What Landed Haleh Esfandiari in Jail, and Why Did Iranian TV Think The World Would Believe Her "Confession"?
by Patricia Vásquez
Managing Editor, The WIP
In the last three days, media sources worldwide, from the BBC and CNN to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the media arm of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, among others, have given broad coverage to a full-length “documentary” aired by Iranian state-run TV.
The would-be documentary claims it demonstrates the “confessions” of Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program and her fellow Iranian-American, New York-based social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh. The program featured blurry footage of revolutions in progress in Eastern Europe; only snatches of the two prisoners’ voices could be heard.
Incredibly, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence alleges that the Wilson Center and similar US institutions were conspiring to overthrow the government by setting up a network "against the sovereignty of the country. This is an American designed model with an attractive appearance that seeks the soft-toppling of the country."
The Ministry of Intelligence also stated that during interrogations Esfandiari had confirmed that the Wilson Center "invited Iranians to attend conferences, offered them research projects, scholarships ... and tried to lure influential elements and link them to decision-making centers in America."
In fact, what Esfandiari said was, "I was consulting with Iranian experts in Washington, D.C., and asking them for names. Every once in a while, I would go to Iran when I had a name. I would contact this person and set up a meeting."
The program cut between the statements of the two, who have been held in Tehran’s dreaded Evin prison since early May, and scenes of revolutions in Ukraine, Kyrgystan and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Iranian commentators then tried to link their efforts to U.S. efforts to promote change in Iran.
The charges apparently center on the relationship between the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program and the Soros Foundation, an organization Iran believes is trying to foment a ‘soft’ revolution in its country.
The so-called confessions are “ludicrous,’ said Lee H. Hamilton, president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center. “This reprehensible pattern of activity by interrogators in Iran has occurred before: jailing innocent people, confining them, and then producing a framed or cobbled statement or confession. This is not a fair judicial process at work.”
He continued, “Rather than commit such an egregious act as imprisoning Esfandiari, Ahmedinejad should have provided state funds to send government representatives to provide the other side of the story in Washington’s think tank world. Better yet he should have approached Esfandiari to act as a productive intermediary to expedite and strengthen ongoing back-door diplomatic efforts with the Americans.”
The Nobel Women’s Initiative also views Esfandiari in the same light: “It is astonishing that Iranian authorities should subject a woman who has been devoted to Iran all her life to unfair treatment, incarceration and unfounded charges.”
Haleh Bakhash, Esfandiari’s only child, who is a lawyer in Washington, DC, made clear her opinion of both the Iranian TV “confessions” and the detention of her mother. On July 19th in an article in the Washington Post entitled “My Mother's Interrogators: In an Iranian Propaganda Broadcast, the Real Guilty Party Is Clear” she wrote:
“The program broadcast nationwide yesterday…was supposed to show…my mother's complicity in a plan to undermine the Islamic Republic using, of all things, female activists and academics. But the footage turned out to be a typical secret police job of deception, vicious in intent yet clumsily contrived.
Her statements, to me, sounded wooden - unnatural and coerced. But did she say anything incriminating? Certainly not.
When the television program ended, I felt contempt for my mother's jailers and interrogators. But I was filled with admiration for my mother. In hugely difficult circumstances, she preserved her dignity, held her head high and did not lie.
My mother has nothing to be ashamed of. They do.”
In a statement she released through the Woodrow Wilson Center on the same day, she was equally blunt:
“The program broadcast nationwide yesterday — announced with much fanfare by the Intelligence Ministry on Monday and expected to be continued today — was supposed to show Iran and ostensibly the world my mother’s complicity in a plan to undermine the Islamic Republic.
What Iran’s security authorities, in their infinite wisdom, are presenting to the world and to their domestic audience is a doctored “interview” in which dishonest cutting and splicing unconvincingly attempt to make the most ordinary statement appear to be part of a great “conspiracy,” a harbinger of massive subversion.
Bakash’s father, Esfandiari's husband, Professor Shaul Bakhash, drew the same conclusion; he does not believe the wording was anything his wife would use. He commented that her statement all too obviously "mirrors the language that the Ministry of Intelligence has used over these last few weeks to describe the case." Having seen the first footage of her since she was detained, his greater concern was personal, for her welfare: "I don't think she looked very well at all. She's lost a great deal of weight. She looked very pale."
What would motivate Iran to arrest and threaten potentially its best spokespersons?
There are several theories as to what is motivating Iran in making these arrests. Two of these theories can be attributed to ill-conceived Middle East policies of George Bush.
The first is that Esfandiari’s sudden arrest is retaliation for a dramatic “pre-emptive” strike in Iran that occurred on January 11th. The military strike occurred just hours before US President George W Bush aggressively declared that US forces would "seek out and destroy the [Iranian] networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq." That day, US forces staged a surprise raid on what was said to be a diplomatic liaison office in the northern city of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Six Iranians were summarily detained, infuriating not just Iranian, but Kurdish officials as well.
The troops confiscated office files and computers, saying they were evidence showing the alleged role of Iranian agents in anti-coalition attacks and sectarian violence in Iraq. One diplomat was released, but five others remain in US custody, although they have not been formally charged with a crime.
The Associated Press in July 2007 revealed that U.S. authorities identified the five detainees as the operations chief and other members of the Iranian government's elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, which the US claims has been arming Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran denies the claim, insisting that the five are diplomats in Iraq with the permission of the Iraqi government.
