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Tehran's Self-Fulfilling Paranoia

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By Haleh Esfandiari
Friday, August 21, 2009

Two years ago today, I was released from Evin Prison after 105 days in solitary confinement. I was arrested in early 2007 on the ludicrous charge of attempting to foment a "velvet revolution" to overthrow the Iranian government and held as a political prisoner by the Intelligence Ministry. Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has acknowledged the absurdity of these charges; this month, explaining why he recently fired his minister of intelligence, he noted that the intelligence chief had made himself the subject of ridicule by charging "a 70-year-old woman" with wanting to start a revolution. (Actually, I was 67 then.) Rather, Ahmadinejad said, the spy chief should have exposed the real instigators of this plot.

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The Iranian government imagines that it is now going after the real instigators -- and it fails to see the damage it is causing its own society.

Thousands were arrested in the protests after the June 12 presidential election that large numbers of Iranians believe was rigged in Ahmadinejad's favor. More than 100 of the protesters and their leaders were put on trial this month. The charge? Trying to foment a velvet revolution with the backing of foreign governments. The accused include not only ordinary demonstrators but also a former vice president, former members of parliament, and strategists and idea men who worked for two opposition presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, in the disputed election. Truly, the revolution has begun to devour its children.

In weeks of interrogation during my incarceration in 2007, I came to understand only too well the paranoia that drives Iran's security agencies and its hard-liners. These men fear that they will be overthrown by a mass movement of their own people, similar to the popular movements, or "velvet revolutions," that toppled autocratic regimes of the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. They have convinced themselves that those earlier movements were not homegrown but were planned and orchestrated by the United States. They believe America is scheming to pull off a similar upheaval in Iran.

My interrogators explained to me that the United States, bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no longer contemplates military action against Iran. Rather, they said, Washington is engaged in a long-term plan for regime change in which a crucial role is assigned to America's great universities and think tanks, such as the one where I work. These institutions target Iran's intellectual elites -- the same class that led political revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. They use fellowships, conferences, workshops and speaking invitations to recruit Iranian intellectuals, journalists, academics and political activists, and they turn them into willing or unwitting partners in this conspiracy. The plan feeds upon itself: ideas, recruitment, linkages with politicians, mass protests and then regime overthrow.

I was supposed to be the mastermind or at least a key player in this project. My chief interrogator offered to let me off if I implicated my employer, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. At one point I replied to my interrogators that Iran is not a banana republic to be overthrown by 20 scholars sitting around a conference table.

Eventually, I was freed. But in the mass "trials" that began this month, the government prosecutor laid out precisely the same "conspiracy" I was charged with. Using the same mad logic I faced during interrogation, he managed to link together foreign governments, the BBC, other journalists, a French-language teacher, anti-regime monarchists, a former guerrilla organization and prominent leaders of the Islamic Republic. All are supposed to have joined hands to bring about regime change.

A million Iranians poured into the streets in June in support of Mousavi and to protest a stolen election. The protests chilled the regime; the worst fears of the security agencies seemed to be playing out. It did not register with the government that the protesters were calling for reform, not revolution. The demonstrators saw in Mousavi, an insider, the possibility of change: greater political and social freedoms, an end to fear from secret police and morals police, a more moderate foreign policy, a greater openness to the outside world.

Yet it is precisely such change that Iranian hard-liners have always feared. The regime panicked and brutally cracked down, and the most hard-line elements have emerged on top. They are setting the agenda, and they see the chance to rid themselves, for good, of the moderates and reformists in their midst. Hence the show trials, the coerced confessions, and the calls for Mousavi and Karrubi to be prosecuted.

The result is a deep cleavage in the Iranian leadership. The trials have caused as much revulsion at home as abroad. Prominent Iranians have described the proceedings in Tehran as "Stalinist"; Karrubi has persisted in charges that prisoners have been tortured, raped and killed; increasingly, Iran's supreme leader is being criticized.

As Karrubi pointed out, the widespread discontent will not be easily silenced. Iran's hard-liners have long feared a foreign-inspired upheaval. Ironically, they seem to have accomplished what their ubiquitous foreign "enemies" could not: They have planted the seeds for their own, homegrown velvet revolution.

Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of "My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran."



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