The solitary confinement of Haleh Esfandiari, the respected scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and this week's arrest of Kian Tajbaksh, an urban planning expert at George Soros's Open Society Institute, and Ali Shakheri, an Iranian-American scholar and democracy activist, are the latest signs of a clamp-down on civil society in Iran -- and on its supporters abroad.
They are not the first prominent Iranian Americans to be imprisoned for "espionage," and they are not likely to be the last. Darioush Zahedi, professor of political science at UC Berkeley, and Ramin Jahanbeglou, a philosopher and former scholar at the National Endowment for Democracy, shared a similar fate in 2003 and 2006, respectively. They were imprisoned and forced to spend time in solitary confinement, despite any proof of wrongdoing, until they were finally released in response to international pressure.
The serial arrests of prominent Iranian-American scholars by Iran's hardliner government come just as the Bush administration has sent the aircraft carriers John C. Stennis, Nimitz and Bonhomme Richard, part of the group of nine ships, to the Persian Gulf. This show of military strength, as well as the escalating harsh rhetoric exchanged by the U.S. and Iranian governments, arrives just prior to the Iran-U.S. talks scheduled to begin Monday in Baghdad.
What is clear is that the government in Iran is willing to combat any effort construed as attempts at "regime change," even if it victimizes its own citizens by randomly arresting and imprisoning them without justification. These arrests are a warning to all civil society activists working to build understanding between the two countries. I have had personal experience of this.
In 2004, I met Esfandiari in Tehran. She invited me to present a paper at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She said it was important to shed light on the activities of the younger generation, which was having a great impact on various aspects of civil society. I accepted.
In the following months, I completed my research, finalized the paper, applied for a visa and headed for the United States in September -- only to be returned to Iran by American officials in Frankfurt, Germany, without any explanation. Soon after my return to Tehran, I was arrested by Iranian security agents and placed in solitary confinement for 55 days.
I was interrogated numerous times about my trip to the United States, even when I told them that I never made the trip. They insisted that they had photographs and video of me in the United States lecturing against the Iranian government. "You are mistaken," I said. "Unfortunately, I -- like most of you gentlemen -- am on [America's] 'No Fly List.' "
But they continued to question me about Esfandiari and other Iranian expatriates who invite activists to speak abroad. Chief among their concerns was whether we were paid by the U.S. government to overthrow the regime. They wanted to know our plans, and the names of others involved. Apparently satisfied that I really had nothing to reveal, I was released and eventually made my way to the United States.
In February 2006, the Bush administration announced it would be "reaching out to the people of Iran." This entailed providing financial support to various civil society activists, universities and media. The policy elicited a flood of objections -- not from the government in Iran, but from the activists, who knew that it would only serve as another excuse for the Iranian government to suppress their efforts at democratic reform.
The activists had long believed that democracy and social justice has to be a grassroots effort, i.e., to be developed from within the society. Meanwhile, international isolation, accentuated by economic sanctions, has only widened the gap in understanding between Iranians and the rest of the world. Esfandiari has attempted to bridge that gap -- for which she is now being punished.
If the U.S. government truly wants to support a nascent democracy in Iran, it would have a far greater chance if it were to begin a dialogue with the Iranian government, rather than adopting wrong-headed, ill-fated outreach policies. Among other benefits, a dialogue might help persuade the Iranian government to ease up on its crackdown on democracy advocates, as well as facilitating greater communication between Iranian activists and their counterparts abroad.
It also may create an environment for scholars in both countries to exchange ideas, to the benefit of both societies. The Islamic Republic of Iran's greatest fear is not of sanctions or military action, but of its own people, who are earnestly seeking a democratic and open society.
Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and the recipient of Human Rights Watch's Human Rights Defender award. He will be a Peace Fellow at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism in the fall. His blog can be found at omidmemarian.blogspot.com/