On May 8 in Tehran, Haleh Esfandiari, the 67-year-old Middle East director of Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was taken away to Evin Prison. She had been in Iran on one of her yearly trips to see her 93-year-old mother when in December, while en route to the airport, she was stopped at knife-point by masked men, who seized her passports (she is a dual US-Iranian national). Since then she has endured torturous interrogations, sometimes for up to eight hours on end. Esfandiari, who refused to confess to taking part in anti-government activities, faces vague charges of being part of US efforts at a “soft overthrow” of the regime.
Three days after Esfandiari was locked up at Evin, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh was taken from his home, also without being officially charged. And only days later, we learned that a Los Angeles-based activist named Ali Shakeri had gone missing. On May 29, Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh and Parnaz Azima, a radio journalist for the US-based Radio Farda who had been prevented from leaving Iran for some months, were charged with spying for the Americans.
As all are dual nationals, their cases point to a disturbing trend: People with connections to the West, particularly scholars, are being fingered as part of a vast conspiracy aimed at toppling the regime. Countless other Iranians, some of them dual nationals but many of them not, have also had their passports seized. Iran’s civil society–women’s rights activists, unionists, students, journalists–has been the larger casualty of this crackdown.
It is hard to imagine how Esfandiari could possibly be a national security threat. Through the Wilson Center, she worked tirelessly to create a balanced and impartial space for communication between American and Iranian intellectuals. Tajbakhsh had returned to Iran in 2001, leaving behind a distinguished teaching career at the New School in New York City. In Tehran he not only worked on government urban planning projects but also as a professor and consultant to the Open Society Institute. Shakeri was a peace activist. None of them had to travel to Iran. They chose to, because they were invested in the future of the country of their birth.
One may offer that there is nothing new about this particular moment. After all, for twenty-seven years the Iranian regime has justified attacks on its opponents by linking them to the West. But when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a $75 million appropriation to support Iranian civil society in February 2006, she made the regime’s job far easier. Suddenly, everyone became a potential spy or recipient of US funds.
The irony is that it is unlikely that any of the $75 million has actually entered Iran. Most has gone to Persian-language broadcasting based in the States, and a fraction has gone to US-based NGOs. It certainly did not go to the three arrested these past weeks. The Wilson Center received no State Department money, nor was it part of any “Zionist conspiracy,” as Iranian newspapers imply. And Tajbakhsh’s activities with OSI were thoroughly transparent and given an official Iranian government permit.
It is in fact Iranian activists who have been the most vociferous critics of Rice’s program. Homegrown initiatives such as the “one million signatures” campaign are proof that one does not need money or vows of regime change to create a successful grassroots movement. The campaign, which pushes for modest changes in the women’s legal code, requires only a pen, paper and a photocopy machine to go about its work.
Still, the regime is cracking down on precisely the people who are working within the parameters of the system. They are not revolutionaries. They are not foreign agents. By silencing them the government plays straight into the hands of the hard-liners in Washington who delight in fantasies of military action.
At the end of May, Iran and the United States sat down for direct talks in Baghdad over their shared interests in Iraq. There is little question that the meeting, modest as it may have been, was momentous. Let us hope that with this first step, we may come closer to engagement between these two sworn enemies–and finally, to bringing Esfandiari, Shakeri and Tajbakhsh home to their families.