Feature

Revolutionary Ayatollah

How my father went from the prison of the shah to the prison of Khamenei.

In the very cold winter of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, returned to Qom, the spiritual capital of the Shiite world, for the first time after his long exile. A huge crowd came out that day. As he made his way to the stage, passing through those who pressed together to see him, the ayatollah's mantle fell off. Once he had settled in his chair, he noticed how chilly he was. "I'm cold," he said. Within seconds, another mantle fell over his shoulders and wrapped him warm.

This mantle belonged to my father, Mohammad Taghi Khalaji. After my father draped his mantle over Ayatollah Khomeini's shoulders, he went to the podium and gave the introductory speech on behalf of the clerical establishment, as well as the people of Qom. I never saw my father with that mantle again.

Right now, my father is in solitary confinement in Evin prison in Tehran. He was arrested in his home in Qom on Jan. 12. On that day, he joined hundreds of Iranian citizens who have been arrested by the Iranian regime after the rigged election in June 2009. My family has been given no information -- either by the Special Court of Clerics or by the Ministry of Intelligence -- about any charges against my father. Furthermore, my father has not been allowed to contact us or hire a lawyer. The government's denial of his basic legal rights is not unusual; it is the typical treatment of political prisoners.

The son of a farmer, my father was born in June 1948 in the province of Isfahan. When he was 5 years old, he moved to Tehran, where his three brothers lived. In 1968, after graduating from high school and then Shokooh English Language Institute, he started to work as a bank accountant. Although he came from a conservative religious background, he was the first in his family to become a cleric. Under the influence of the rising religious fervor in Iran, and despite his family's discontent, he left his job in the bank and its good salary. In 1969, he moved to Qom with his fiancée -- my mother, Mohtaram -- and began to study in its seminary.

A revolutionary-minded young cleric, my father soon joined Qom's pro-Khomenei clique and proved himself to be an excellent orator with an innate talent for scholarship. As he was making stunning progress in his theological studies, he employed his rhetorical skills in the service of the revolutionary cause. He was a disciple of Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari and close to other founding fathers of the Islamic Republic.

For delivering speeches critical of the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he was arrested three times. The last time he was released, three month later in February 1979, the revolution had toppled the shah and established the foundations of a new government.

On Feb. 1, 1979, following the revolution's success, Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in Paris. When he returned to his hometown Qom a month later, the conventional wisdom, shared by my father, was that Khomeini would leave politics to the politicians and return to teaching theology. But the course of history proved everyone wrong.

Khomeini was looking to realize his dream of an Islamic government that applied his authority as the "ruling jurisprudent," or wilayet-e-faqih. Khomeini stayed in Qom for only a few months and, after suffering a heart attack, moved to Tehran. He governed the Islamic Republic from Iran's political capital for the rest of his life.

During Khomeini's time in Qom, my father became very close to this charismatic leader. Every day, he went to the home of Mohammad Yazdi, where Ayatollah Khomeini resided. Yazdi, now an ayatollah himself, served as the head of Iran's judicial system for ten years under its current leader, Ali Khamenei. Parts of our families have remained in touch to this day: My younger brother is married to one of Yazdi's close relatives.

But some of Khomeini's tactics eventually alienated my father. To consolidate power in the clergy, Khomeini convinced Iran's power-hungry clerics that they were the legitimate heirs of the Islamic Republic and deserved their own portion of the spoils of war against the shah's regime -- in other words, political power. Despite my father's loyalty to Khomeini and his ideals, he became disgusted by these clerics and kept his distance from them. He decided to return to the seminary, and limited his social activities.

Nonetheless, my father's views of the Islamic Republic remained naïve and optimistic. He was hugely resistant to the criticism of government behavior from both the secular and religious strata of society. Unconsciously, he resisted the belief that the revolution for which he sacrificed his youth could possibly lead to human rights abuses, executions without trial, the imprisonment of the innocent, and the suppression of freedom of speech.

After 30 years of study under some of the most prominent clerics in the Shiite world, in subjects ranging from fiqh (jurisprudence) to Islamic philosophy, my father became a mujtahid -- an ayatollah who is forbidden from following another's religious authority and must fulfill his own religious duties based on his own personal understanding. He also taught Islamic philosophy and Shiite jurisprudence and educated hundreds of seminary students, several of whom later became prominent political figures.

