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  Global Viewpoint



Human rights advocate Shirin Ebadi was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize and is the lawyer for Haleh Esfandiari. Muhammad Sahimi is professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California.

By Shirin Ebadi and Muhammad Sahimi

LOS ANGELES — The confrontation between Iran and the West has developed a new dimension over the detention of several native Iranian scholars, journalists and political activists who have been living in the West for years and have recently traveled to their homeland.

Parnaz Azima, a reporter for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda, which broadcasts Persian programs into Iran, has been prohibited from leaving Iran since her passport was seized in January.

Mehrnoushe Solouki, an Iranian-French journalist, has not been able to leave since February.

Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was arrested and has been jailed since May 9.

Kian Tajbakhsh, a senior research fellow at the New School in New York and a consultant to the World Bank and the Open Society Institute, was also detained in May.

And several months ago, philosopher Ramin Jahanbeglou was jailed for a period, after he spent time at the National Endowment for Democracy, another Washington-based organization.

What is the root cause of these events? Part of it is undoubtedly the deep unpopularity of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Internal opposition to his government is becoming increasingly louder as Iranians are recognizing the danger in his foreign policy, which is based mostly on hot rhetoric, and his failure to improve Iran's economy.

In December, university students forced him to stop his speech by shouting “death to the dictator.” Iran's parliament, where Ahmadinejad's supporters are supposed to have a large majority, has severely criticized him and recently impeached his education minister. In recent municipal elections, candidates backed by Ahmadinejad received only 4 percent of the vote.

The conservatives who rule Iran are also badly fractured. The radical faction led by Ahmadinejad is bitterly opposed to the more moderate, pragmatic faction led by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who advocates accommodation with the West.

Rafsanjani recently recalled how Abolhassan Banisadr, the Islamic Republic's first president, was impeached and removed from office by parliament, because “he was not suitable for the position,” a veiled reference to how to remove Ahmadinejad from office.

The recent arrests should be seen partly as a reaction to these events.

Unable to address Iran's mountain of social, economical and political problems, and confronted by both internal and external oppositions, the hardliners are trying to create a new crisis with the West in order to distract attention from their problems.

At the same time, the recent arrests, including the detention of Hossein Mousavian, a former nuclear negotiator and a close aid to Rafsanjani, should be viewed as Ahmadinejad's retaliation against the more moderate faction.

The most important reason for the recent arrests, however, has to do with President George Bush's policy toward Iran. Last year, the administration requested and received $75 million from the U.S. Congress to, ostensibly, “bring” democracy to Iran.

Some of the $75 million has been devoted to the U.S.-funded Radio Farda, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, as well as to VOA satellite TV, which are beaming Persian programs into Iran.

Other portions of the money have been given secretly to exiled Iranian groups, political figures and American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in order to establish contacts with opposition groups in Iran.

Such organizations as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the NED have also granted fellowships to some of Iran's opposition figures and scholars to visit the U.S.

Iranian reformists and democratic groups believe, however, that democracy cannot be imported, nor can it be supervised from outside. It must be indigenous. They laugh at the idea that the $75 million will bring democracy to Iran, and believe that the best the U.S. can do for democracy in Iran is to leave them alone. The fact is, no truly nationalist and democratic group in Iran will accept any part of the funds.

According to the Algiers Accord that the U.S. signed with Iran in 1981 to end the hostage crisis, noninterference in Iran's domestic affairs is, in fact, part of the U.S. legal obligations toward Iran. Point I, paragraph 1 of that accord states, “The United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs.”

The secret dimension of the distribution of the $75 million has also created immense problems for Iranian reformists, democratic groups and human rights activists. Aware of their own deep unpopularity, the hardliners in Iran are terrified by the prospects of a “velvet revolution” and, thus, have become obsessed with preventing meaningful contacts between Iranian scholars, artists, journalists and political activists and their American counterparts. This segment of the Iranian society is now viewed with great suspicion by the hardliners.

Thus, Washington’s policy of “helping” the cause of democracy in Iran has backfired. It has made it more difficult for the more moderate factions within Iran's power hierarchy to argue for an accommodation with the West, and has brought nothing but harassment and jail for the Iranian scholars, reformists and human rights advocates who not only want better relations between the U.S. and Iran, but are also pushing for reforms in Iran.

Haleh Esfandiari, for example, has been for years a forceful and articulate advocate of better relations between Iran, her homeland, and the U.S., her adopted country.

There is no question that the Iranian government should immediately and unconditionally release the recently arrested Iranians, Iranian-Americans and, indeed, all political prisoners.

But the Bush administration should also not only put an end to its misguided policy of “helping” the cause of democracy in Iran, but immediately declare with utmost transparency which organizations and public figures have received funds from the $75 million.

This way, it will become clear that the scholars, journalists and other figures who travel to Iran, or invite to the U.S. their Iranian counterparts, have nothing to do with the misguided policy of the Bush administration.