Apply pressure on Iran, and wait

[30 May 2007]

By Mark Bowden

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Haleh Esfandiari

Haleh Esfandiari

Evin Prison in north Tehran is such a sprawling complex that it cannot really be seen from any one vantage point.

I went looking for it on my last trip to Tehran in 2005, researching a book about the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, because it is where nearly all of the kidnapped Americans were ultimately held. What I remember are high stone walls that followed the steep contours of the hills, some up close, others in the far distance. Patches of the walls seemed to have been built recently, while some seemed ancient. Some parts were gray stone, others brick-and-mortar. The huge steel doors at the front entrance were painted a powder blue.

It was hard to get more than a collection of glimpses, because my Iranian driver and friend was loath even to slow down as we drove past. It was in front of those powder-blue doors in 2003 that Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian Canadian photographer, was arrested for taking photographs, and subsequently died imprisoned behind its walls. She was beaten to death in custody. Evin has been a locus of fear in Tehran for many, many years, long before this Islamist regime.

The mullahs are just the last in a line of Iranian rulers to employ it. Evin is back in the news in the West because locked behind its walls is Haleh Esfandiari, a distinguished Iranian American scholar employed by the Woodrow Wilson Institute, an organization dedicated to fostering cultural understanding. Esfandiari is one of a community of liberal intellectuals who, at least from an American vantage point, are working to break down the ignorance and misunderstanding that have so often steered nations into war.

Iran has decided to define that work as an effort to foster “soft revolution,” that is, to encourage education, cultural understanding, and a free international exchange of ideas—hence promoting notions that threaten the nation’s 25-year-old theocratic rule. This is revolution very broadly defined, but given the rather narrow dimensions of “democracy” in Iran, simple enough to understand. Esfandiari and other intellectuals like her worry the regime, because their writings and conferences encourage an appetite for real freedom. Her arrest will likely discourage other such Westernized, free-thinking Iranians from visiting, no matter how her case is resolved.

This episode is particularly troubling to liberal Americans because Esfandiari is not a flame-throwing neo-con; she is a liberal intellectual. From an American viewpoint, her public statements and works would seem to be distinctly pro-Iran. During the 1990s, she was one of a number of academics with Iranian roots who fostered the idea that the Islamic Republic, given time and encouragement, would evolve toward true democracy.

Excited by the rhetoric of the reform movement there, and the early promise of former President Mohammad Khatami, they encouraged the American government to ease tensions between our countries, and even to open a dialogue with the mullahocracy, in the hope of hastening this process.

Friends and family of Esfandiari, American officials, and her academic colleagues have expressed bewilderment over her arrest. Sen. Hilary Clinton has called it “inexplicable.” Lee Hamilton, the former congressman who heads the Wilson Center, has said: “There is not a shred, not a scintilla” of truth to the allegations against her.

But as wrong as her detention is, I see no mystery in it. It is very much in keeping with the clerical crackdown that has been going on in Iran for the last five years. It certainly comes as no surprise to the opposition Iranian politicians, activists and journalists who have been locked up, kicked out of their professions, and booted—often after public beatings by the Basij, the regime’s fanatic religious brown shirts—off the public stage. I wince every time I hear President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad referred to as “the elected leader” of Iran. He is not. He serves Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and an all-powerful council of mullahs, and he was elected, along with the current Majlis (Iran’s version of Congress), only after those judged insufficiently “Islamist” (most of them reformers) were crossed off the ballot. The pendulum has swung so far away from reform in Iran that even the benevolent efforts of Esfandiari are enough to get you a one-way ticket to Evin.

Iran is a confusing country. It encompasses many strong political traditions with deep roots, among them, at least in modern times, a kind of natural national proclivity toward freedom. This is why westernized Iranian intellectuals like Esfandiari were so enthusiastic about the reform movement. It is also why it would be a tragic mistake for the United States to attack Iran.

Not long after I returned from my last trip there, I was interviewing Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (who thought he was leaving his biggest problems behind when he moved to the World Bank), and he asked me what I thought the United States should be doing to encourage democracy in Iran. I am hardly an expert in the region, but I told him that any overt American involvement would likely set back the movement for decades, for the same reason that any American political movement endorsed by Iran would be dead in the water.

The best approach, which so far the United States has been taking, is to ratchet up international pressure to try to contain Iran—and wait. Tyrannies have been known to self-destruct.

While it is small comfort to Esfandiari and those who love and respect her, her detention illustrates that America is not the only country that blunders in the international arena. Her arrest is just the latest in a string of mistakes and embarrassments orchestrated by the clownish Ahmadinejad, from denying the Holocaust to touting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. I may be overly optimistic, but even with my limited experience in Iran, I know his actions dismay most educated Iranians. Couple that with the nation’s intractable economic problems, general dissatisfaction with religious rule, and the mounting discontent of Iranian youth, and I suspect Ahmadinejad is hastening the end of the mullahocracy he seeks to defend.

Our policy, again, should be to keep the pressure on, and wait. When the monster is backing itself toward a cliff, the best policy is to stay out of his way.


Mark Bowden is author of Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam. He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer; e-mail: mbowden AT

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