My father was quiet and pious then and has remained so. He followed the example of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was designated as Khomeini's successor in 1985. After Khomeini ordered the execution without trial of approximately 4,000 political prisoners in 1988, Montazeri criticized him for issuing an order he considered contrary to Islam. For speaking out, Ayatollah Montazeri was stripped of his government position, and his family members and disciples were pressured by the regime to remain silent.

This moment was a turning point for revolutionary clerics like my father who were not contaminated by political and economic corruption. In one of his public speeches Montazeri, who was Khamenei's teacher before the revolution, stated that Khamenei lacks sufficient theological training to issue fatwas and that his government is therefore illegitimate according to both the Iranian Constitution and Shiite law. Following this speech, the regime raided Montazeri's house, confiscated his property, and exercised a tremendous pressure over his family and clerical circle, including my father. Nevertheless, my father remained quiet and continued to write religious commentaries on the Fourth Shiite Imam's prayer book (Sahifeh-ye Sajjadieh) and the speech of Fatima, the prophet Muhammad's daughter (Khotbeh-ye Zahra). He published several religious books and, when he was allowed, he delivered speeches in different cities in Iran without ever publicly criticizing the government.

My father was mostly isolated from politics and gradually became disappointed with them. However, the televised presidential debate between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi agitated him and motivated him to throw his support behind Mousavi.

During the unrest that followed last June's election, when government forces arrested and killed peaceful demonstrators, my father began to speak out. He watched the footage of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, after she was shot by a Basij militiaman during a June 20 protest, replayed on television. After that event, he began calling me at midnight in Tehran for several nights, telling me that he could no longer sleep. He did not revolt against the shah in order to establish a regime that beat up peaceful demonstrators and shot innocent people.

One of his first speeches was in the Dar-Alzahra mosque in north Tehran, where reformists, including former President Mohammad Khatami, were gathering. In his speech, my father reiterated that he would like the Islamic Republic to survive. However, if Iranian leaders claim that they are following the example of Islam, its prophet, and its imams, then according to Islam, he argued, they must have the people's consent to rule. He also criticized the Iranian regime for taking political prisoners, saying that the governments of the Prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali insisted on the freedom of pacifist opposition. Therefore, they maintained neither an Evin prison, the famous prison in Tehran where the government still holds political detainees, nor a Kahrizak, the detention center where the government tortured and raped men and women for supporting Moussavi after the election.

We spoke after this speech. He was happy for the message that he had delivered and felt that he had done his religious duty. He considered that he and his compatriots were responsible before God for the revolution and therefore could not keep silent when human rights abuses were committed in the name of Islam. Despite receiving several warnings from the Intelligence Ministry, he continued to seize opportunities to speak out.

In his last speech, on the eve of Ashura in the residence of Ayatollah Yousef Sanei in Qom, my father asked that Iran's leaders repent to God for what they have done to the demonstrators and for suppressing the clerics who support the Islamic Republic but were merely constructively criticizing the current leaders' behavior. This speech came a few days after the death of Ayatollah Montazeri. While Tehran and Iran's other major cities were on fire after the rigged election, Qom was quiet until the passing of the dissident ayatollah. After hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Montazeri's funeral and used the opportunity to demonstrate against Khamenei and the regime, all the ceremonies around the country for Montazeri were banned by the government. In an attempt to prevent more damage to the government's legitimacy, the government waged a campaign against Ayatollah Sanei by shutting down his offices in different cities. My father was arrested a few days later.

By initiating a crackdown on peaceful protesters and suppressing the first generation of the Islamic Republic, the government has simultaneously discredited its Islamic legitimacy and undermined its revolutionary credentials. This regime has transformed my father from a man concerned with keeping Ayatollah Khomeini's shoulders warm into an enemy of the state. This is a revolution that eats its own children. It places its survival at risk.

