The May 8th arrest of Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, 67-year old Director of the Middle East Program at Woodrow Wilson Center, in Tehran by Iran's intelligence service, indicates an ongoing trend of serious crackdown on prominent scholars, women and labor activists. Since December 2006 when her both her US and Iranian passports were 'stolen', she has been interrogated and threatened numerous times, and now, finally detained.
I faced a fate similar to Esfandiari's in 2004 when I was arrested by Iranian Security Agents, interrogated, and sent to solitary confinement for 55 days. They continuously questioned me about other expatriates who invite activists abroad, especially concerned about any financial help provided by the US government to overthrow the current regime. I was released and eventually made my way to the US, just as Esfandiari is bound to sooner or later, as she is not guilty of any crime but devoting her life to creating greater understanding and dialogue between her two countries.
In the last three months, this regime has arrested more than 35 women activists all of which have been eventually released after a few weeks of detention. Also, the security forces are applying pressure on women in the street who often push the boundaries of the 'Islamic dress code', a move authorities dub as a "cultural attack" by the West.
During the last year, Iran's regime has increased its pressure on activists, academics and intellectuals who have connections abroad, particularly the United States. They fear that such exchanges will gradually result in the collapse of the Islamic Regime. The Iranian authorities accuse these people of being financed by the US to launch a "velvet revolution" through civil society organizations, similar to what happened in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004.
There has been no evidence that the targeted groups have received any financial or moral support from the US. But, their random arrests, detainment and forced and false confessions, are indications that the government is trying to use scare tactics to ensure relations do not develop between US and its people. Conversely, the more Iran's conservative government feels there is a threat of regime change policies, the more it will suppress its people.
In the US, the administration denies any "regime change" policy, and refers to any actions as "supporting the cause of freedom in Iran." Last year, the US government announced that the administration is going to allocate 85 million dollars in support of people of Iran in the following areas: Broadcasting to the Iranian People ($ 50 milion), Promoting Iranian Democracy ($15 million), Scholarships and Fellowships ($5 million), Enhancing Communication ($5 million), and Supporting the case of Freedom in Iran (at least $10 million).
Since the US allocation, Iranian activists repeatedly have stated that the democracy movement in Iran does not need foreign funds to operate; however, it appreciates moral support and dialogue among the academia, relations with International organizations such as the United Nations agencies, and removal of any sanctions hindering Iran joining the global economy.
With the arrest of Dr. Esfandiari it is now clear more than ever that animosity and hostility between the two states, the US and Iran, has resulted in threatening the Iranian people and empowering the hardliner discourse in the country. Furthermore, with such actions the regime is fast loosing what little trust its people had in creating a more just and pragmatic government.
European countries have been successful in supporting Iranian civil society through cultural and developmental foundations, NGOs and direct ties with the Iranian people, due to the fact that their governments have initiated "critical dialogue" with Iran's government. The hostility between the US and Iran does not allow for a 'reach out policy' toward the Iranian people and only appears to have strengthened the hardliners. In order to effectively support democracy and freedom in Iran, a "critical dialogue" with the Iranian government must be initiated, in order to disarm the Islamic government and stop it from applying further pressure on its activists. Neither side has gained anything from three decades of hostility...perhaps its about time we entertain a different course of action.