Politics & Policy

Iran Takes Prisoners

Nervous mullahs in action.

A conservative, the old adage goes, is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Today, nowhere is this saying more apt than in the case of proponents of U.S.-Iranian “dialogue,” who are getting a harsh dose of reality about the true intentions of the ayatollahs in Tehran.

Just ahead of yesterday’s planned U.S.-Iranian meeting to discuss Iraq, the Islamic Republic has launched a vicious crackdown on Iranian-American scholars and activists. The most high-profile victim of this offensive is Haleh Esfandiari, the head of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was rounded up May 8 on charges of trying to foment a “soft revolution” against the Iranian regime. Ever since, she has languished in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, in spite of public entreaties for her release from prominent policymakers and senior statesmen.

Esfandiari is hardly the only casualty of the regime’s crackdown. Back in January, Parnaz Azima, a correspondent for the U.S. government’s Persian-language Radio Farda service, was stripped of her passport and placed under surveillance, accused of carrying subversive information into the Islamic Republic. Most recently, the Iranian regime’s security forces have detained two other activists: Kian Tajbakhsh, a social scientist affiliated with George Soros’s Open Society Institute, and Ali Shakeri, a peace activist working with the University of California-Irvine.

Ironically enough, Esfandiari and at least some of the others have been among the most prominent advocates of a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. By imprisoning them, the Iranian regime has made clear that it has little interest in the type of normalization they had in mind.

Nor can this turn of events be chalked up to minority sentiment. Back in March, when Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard detained 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf, many observers were quick to discount it as the work of a fringe group within the regime, pointing to the incident’s swift resolution and the absence of Iran’s firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from the proceedings as proof positive that cooler clerical heads had prevailed.

The latest crackdown can’t be discounted so easily; it implicates a wide swath of the Iranian establishment, including Iran’s security forces, its judicial system, its penal authorities, and, most significantly, at least one segment of its clerical leadership. And its message is unmistakable: Iran’s ruling regime is petrified of the possibility of democratic change within its borders.

Iran’s ayatollahs have good reason to be frightened. Aging and infirm, Iran’s ruling clerical elite presides over a restive, youthful and Westward-looking population. Over the past year, officials in Tehran have watched in alarm as the Bush administration has attempted to empower these forces, authorizing some $75 million for democracy promotion efforts within the Islamic Republic. In the process, it has confronted the Iranian leadership with the possibility of a popular revolution similar to the type that took place in Georgia in 2003, in Ukraine in 2004/2005, and in Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan in 2005.

The current clampdown, therefore, represents a logical reaction on the part of the Iranian regime. By imprisoning Esfandiari and other advocates of accommodation, the regime hopes to send the message to advocates of more lasting change that working with Washington could be hazardous to their health. In the process, it hopes to chill interest in American-style democracy among the constituency most susceptible to it: the Iranian “street.”

For the moment, officials in Washington are rightly concerned over the safety of the U.S. citizens now in Iranian custody. But they should also see the regime’s overreaction as a hopeful sign. It demonstrates that the Iranian regime is stagnant, under siege, and deeply fearful of democracy. All of which should be music to the ears of an administration that has made pluralism in the Middle East a major foreign-policy priority.

Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C., and editor of the newly released Taking on Tehran: Strategies for Confronting the Islamic Republic.

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