High-level Iraqi officials immediately called for their release, but for all practical purposes, the five Iranians have since disappeared into the US-sanctioned "coalition detention" system widely criticized as arbitrary and even illegal by many experts on international law. It seems the Bush administration is practicing Guantanamo-style diplomacy, all over again.
Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi was eventually allowed to meet with the Iranians for five hours at their detention facility. Afterward he declared, "This is an insult to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government. These incidents will prompt other countries not to send their diplomats to Iraq."
Sadly, being used as an exchange for the five Iranians is the best scenario for Esfandiari’s eventual release. Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian-Canadian scholar arrested last year on similar charges was held for four months. After confessing that foreign agents might have exploited his expertise, he was released in August.
A second theory, that the arrest was Iran’s reaction to the Bush administration’s “democracy fund,” seems to be borne out by the Ministry of Intelligence’s reference to “an American designed model …that seeks the soft-toppling of the country." If the Iranian government truly does think Esfandiari is an agent of this program, this bodes an extremely bleak outcome for her. Foreign agents have little future in any country in which they are caught. And some segments of the Iranian government, although they are very much mistaken, see their two prisoners as exactly that. They are wrong about Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh, but the "democracy fund" has given them reason to be convinced their view of this situation is accurate.
What "democracy fund" is the Ministry of Intelligence talking about? On Feb. 15, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requested $75 million of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. $36.1 million was to be funneled into existing television and radio programs beaming into Iran; another $10 million was to pay for public diplomacy and exchange programs, including helping Iranians who wanted to study in America.
At least the second aim of the program does sound very much like the Wilson Center’s encouragement of Iranian scholars. But the Wilson Center is scrupulously even-handed, as any institution promoting genuine scholarship should be.
To quote Lee H. Hamilton, president and director of the Woodrow Wilson Center again, “Haleh has not engaged in any activities to undermine any government, including the Iranian government. Nor does the Wilson Center engage in any such activities. The charges are totally unfounded, and without any substance whatsoever. There is not one scintilla of evidence to support these outrageous claims.”
Bakash’s assessment is that “misguided U.S. policies in the past—loose talk about regime change in Iran or the allocation of funds to support Iranian dissidents and democracy advocates—have merely fed the paranoia of the Iranian regime about American intentions. ...democracy promotion of various sorts in Iran is an issue about which the Iranian government is very sensitive. And some of the detainees have been accused, quite wrongly, of receiving that money.”
In Time magazine on June 5, 2007, Scott MacLeod said his sources had long been warning about this:
“TIME's sources, who do not want to be identified for fear of retribution, say that they repeatedly warned about the negative consequences in informal talks. Similar warnings were delivered to U.S. officials by others, including Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. "We had talks with the State Department and with lawmakers," Parsi told TIME. "We pointed out the dangers. Our advice was not taken into consideration. Things have turned out worse than we expected.”
The “democracy fund” has caused Kayhan, the semiofficial newspaper, to editorialize constantly about networks conspiring to topple the regime. References to "khaneh ankaboot," or "the spider nest," specifically refer to a subversive network bankrolled by the “democracy fund.” The “spider nest” said to be conspiring to topple its government includes first and foremost George W. Bush, dissident Iranians of all shades and also George Soros, the billionaire American global financier who is founder of several foundations, all working to promote open, democratic societies, transparent government, freedom of the press, and respect for human rights. So, to the Iranian government, it is not just the US government that wants to topple it; it is influential, rich Americans as well.
Consequently, Iranians are now paranoid about anything linking them even vaguely to the West. Any conferences, workshop attendance, foreign travel, even e-mail or phone contact with foreign entities can make one a suspect.
The ironic result is that even the activists in Iran most critical of their government are outspoken critics of the Bush “democracy fund.” They protest that the fund only makes more trouble for them. In short, all who wish to retain their liberty are saying, “Thanks, but no thanks” to the “democracy fund.”On the other hand, a third explanation, possibly even more perilous for Dr. Esfandiari, is offered by Rasool Nafisi, a professor at Strayer University in Virginia who contributes to various news agencies, including Voice of America, the BBC, and Radio France International. In an article in Open Democracy in May 2007, he astutely analyzes the Iranian crackdown this way:
…Some western observers have repeated the threadbare argument that American policy toward Iran is itself the culprit. This line of thinking… focuses principally on Washington rather than on Tehran's own agency; second, it assumes that the Iranian government needs threats of regime change from the Bush administration to perpetrate such violations.
These approaches … pay little attention to political dynamics within the country. … Ahmadinejad and his ilk may welcome a crisis…The Iranian president has been creating crises - local and international - on a routine basis since he was elected to office… Ahmadinejad's readiness to provoke crisis, and the tendency toward greater repression, has been evident for some time… The appointment of two ministers (Pourmohammadi at interior and Mohseni-Ejeie at information) was a warning that a xenophobic old guard trapped in a paranoid view of the world was back with a vengeance.
During the reform era of Mohammad Khatami (1989-97)…a new direction and image for the state established a sense that Iran was moving beyond the repression of the post-revolution years…the excess of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad… is more an authentic representative of this state than his predecessor, more of a rule than an exception…
Professor Nafisi pulls no punches. He declares ominously: “Haleh Esfandiari's travail reveals the oppressive and fanatical tendencies inside the state. There may be even worse to come.”
We can only hope Professor Nafisi is wrong - for Haleh Esfandiari’s sake, and for the success of peace throughout the Middle East. Let’s hope our bellicose president, George Bush, gets the message that forcing democracy on governments who do not want it is a very dangerous and futile business which often hurts the very people it is trying to help.