For The Sake Of the People, For The Sake Of the Revolution
By Nour Rida
Former Minister Dr. Marandi: 40 years after revolution, Iran enjoys high status
Forty years after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iran stands in a very different position on the domestic and international levels, and is considered to be a major player in today’s world order. The unexpected revolution at that time took the world by surprise, and it had occurred while the Shah’s power was at its peak with the US backing. However, Iranian people on the different levels and from different social classes, those residing in the country and some abroad rose to support the revolution and the ideals of the founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini whose main philosophy was to support the oppressed.
To narrate one story of those times when the Shah fled and Imam Khomeini came back from exile to lead the revolution, and of the ongoing and gradual progress of the revolution Al-Ahed news interviewed Dr. Seyed AliReza Marandi to recall some aspects of his life which he dedicated to the revolution while inside Iran and in the US where he was a practicing physician.
For those who do not know him, he is an Iranian physician and Professor of Pediatrics and Neonatology at Shahid Beheshti University. He was also an associate professor at Wright State University before returning to Iran, during the Revolutionary days. During his nine years in office as Minister of Health and Medical Education, medical education was integrated with health care delivery. In each of the 29 provinces, one University of Medical Sciences was established, thus making the country self-sufficient in health human resources. Of his major contributions, was a highly successful national vaccination program (which also included a program for terminating polio in Iran), the significant reduction of infant and child mortality rates, as well as organizing one of the most successful national birth control programs in the World.
He is Chairman of the Iranian Society of Neonatologists; member of the Board of Directors of the Islamic Republic of Iran Breastfeeding Promotion Society; and the National Committee for the Reduction of Perinatal Mortality and Morbidity. He is also Chairman of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the laureate recipient of the United Nations Population Award (1999).
Before the revolution broke…
Sitting at his office in the Academy of Medical Sciences in Tehran, former Minister Dr. Marandi spoke calmly recalling the events of his life as member of Iranian society, a physician dedicated to serve the people, a minister who before and after being in office felt great responsibility towards the revolution.
The story starts years before the revolution, in 1963 when Alireza Marandi was arrested during the 15th of Khordad uprising (June 5 and 6). These were protests in Iran against the arrest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after his denouncement of Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Israel. At that time, Dr. Marandi was a medical student. He was different because he was among the few students who would frankly stand against the Shah and were not afraid to take action at the time.
Dr. Marandi describes this phase saying “I think all the students were against the Shah’s regime but they were scared, so not many were active. We had some demonstrations at the University of Tehran where I was a student, however at that time, the army did not have the authority to enter the University. Demonstrations were not huge but some students participated, including myself. There was a number of us who decided to have a small organization at the campus of university. We invited figures like Mohandes Bazargan, Ayatollah Motahhari, Ayatollah Rashed to give speeches on campus. Our activities were more or less focused on the same area of interest.”
However, this was not the only way he expressed objection to the Shah’s regime. “I had some other activities like carrying and distributing Imam Khomeini’s speeches in hard copies or in voice tapes. One night the army came to the campus and they had a list of people who should be arrested and I was among them. At the time jails were full with prisoners, therefore they took us to an army base, Jamshidieh, where we were imprisoned for three months. Some of us were beaten on a daily basis and interrogated. We had no access to the world outside, with no radio, newspapers or anything. However, for unknown reasons we were released suddenly one day. I had finished my sixth year of medical school and I was about to become an intern in my seventh year.”
This phase, which must have been difficult for Dr. Marandi and his peers, did not stop them from adopting their values, and they still resisted in one way or another. “As soon as I finished medical school, I went to the Health Corps, and I travelled to different villages for health purposes. I would give some speeches to people regarding health issues. The Shah regime would send us frequently to participate in celebrations such as the Shah’s birthday or his son’s birthday, or the so called White Revolution, they would offer us money and ask us to take part in the celebrations. I would never use this money for personal needs, but would rather buy medicine and such things to help people. However, in one of the villages, there were several members of the gendarmerie, who had their own celebrations and occasions. They would invite me to give speeches to the people. They would specifically ask me to talk about Shah’s White Revolution for instance. I always started my speeches with discussing medical and health issues and would never get to talk about anything in that regard. So, they would frequently send reports to the Shah’s office about what is happening. Eventually I was accused of being political and I am acting against the Shah, so during the last few days in the Health Corps, they had a military court and they asked me some questions which was only two or three days before the end of my work. To be able to have my specialty and training, I had arranged to go to the US and had booked my ticket which was exactly two days after the termination of my tenure at the Health Corps. Exactly one day after I had left the country with my wife, a verdict was issued to put me in jail. They took my father and put him under pressure and thought I was hiding, and when they figured out I had traveled they tried to put pressure on him to bring me back so that I would go to jail, but that was nonsense!”