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Help Wanted

176 White House appointees are still unconfirmed. One year into the Obama presidency, what's taking so long?

On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a disaffected 23-year-old Nigerian, attempted to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. It was one of the most serious breaches of the United States' air security since September 11, 2001. And it occurred at a moment when the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the body created after 9/11 specifically to prevent such breaches, had no leader. Erroll Southers -- an airport security chief in Los Angeles, former FBI agent, and professor at the University of Southern California -- is one of dozens of officials still pending confirmation: not rejected for their positions, but also not paid, not permitted to send deputies to sit in on relevant meetings, and not allowed to work provisionally. Unconfirmed appointees have no bureaucratic role at all. (Update: Southers withdrew his nomination the morning of Jan. 20, citing the political maelstrom over his appointment.)

Congressional dithering on nominees is, in and of itself, nothing new. Four years ago, Republicans were incensed over holds on judicial nominees and then-President George W. Bush's appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some senators even considered trying to change the Senate's approval requirement from 60 to 50 to help speed the process.

But President Barack Obama's first year has brought an unusual number of holds, and on unusually prominent positions. One year into the Bush administration, there were 70 appointees awaiting confirmation. One year into the Obama administration, there are 177. And dozens of those holds are directly affecting the agencies responsible for the United States' security and foreign policy, amid two wars and an amped-up terrorism threat. The United States has no ambassador to Ethiopia, no head of the Office of Legal Counsel, no director at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, no agricultural trade representative.

Indeed, the TSA spot wasn't the only one left empty when it was most needed. For instance, during the worst of the Honduran constitutional crisis, in June, the United States had no assistant undersecretary for the Western Hemisphere -- the position responsible for coordinating the response of the United States' policymakers for South America. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, had slapped a hold on Georgetown University professor and longtime diplomat Arturo Valenzuela to protest the Obama administration's relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and its response to Honduras. (Valenzuela finally won confirmation in November.)

The most absurd hold of 2009, perhaps, was on Miriam Sapiro, whom the Obama administration appointed to become a U.S. trade representative. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican from Kentucky, held up the respected Internet policy specialist's nomination over -- really -- candy-flavored cigarettes. Big Tobacco, with Bunning on its side, wanted the Obama administration to lobby against Canada's banning of flavored cigarettes like cloves, which are particularly popular among underage smokers. According to the New York Times, Bunning lifted the hold only when Democrats agreed to put a Republican, Michael Khouri, on the Federal Maritime Commission. (In the end, Bunning didn't even attend the vote that confirmed Sapiro.)

Other holds have had only tangential relevance to the position in question. For instance, Southers isn't on hold over concerns about his work performance, political leanings, or employment history. DeMint (one of Congress's most avid holders, by reputation at least) is blocking Southers over concerns over unionization.

TSA employees aren't permitted to bargain collectively, over fears that labor negotiations or strikes might disrupt airport security. Southers, Obama, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano have said they would review the policy -- and thereby precluded the United States from having a TSA chief on the day of the attempted terrorist attack. Since the Flight 253 incident, DeMint hasn't backed down, telling Fox News, "[Allowing unionization] is the last thing we need to do right now."

Then there's Lael Brainard, a former MIT economics professor and Brookings Institution fellow. The lauded economist was tapped to be the undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department, spearheading U.S. economic policy relations with international governments and institutions such as the World Bank. But her approval was held up over muck-ups on her taxes.

This year, she has not been present to negotiate the vital issue of currency exchange rates with China, for example, leaving ongoing talks to other members of the Treasury's staff. The Senate Finance Committee only just approved her, and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has said he might put another hold on her before the vote reaches the Senate floor -- not due to Brainard's politics or policies, but due to what he believes to be unfair Internal Revenue Service levies on small businesses.

The hold on Brainard's and others' key trade posts isn't just harmful in Washington. It is attracting international attention. Foreign officials have voiced concerns that the United States' inability to sew up its higher levels of office demonstrates that the country isn't going to be a reliable and committed partner in trade talks, like the still-incomplete Doha round.

Diplomatic officials in other countries also lament their empty embassies. The ambassadors to Andorra, Brazil, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Equatorial Guinea, Hungary, Mauritius, Mozambique, Serbia, the Seychelles, Spain, and Uruguay -- most entirely noncontroversial -- only won approval the day before Christmas.

