Azam Taleghani, Defiant Would-Be President of Iran, Dies at 76

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Unlike many Shiite clerics of his day, Ayatollah Taleghani had supported Mohammad Mossadeq, the democratically elected prime minister who was overthrown in an American-backed coup in 1953 that gave more power to the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, an American ally. In the years afterward, the ayatollah remained an opponent of the shah and was continually harassed and imprisoned.

At 16, Azam married Morteza Eghtesad, who would become a provincial governor after the 1979 revolution. But marriage did not mean a domestic life. Ayatollah Taleghani had insisted that his daughters be educated, and Azam emerged as his most politically engaged child. By the time she finished high school, she was a mother of two but also a political activist.

In 1961, Ayatollah Taleghani joined a group of mostly lay comrades of Mr. Mossadeq, who was under house arrest, to found a new organization, the Freedom Movement of Iran. Its most charismatic ideologue was the young activist Ali Shariati, whose eclectic brand of left-wing Islamism was opposed by most clerics but embraced by Ayatollah Taleghani. He gave a copy of Mr. Shariati’s magnum opus, “Islamology,” to his daughter Azam.

To the end of her life, Ms. Taleghani remained committed to this strain of Islamic politics. Her diverse influences included Persian translations of the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone’s 1930s anti-fascist work “Vino e pane” (“Bread and Wine”) and Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

In 1972 she and her twin sisters, Tayebe and Tahere, founded the Alayi Foundation, which provided a middle school for girls in Tehran and became a hub for opponents of the shah, many of whom were given jobs teaching there.

Ms. Taleghani was studying Persian literature in Tehran’s teachers college in 1975 when she was arrested, in part because of her activities at the foundation. Convicted by a military court and given a life sentence, she was sent to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. Two of her brothers suffered the same fate, all part of a pressure campaign by the shah against their father. The imprisonment of not just his sons but his daughter as well was considered a grave insult to him as a leading Shiite ayatollah.

Ms. Taleghani and hundreds of other political prisoners were released in late 1978 as a concession by the government in the face of the building revolutionary movement. But her time in prison had given her a new cause.


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