Support overseas; a physician in the US
Dr. Marandi went to the US where he earned his specialty of pediatrics and subspecialty in neonatology, and had his American board of subspecialty in neonatology as well. Then he became an assistant professor at Wright State University and then associate professor at the same University. After that, he then became the chairman of the department of pediatrics at Wright State University, and also director of the neonatology intensive care over there, and that was at the time when the revolution materialized and the professor came back to Iran.
Asking him on how he continued his support to the revolution, Dr. Marandi elaborated “The city in which we lived did not have that many Iranians. They were physicians and they became members of the medical community. However, we had our own discussions on the situation. My wife and I tried to purchase books and tapes from Iran, not directly, but through the Students’ Islamic Organization who had their own means of bringing these into the country. I would purchase books and tapes from them; we practically had a small library at our home. So whoever needed these books or tapes, whether students or others we would lend them the material. This was more or less what we were doing because we were not students but physicians and had our own community. The last year or two before the revolution, we established an organization for physicians who were residing in the United States and Canada. I was the director of the organization. We had a small newspaper that we would distribute among the members. We also would get together and have some discussions whether in our state, or in Chicago or somewhere else.”
Dr. Marandi said he and his wife were “fortunately very interested in the revolution”.
However, he said “all what I could do was send some money to Iran, lower wage earning people were on strike and were facing a financially difficult situation. We had three TVs to follow up on news coming from Iran. Short wave radios did not exist practically, and few people in the US, practically speaking, even knew where Iran was on the map. With great effort, we were able to purchase a radio from New York and tried to listen to the radio to follow up on the news. When we heard on the radio that the revolution was realized, at that very same moment my wife and I decided to go back to Iran. Right on the second day after my children finished the school year they returned to Iran with my wife and I stayed on a little longer to sell my office, our house, and our properties which took a bit of time. When I arrived in Iran it was the 4th of November, the day when the embassy was occupied.”
Dr. Marandi was making a great deal of money in the US, however his personal interest did not stop him from returning to Iran to play his role in the revolution.
For quite some time, Dr. Marandi did not have a job after returning from the US even though he had received numerous letters and messages telling him that all kinds of subspecialties are needed in Iran.
Dr. Marandi explained he was interested in academic research and work, and was not willing to take up any administrative job.
“One night, a friend, who has passed away now, told me: “I am having some guests over tonight, you do not know any of them but since you have nothing to do why don’t you come to our house and get to know these people.” When I went I discovered he was right, I didn’t know any of them except for the host. While we were sitting someone called and one of them picked up the phone. He said Ayatollah Beheshti is on the line and says that they are sitting in the revolution council now and are trying to find a Minister of Health. Ayatollah Beheshti said they wanted to pick Dr. Abbas Sheybani as a minister but soon figured out that since they didn’t have a suitable Minister of Agriculture they picked him for that. Dr Zargar, was the one who picked up the phone, and was himself assigned to be the Minister of Health. I did not know him at that time. He came and asked “friends I am assigned as the Minister of Health, who is ready to help me?”
“One of the men answered “I am ready to help you, I’ll be the undersecretary for curative medicine,” later on I found out that he was Dr. Velayati. The other one said “I am ready to help you as undersecretary for welfare” and I found out later that he was Martyr Lavasani and so on. When it was my turn, I said I am not interested in an executive job, I said I was an associate professor in the US and I am only interested in teaching and nothing else.”
