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After Prison, A Tough-Minded Optimist Looks To Iran's Future

"I've had more than 50 years [of] fantastic life," says Saeed Laylaz. "One year in prison is nothing against it."
Steve Inskeep

Saeed Laylaz has had an eventful seven years.

When I first met him at his home in early 2009, he was a businessman, writer and former government official. He recognized some of the flaws in Iran's Islamic republic, but spoke optimistically about his country's direction.

Soon afterward, he went to prison for his political views.

Eventually, I heard he'd been freed. When visiting Tehran earlier this month, I heard he was even working again. So I went to find him. He was one of several acquaintances from past visits whom I tracked down during a recent reporting trip — and I discovered him still speaking optimistically about Iran.

"This is my country," he said. "I love it, together, good and bad, everything together for me."

After his release from prison, Saeed Laylaz was hired to run a Daewoo subsidiary outside Tehran, manufacturing Korean vans like this for the Iranian market.
Steve Inskeep / NPR
After his release from prison, Saeed Laylaz was hired to run a Daewoo subsidiary outside Tehran, manufacturing Korean vans like this for the Iranian market.

Laylaz was working in what you might call Iran's Detroit — a complex of auto plants west of the city. His office was mostly bare, except for an Iranian flag and the flag of the company he works for, the Korean automaker Daewoo.

"I'm trying to survive myself," he said as we settled down to talk.

He explained that everybody must be clever to stay alive in Iran.

"And," he said, "I am alive yet."

A disputed presidential election in mid-2009 led to his time in prison. The election triggered massive protests. The clerics who wield ultimate power in Iran responded by arresting many Iranians, including Laylaz.

The suspects were not necessarily involved with the protests, but had associated with foreigners or spoken in favor of reform. Laylaz told us he spent nearly a year in prison, some of it in solitary confinement.

In 2013, a new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, favored a new attitude toward the world. And an old friend of Laylaz soon hired him to manage this auto operation.

The Daewoo subsidiary makes buses and vans for Iranian mass transit systems. Laylaz says it has operated efficiently, despite economic sanctions.

"Our main problem in this economy is mismanagement and corruption, not sanctions," he said. "It has been my opinion many years ago, and it is my opinion now."

This man, once imprisoned for criticizing the government, is still criticizing the government. Like many people here, he believes branches of Iran's own state have made off with billions in oil wealth.

"I strongly believe that we lost around 3[00] to 400 billion U.S. dollars since 10 years ago," he said. "This is very clear for me."

Iran was doing something else, he said: driving out experienced economic managers like himself.

"The system will go to be empty from qualified people, because they cannot show that they are loyal," he said. "Do you understand me? This is the destiny of [the] former [Soviet Union]. This is destiny of Islamic Republic of Iran and every other ideological system in the world."

And yet, always optimistic, Saeed Laylaz has not left. And he sees good news in his own rehabilitation: It suggests Iran's ruling clerics have realized their mistake.

"They have to use me, they have to use my specialty," he said. "Otherwise they are not able to manage this country, without us — not without me."

Bitter experience has taught Laylaz to adopt a long view. He's not leaving his country, even though it put him in prison.

"I'm an Iranian guy," he said. "I've had more than 50 years [of] fantastic life. One year in prison is nothing against it."

He went on to take an even longer view.

He said that in 10,000 years, nobody will remember him — or his troubles.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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