The world’s most gripping political drama is still playing out in Iran, where the vicious tactics of a hard-line regime have been unable to silence an unarmed opposition calling for reform.
Just this week, reformist leader Mehdi Karroubi revealed new details of the torture and rape of imprisoned opposition members despite warnings that he would be jailed if he didn’t keep quiet. The outspoken Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri issued a fatwa denouncing the regime, which retaliated by arresting his three teenage grandsons. And Iranians may take to the streets again on Friday under cover of an annual demonstration against repression of Palestinians.
So how should the West and the Obama administration react to all this as Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad heads to New York for the U.N. General Assembly session next week? Is there anything we can do to help?
No one is better qualified to provide the answers to those questions than the Iranian American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. She was arrested in Tehran in 2007 while visiting her 93-year-old mother and kept for four months in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison.
Esfandiari’s new book, “My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran,” is more than a gripping story of her ordeal. The book lays bare the paranoid mind-set of a regime convinced that any internal protest is part of a Western plot to organize a so-called “velvet revolution” like the mass revolts that brought down leaders of some former communist countries. Thus, Esfandiari, a 69-year-old grandmother standing barely 5 feet tall and weighing 105 pounds, was accused of being at the nexus of a grand CIA-Mossad plot.
Those who have wondered how they would deal with such circumstances (as I have, when kidnapping of journalists in Iraq was in vogue) will find her strategy for outwitting her interrogators to be riveting. So are the details of her physical and mental efforts to counter despair, including exercising for hours in her cell and writing books in her head.
Esfandiari was finally released. But in the wake of mass protests of a rigged Iranian presidential election, thousands of protesters, journalists, intellectuals, and political figures were arrested. Hundreds remain jailed, including the Iranian American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh. Bizarre show trials, with Stalin-esque forced confessions, are continuing.
“What we are seeing in the mass trials,” said Esfandiari, “is the same mind-set and the same twisted logic (of her interrogators) being played out on a national stage.” She added, “The confessions have become so discredited that no one pays any attention to them.”
What Iran’s leaders refuse to recognize, and what Americans must grasp, is that this rebellion is indigenous. It is led by clerics and political figures who were part of the Iranian revolution, and — for now — it aims only to reform the system, not overthrow it.
Some U.S. conservatives are calling for overt American assistance — a reprise of the Bush administration’s $75 million in democracy aid for Iran. But Esfandiari says that overt aid policy was harmful, because it gave the regime an easy excuse to arrest members of civil society — even when they had not taken any U.S. funding.
“So far, the Obama administration’s policy of restraint and not getting involved in the election debate has been very effective,” she said. “But we should not refrain from criticizing the horrendous violations of human rights.”
However, this courageous woman seemed a bit conflicted when I asked her how she felt about the Obama administration’s decision to talk to Iran at this moment. “I have always said ‘engage with Iran,’ “ she said. She has written that “change is more likely to come to an Iran that is engaged with the rest of the world rather than isolated from it.”
However, she added pensively, “These are unusual times. ...”
Many Iranian opposition supporters worry that U.S. engagement with the Iranian government now may undercut the morale of the opposition and strengthen the hard-liners.
Yet, because the Iranian revolt is driven from within, it will surely continue, irrespective of U.S. policy. The paranoid mind-set that led this Iranian regime to arrest Esfandiari — and to hold today’s show trials — will eventually do it in.