation): The order to shoot at the protesters was given by Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, who is currently the minister of defence. I know this, because I was in a unit of the Revolutionary Guard when the order came through.

Up until six months ago, Mohammed Hussain Torkaman was, he says, a card-carrying member of a Basij unit under the command of the Revolutionary Guard. At the time of the June elections he says he was inside Ayatollah Khamenei's compound overseeing security logistics for the Supreme Leader, the President and their officers.

MOHAMMED TORKAMAN (Translation): Because of my job, every five days I would meet with high-ranking officials, like Mr Ahmadinejad and his ministers. I could see the fear in them all. The fear and panic was obvious.

Now an asylum seeker in Turkey, with his wife and young son, Torkaman says he left the regime in disgust. He told us that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei - uncertain of the loyalty of their own security forces - shipped in foreign mercenaries to bolster the regime.

MOHAMMED TORKAMAN (Translation): The forces they had chosen to do the shooting at people were from the Quds Force - the majority of them are Lebanese or Palestinian. They don't speak Farsi, the Persian language. These were the ones who were given permission to open fire. The majority of shooting at the demonstrators was coming from snipers who'd been placed on the rooftops of high buildings. It was not coming from the forces on the streets. I knew where the snipers were because I had the drawings of the security operations.

These are the plans he was responsible for drawing up - showing the strategic positions of the security forces blocking protesters from the presidential and Supreme Leader's offices. Red is for the Revolutionary Guard, yellow for Khamenei's protection unit, green is for the plain-clothed militia. But he wasn't just confined to the President's office. He was sent to the notorious Evin Prison.

MOHAMMED TORKAMAN (Translation): They had built places within the prisons specifically for torturing people. There's a basement in Evin Prison where I was called in to look at the ventilation. It was extremely bad - disease was spreading because ofthe prisoners' open wounds that had been caused by torture. When I was there, there was this young women, the daughter of a martyr - whose name I prefer not to disclose as I think it would not be right - I remember she grabbed hold of my leg and begged me to ask this man calledYaseen, the torturer of Evin Prison, to stop hurting her. The situation is extremely bad in Iran. They claim to be a religious state, a government based on religion, Well, I can say right now that God does not exist in Iran.

He later told me that she said she'd been raped. It was seeing the victims of torture firsthand that made him think of leaving. But it was scenes like these during the holy festival of Ashura in December last year that were the final straw - mayhem on the streets.

MOHAMMED TORKAMAN (Translation): Look, something very important happened here during Ashura - the violence I think was very similar to what we had seen in the days after the June elections. The people were attacking all the government institutions and the regime was once again unable to stop them. Protesters were even run over by cars. Yes, it's true - the government was nearly overthrown on the day of Ashura. I witnessed this.

It was after this that the real reign of terror began. Torkaman knew that if the regime fell he would go with it.

MOHAMMED TORKAMAN (Translation): I was an intelligence agent and I was aware of all the confidential affairs of our leaders, so it was possible that I, like former agents, would be murdered. They could kill me too, and so there was no guarantee for my life.

This footage was shot by Iranians at extreme risk to themselves - fed out to the world via the internet, it paints a terrifying picture of Iran over the past six months, a country where public hangings have become a favoured method of intimidation. Amnesty International says there have been 115 so far this year. Despite the oppression, Iranians have found new ways to voice their dissent. Here, as Ahmadinejad addresses a crowd, the people heckle him with one word - 'unemployment'. Iran's economy is faltering.

Even on the Iranian banknotes, they scrawl slogans of dissent - "June is the month of battle". This one says "Death to Khamenei". "Khamenei is trembling with fear." Untraceable messages expressing contempt for the regime. But the students are still defiant. Holding sheets of paper they hide their faces from the cameras of the regime. Inevitably it triggers memories of what happened a year ago. There are many young Iranians who will never forget those extraordinary events of June 2009 - a mix of anger and hope buoyed by a new sense of freedom as they massed in the streets.

JAVAD MOGHIMI, PHOTOJOURNALIST (Translation): When I speak to my friends on the internet, they're very pessimistic about life in the future because there's nothing they can hope for or be happy for. Over there, everything is under control - photography, journalism. The authorities don't allow people to live the way they want to live. They tell us, "We'll tell you how to live, how to take photos, how to work."

Javad Moghimi was on the streets during those days. Now he's had to leave Iran, seeking refuge in Turkey, because of the photos he took. They're stunning images but they cost him his job because he was working for the Revolutionary Guard press agency, Fars News, a tool of the state. And these were images that the regime in Iran didn't want the world to see.