Indeed, in general, past confirmed diplomatic officials explain, the congressional process is harmful to the agencies impacted and, frankly, harmful to foreign relations. "The whole confirmation process is so cumbersome and lengthy; it isn't unusual to have a vacancy of a year or more for ambassadorships," explains Otto Reich, a longtime diplomat for Latin America who was put on hold three times for State Department positions.

He describes how his successor as the ambassador for Venezuela did not arrive until 14 months after he left. "The Venezuelans were furious. They said it -- not publicly -- but they said, 'This is an illustration [that] you don't think we're an important country.' We had to explain to them that this had nothing to do with Venezuela, and everything to do with our confirmation process."

Of course, the hold and other dilatory measures, including delays in committee voting, exist for a reason: to allow Congress to act as a check on the executive branch and to ensure applicants for important leadership positions receive sufficient scrutiny. But too often, they just allow for inter-congressional horse-trading. Plus, holds are a formality, taking advantage of unanimous consent rules. The hold, per se, doesn't exist. There's no ledger for it. It's just a threat to gum up Congress.

But try explaining that to an irate diplomat or a confused TSA employee, the day after an attempted attack. A year into the Obama administration, we shouldn't have to.

On the next page, see a list of unconfirmed nominees. 

See the White House's list of nominees here. Below, a sample of those relevant to U.S. security  and foreign policy.

David Adelman, ambassador to Singapore

Brooke Anderson, ambassador-rank representative to the United Nations

Mari Carmen Aponte, ambassador to El Salvador

George Apostolakis, commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Alan Douglas Bersin, commissioner of U.S. customs at the Department of Homeland Security

Sandford Blitz, federal co-chair of the Northern Border Regional Commission

Donald E. Booth, ambassador to Ethiopia

Rafael Borras, undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security

Charles Collyns, assistant secretary for international finance at the Treasury Department

Erin Conaton, undersecretary of the Air Force

Donald Lloyd Cook, deputy administrator for defense programs at the Department of Energy

Philip Coyle, associate director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy

Scott DeLisi, ambassador to Nepal

Eileen Donahoe, representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council

Philip Goldberg, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department

Elizabeth Harman, assistant administrator for grants programs at FEMA

Eric Hirschhorn, undersecretary of commerce for export administration at the Department of Commerce

Michael Huerta, deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration

Dawn Johnsen, assistant attorney general at the Office of Legal Counsel

Walter Jones, U.S. executive director of the African Development Bank

Allan Katz, ambassador to Portugal

Ian Kelly, U.S. representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

Frank Kendall, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology

Laura Kennedy, U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament

Betty Eileen King, U.S. permanent representative at the United Nations in Geneva

Suresh Kumar, assistant secretary of commerce and director general of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service

Marisa Lago, assistant secretary of the Treasury for international markets and development

Nicole Lamb-Hale, assistant secretary for manufacturing and services at the International Trade Administration

Elizabeth Littlefield, president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation

William Magwood, commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Warren Fletcher Miller Jr., director of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management

Mary John Miller, assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial markets

David Warden Mills, assistant secretary of Commerce for export enforcement

Malcom Ross O'Neill, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, technology, and logistics

Paul Luis Oostburg Sanz, general counsel of the Navy

Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, assistant secretary of the Navy for installations and environment

Michael Ward Punke, U.S. deputy trade representative to Geneva

Douglas Alan Rediker, U.S. alternate executive director for the International Monetary Fund

Jessie Hill Roberson, member of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

Mark Rosekind, member of the National Transportation Safety Board

Juan Francisco Sanchez, undersecretary for international trade at the Department of Commerce

Islam Ahmaed Siddiqui, chief agricultural negotiator of the Office of the United States Trade Representative

Ian Hoddy Solomon, U.S. executive director for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development at the World Bank

Erroll Gregory Southers, assistant secretary of homeland security and administrator of the Transportation Security Administration

Clifford Lee Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness

Judith Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs

Harry Thomas, ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines

Benjamin Burgess Tucker, deputy director at the Office for National Drug Control Policy

Caryn Anne Wagner, undersecretary of Homeland Security for intelligence and analysis

Solomon Brown Watson IV, general counsel of the Army

Beatrice Wilkinson Welters, ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago

Bisa Williams, ambassador to the Republic of Niger

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