At that time, Dr. Marandi was trying to find his own path of contributing to the Revolution. “I went to the organization of Construction Jihad which existed at that time to see a friend there. I said I want to go to the different villages and immunize children. I said I have my own car and I do not need money, so I asked if they can provide some vaccines so that I could go and immunize the children. But he said they had been doing this until three weeks earlier when they stopped it and that they referred the matter to the Ministry of Health. So I couldn’t do that either.”
One day when he came back home, his wife said that the Minister of Health had called a few times and said that he needs to go to the ministry immediately. The minister told Dr. Marandi he must go immediately to the Children’s Support Organization (Anjomane Hemayate Koudakan), which he figured out later belonged to the overthrown Shah’s wife Farah.
“I was quite uninterested in anything linked to the Shah and I said no. A few of the minister’s deputies tried to talk me into it and convince me but I said no.”
After sleeping on the matter and discussing it with his wife, Dr. Marandi was still not interested. “I went back to see the minister and rejected the job. Before I left his office he said, “Well, one last word I have to say, if anybody ever asked you why you came back to Iran just say because of my own interest in education and not because of the Revolution! The Revolution does not need you to teach but rather do this sort of job.”
Dr. Marandi explained “It took me by surprise and I had no answer to that argument. He was right, I had claimed that I came back for the sake of the Revolution but I was not willing to accept an executive job that I did not like and I wanted to do something else. So I eventually accepted the job.”
Whether during the time when he headed that organization, or when he was deputy of Minister of Health, deputy to curative medicine, or Minister of Health, his concern was always to support the oppressed and the deprived.
When Saddam imposed the war on Iran, he was deputy to curative medicine. The situation was not stable and his responsibilities were very heavy. A few months after that and due to the tremendous pressure he had a heart attack, and was hospitalized. After a month his physician forced him to resign from the Ministry of Health. A couple of years later after returning to the ministry, Dr. Marandi was assigned as Minister of health, which he did not want saying, “I did not think I had enough piety to take up such a huge responsibility and I told then I am not a suitable manager for this job. I was always short of time despite working day and night just as a deputy minister.” However, despite his reservations he was introduced to the parliament as Minister of Health.
A Health sector for the people
Asked about the accomplishments of the health sector and the situation before and after the revolution, Dr. Marandi said that a “Primary health care system did not exist in Iran. Imam Khomeni was demanding that all of us should be working for the deprived and the oppressed. And I thought about what my duty as a deputy minister was back then, so I thought planning the establishment of a nationwide primary health care system would be the best idea. We could start with the 60-70 thousand small deprived villages across the country. It was very difficult because it was during the war time and there was not enough money for anything.”
However, Dr. Marandi said the parliament did not initially accept his suggestion, until they accepted to allocate a very small budget which was not near enough.
“It was enough money to carry out work in one city in every province which was a chance to prove how successful the project would be. It soon proved how effective it was and the parliament decided to give us funding for two cities in each province.”
The former Minister explained “Soon we were able to cover the whole country with this primary health care system. Our health industry improved drastically; for example the maternal mortality rate which was 278 or so before the Revolution soon decreased to 51 at that time, and now it is 18 per 100 thousand life births. Another example is the infant mortality rate which was 120 before the Revolution and came down dramatically, at the present it is only 14. Back then we had all kinds of children dying from diphtheria, Copen cough, tetanus, measles and tuberculosis. Rooms of hospitals would be filled with sick children and many of them would quickly die. For example, tetanus killed 11 thousand new born every year because mothers did not receive tetanus injections.”
The medical achievements of that period was driven by the beliefs and values of the revolution which Dr. Marandi and others had. Dr. Marandi told al-Ahed news “Through this project, we were able to immunize mothers and their children. From the first year of immunizing mothers, the numbers came down from 11 thousand to 7 or 8 cases and there were also Afghan refugees who came into the country illegally and did not know how to receive immunization. The health sector became much more active in the rural areas rather than big cities like Tehran and Esfahan because it focused on deprived areas and we did not have enough physicians and could not cover all cities.”