JAVAD MOGHIMI (Translation): They told us not to go out and take photographs. They did not issue us with permits. They told us not to take photographs and said, "We are not going to be responsible if anything happens to you. We will not back you up, and we will even testify against you and claim that you are spies."

He defied his boss's orders, and this picture made it all the way to the front cover of 'Time' magazine - every photographer's dream, but it was to be his downfall.

JAVAD MOGHIMI (Translation): I took part in a meeting with the managing director of the Fars News and all the other photojournalists. He said he knew that two photographers had sent pictures abroad and that if he found out who they were, he would deal with them severely.

Javad fled - leaving with nothing but his camera, laptop and a change of clothes.

JAVAD MOGHIMI (Translation): I was afraid of flying. I took a risk coming to the airport. The passport officer asked me which town in Turkey I was visiting? "Ankara," I said. "Why Ankara, and not another place?" he asked. "œWhat if I went there and never came back?" "What do you mean?" I asked. "Of course, I'm coming back - what reason would I have to not come back?"

Because he took these photographs, Javad became one of 80 young journalists to have fled Iran since the demonstrations - 39 are behind bars. And even though Azadi Square has fallen silent, the resistance is far from over because now they've been joined by the old guard - the custodians of the revolution are turning too.

GENERAL MOHAMMAD REZA MADHI, FORMER HEAD OF INVESTIGATIONS (Translation): The current members of the Revolutionary Guard are saying that they have become very disheartened - the situation is becoming unbearable.

One of the best places tounderstand why - is here, in the Martyrs' Cemetery just outside of Tehran. This solemn place iswhere the dead of the Iran-Iraq war lie buried. Millions died. For those that survived, the memory of this war and their sacrifice forms much of their thinking.

GENERAL MOHAMMAD REZA MADHI (Translation): We have given a lot of blood for the regime. We did not expect it toend up like this.

General Mohammad Reza Madhi is one of these war veterans who rose through the ranks to become a very senior member of the Revolutionary Guard. Up until two years ago, General Madhi served in intelligence. These are his ID cards - note the Revolutionary Guard insignia in the top right-hand corner. He later headed the powerful Committee for the Protection of the Revolution. It is exceptional for a man like this, with nearly 30 years loyal service, to speak out against the regime.

GENERAL MOHAMMAD REZA MADHI (Translation): I am simply acting on the promise I made to my martyred brothers and fellow warriors and theoath we swore together. The regime is witnessing its destruction. The regime is prepared to instil fear and insecurity into the people within Iran in order to ensure its stability. It has got to that stage. The regime is sinking.

Every morning he puts on his bulletproof vest. It's a daily ritual - he is scared for his life. General Madhi fled Iran two years ago after falling foul of the current leadership. Now he flits from country to country to avoid capture. He agreed to meet us here in Bangkok.

GENERAL MOHAMMAD REZA MADHI (Translation): Ahmadinejad has no power. He is a puppet - a plaything. He does what he's told. No-one has any belief in him - he has no power.

Just as Iran's young bloggers use the internet to post their messages of dissent, so the General connects to the internet, conducting a whispering campaign with other high-ranking co-conspirators in Iran via Skype, sharing intelligence and monitoring events, trying to garner support to destabilise the regime from afar.

General Madhi told us that over a third of the Revolutionary Guard are against the regime. There is no way of verifying his claims, but back in Turkey we found a reluctant and frightened man who backed up what General Madhi told us. Across his back he showed us the healing scars of recent torture. But this is what they looked like just four weeks ago.

"œALI" FORMER REVOLUTIONARY GUARD (Translation): It was a small cell - the ceiling was very low, a maximum of 1.5 metres. It was tiled throughout, so it was easy to clean, because there would constantly be bleeding and bloodstains down there.

But this man was no student dissenter. He was a loyal son of the regime - a Republican Guard - tortured for helping protesters.

"œALI" (Translation): They used to pretend our loved ones had been arrested and that they were there. You could constantly hear the shouting and screams of torture.

The regime has turned on its own. This revolution may have begun with the young but now the men of the Revolutionary Guard - the conservatives, the custodians of the Islamic Revolution - are turning to stand alongside young men and women who are daring to take on the regime. It's this unholy alliance between young and old that is posing a new threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic.

CROWD (Translation): Death! Death to Khamenei!

GEORGE NEGUS: They don't need the bomb, do they, to treat their people that way? That report compiled by Guardian TV. And after our program, producer Chavala Madlena will be online from London to answer your questions about that report, including how they found those terribly gutsy defectors. There are also links from our website sbs.au/dateline to view that report in both Arabic and Farsi.

Guardian Films & The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

27th July 2010