Abdul-Aziz SachedinaIran is marking the 30th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution -- which was led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Before the revolution, the Ayatollah was in exile and able to communicate with others through a secret messenger. That man was Abdul-Aziz Sachedina. Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Sachedina about that time of turmoil in Iran.
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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. This week and next, Iran is marking the 30th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution. The revolution, which overthrew the Shah of Iran, was inspired by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. One small player in this massive drama was a young academic and Shiite scholar, a man of Indian descent named Abdul-Aziz Sachedina. Sachedina is now a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, but in the late 1970's he played a vital role for Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in exile in Najaf, Iraq. Sachedina had a foreign passport because he was born in Tanzania â€“ so he was able to travel freely.
ABDUL-AZIZ SACHEDINA: I was a secret message carrier from Iran. I used to carry the letters of his supporters, secretly given to me in a book binding, and I would take it every year as I went to Iraq. And I did not meet him in Najaf. I met him in Karbala actually, because I was warned not to go and try seeing him in Najaf because the Savak was controlling all the, you know, passages to his house where he stayed in Najaf.
WERMAN: The Savak was the Iranian Secret Service at the time?
SACHEDINA: That's right. Savak, the Iranian Secret Service. And therefore, I would go and I was even warned not to see in outside in Karbala, but to see him in the shrine because the shrine was what we call a â€œneutral territory.â€ Nobody could suspect anyone, you know? And since I was still an enrolled student in Iran, it would have been very difficult if I was revealed to be carrying letters and giving it to the Ayatollah.
WERMAN: The Savak, the Iranian Secret Service at the time, obviously very ruthless. How did the clerics in Mashhad in Iran, where you were a student, how did they trust you? How did they know you were simpatico?
SACHEDINA: Well, I was constantly under watch. I was actually labeled as British spy by the Savak and who would actually stop me from going to the house of Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, and would question me why did I go, and what was I discussing with Ayatollah. And gradually it emerged to them that I was a student engaged in studying religion or studying the literature. And I had very little political ambition myself to be a carrier of the secret messages. So they would leave me alone, but they were watching me very closely â€“ who I would meet, who I would talk to, you know.
WERMAN: And so when you got to Karbala in Iraq and you delivered these messages to the Ayatollah Khomeini, what kind of interaction did you have with him? And did you see him then as obviously â€œsome day this man is going to be the next leader of Iranâ€?
SACHEDINA: Not really. I don't think even in my wildest dreams did I ever contemplate that the Shah would be overthrown, and then also by a religious leader. I had no such understanding at all. I think â€“ I saw the Ayatollah. I met him in Karbala, in the shrine, and I was totally taken by the, oh, you know, he inspired and the charisma that he carried and the way he spoke. And he spoke very kindly to me, asking about some people that he knew in Tanzania. And, you know, he would communicate and would very much appreciate me for bringing those letters to him, you know. So, as a messenger who carried the messages at the most critical time, he appreciated a lot what I could do, actually.
WERMAN: What impressed you about him?
SACHEDINA: I think I'm a dreamer, in a way. Those were the times when I would say that as a young man, I was searching for someone like that. I was searching for a spiritual master.
WERMAN: You were at the airport, I understand, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1st, 1979 â€“ almost 30 years ago exactly.
WERMAN: When he did return, it was to this extraordinary scene of 5 million people in the streets of Tehran to greet him. Recall for us what that was like.
SACHEDINA: Actually, since I've never witnessed any revolution in my lifetime -- and I enjoyed reading revolutions in history; I was a great admirer of French revolution, Russian revolution â€“ and I said, â€œMy goodness. This is my only opportunity to participate in the revolution that was unfolding in front of my eyes.â€ So I participated in most of the demonstrations. And I would go, endangering my life because my wife would call me from Virginia, saying, â€œYou know, they're killing people who look like professors, who look like, you know, researchers. You shouldn't be in the street.â€ And I would go because I really wanted to experience it. That day was unimaginable. I had â€“ I don't think I can capture and activate it in any words. It's ineffable. It was kind of a mystical experience. When you â€“ you know, it's like listening to a piece of music that you â€“ that captures you, you know, gets into your very being. It was that kind of experience on that very particular day when he came back. And I think that that day has remained with me and will remain with me for as long as I live, because it was kind of a mystical, you know, ecstasy of some sort.
WERMAN: So I guess the question I have to ask you, then. Where did you think the revolution was headed? And is the regime that's now in place in Iran anything like the one you and your colleagues envisioned at the time?
SACHEDINA: Not at all. I think it has disappointed many of us who had high expectations of what the revolution, what it would achieve at the end of the day in terms of Islamic modernism, democracy, human rights, freedoms â€“ all these things that we cherished. And we thought that Ayatollah Khomeini did usher that kind of a period, but he did not live long enough to really create a system. He was an idealist and that idealism came to an end with his death.
WERMAN: Abdul Aziz-Sachedina, remembering the start of the Iranian revolution 30 years ago which he was a part of. He's now a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. Thank you very much for joining us.
SACHEDINA: You're most welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.