Self-sufficient Islamic Republic
On another note, Dr. Marandi noted that before the Revolution, the regime had brought physicians from India, Iraq, Pakistan and the Philippines. These would come without even knowing the local languages and most of them were not physicians and had not even passed their internship.
“Because of these issues, most were not able to be very helpful and they were paid more than a hundred million dollars per year at a time that our budget was very low because of the war situation and because Saddam Hussein was bombarding the country every day, half of the country was under missile strikes. Our oil which was the only major source of income for the country was limited to one million barrels per day. Saudi Arabia with the help of the US and other Western countries brought the price of oil down from over 40 dollars to 8 dollars per barrel. This income was mainly used for defense and to cover warzones, and I would use the little left over money for healthcare.”
This was the biggest achievement of the health sector after the Revolution.
There was a huge lack in medical students, and this prompted the former Minister to take action. As soon as a draft law was passed in parliament, the ministry immediately started to establish a school of medical science in every province.
“For example in the Kurdistan province, the only gynecologist who was there had left the province and therefore they had no specialist. The situation was terrible. But by establishing a medical school in every province the problem would be solved, however we had a problem of a lack of professors who would teach. I asked professors of medical schools that existed at that time like Tehran, Beheshti, Esfahan, and Mashhad to travel and teach at those universities as well. So, the professors were taking care of casualties and covering the war zone, teaching their own students and were also teaching at these newly established universities across the country.”
This way Iran could increase its medical school graduates and become self-sufficient.
“We did not need foreign physicians anymore.”
Dr. Marandi also introduced the establishment of subspecialties in Iran. “At that time, people would travel abroad to get the medical care required, like kidney transplants for instance, however when we became self-sufficient people were able to get treatment inside the country and we saved a lot of money.”
Before the revolution, the number of medics was some 7 thousand. It rapidly went up to 14 thousand and today there are more than 150 thousand medics across the Islamic Republic.
Not easy, but I am proud
You cannot mention the Revolution of Iran without touching upon Saddam Hossein’s war on Iran. Dr. Marandi, despite being a minister had a son who was injured during the Karbala 5 operations at the warfronts. Asked about how he allowed his son to join the fighters he recalled “The first time my son mentioned he wanted to go to war he was 16, only three years after we had come back from the US. He could not even speak Farsi perfectly. I asked him why do you want to go to the warzone? If you think you will come back as a national hero and a martyr celebrated by the people and praised for what you have done then it is of no good. But imagine that you will be going to the fronts and that you will be killed in a field and nobody would bring your body back, and within days your body will be destroyed by the animals and no one would know your name anymore. If you accept this and this is how you see it then that is for God and you can go.”
It was important for the father that his son go for the right reason.
“My son waited for moments and said maybe I am not ready for that. My wife was very upset and said why did you stop him from going to the war fronts? It did not take him too long though, two weeks later he came and said he had thought about what I have said and he thinks he is ready for any condition. My wife and I were very happy.”
It is not easy for any father or mother to see their kid become a martyr, however what makes it tolerable and even desired is its value and meaning.
“He is your child, you do whatever you can for your children, every father and mother would devote their own lives for their children. It was obviously not very easy to let him go. But the ideology, the just aim and goal of his choice was important and it is the highest degree of our religious beliefs so we were proud of that.”
Revolution and divine support
Addressing people who did not live the Revolution or the war, Dr. Marandi explained, “The revolution today enjoys a very high status. I was lived in Iran before the Revolution and after the Revolution. Because of my job I had to travel to all the deprived villages and small cities and I would see how the situation is. I understood how miserable the life of people was. I saw there were no roads, no electricity or water and as deputy minister of health I became involved in transferring water to these villages and we were able to teach the workers how to add chloride and make it safe. There was nothing at all. I witnessed how back then we were not even able to produce anything for the country, not even a needle and thread for sowing a wound.”
He went on to say “Today, despite the 8 year war and the sanctions and all the tough circumstances, we have achieved a lot. What makes me extremely hopeful is that I see that God the Almighty really helped the people as well as Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei. There were many examples of divine support, and as a result we became more hopeful. The spiritual aspect is very important and if you see it you will not become disappointed. As long as we stay on the right track we will see victory.”