Right Wing Itches to Strike Iran
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The case of Haleh Esfandiari's imprisonment in Iran is sparking the kind of commotion that periodically grips America's intellectual class and, more ominously, is providing reasons for America's right wing to attack Iran.
Dr. Esfandiari, 67, was born and raised in Iran but has spent much of her professional life in the United States, now as the much-respected director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a leading think tank in Washington, D.C. At the end of a visit to her ailing mother in Tehran last winter, she was detained. She was recently arrested and is now in prison awaiting trial. A citizen of both America and Iran, she has been charged with trying to foment a "velvet revolution" in Iran -- soft, nonviolent regime change. She and everyone associated with her deny the charges.
Editorials have been lambasting Iran's Intelligence Ministry, which many see as responsible for this, and a number of important public intellectuals are calling for action. Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a specialist on the region, wrote in his highly regarded blog, Informed Comment, "I had been planning to go to a conference in Iran in July, hosted by some French scholars, but I have cancelled in protest against this detention of my friend. I don't see how normal intellectual life can go on when a scholar at the Wilson Center can't safely visit Iran."
A boycott was rumored but apparently is not actually afoot, as Ali Banuazizi, the eminent scholar at Boston College and past president of the Middle East Studies Association, told me. "Boycotts punish too many innocent people," he says, "but letters and statements send a signal." A strongly worded letter that Banuazizi helped craft and is signed by a Who's Who of Iran scholars in the United States, protested the arrest and imprisonment, rightly noting that "in her capacity as the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, Dr. Esfandiari has been a staunch advocate of peaceful dialogue between Tehran and Washington in resolving their disputes."
Noam Chomsky, possibly the most influential intellectual in the world, also weighed in with a sharp rebuke, as have several others.
As if on cue, the hard right in the United States has tried to exploit the Esfandiari arrest to ridicule cooperation and dialogue. In an op-ed in the New York Times , Reuel Marc Gerecht, an American Enterprise Institute fixture who describes himself as belonging to the school of "suspicious, cynical, hawkish and religiously oriented analyses of the Islamic Republic," argued that those seeking to have some dialogue with Iran are getting their deserved comeuppance in the Tehran regime's treatment of Dr. Esfandiari.
The arrest is undeniably troubling, as was last year's arrest and long detention of Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Canadian intellectual, and detentions of many others, including the Open Society Institute's representative in Iran last week.
Beyond the simple human rights considerations, there are two other aspects of this grim matter that deserve mention. First is the way in which the intellectual elite in this country pick and choose their battles. Haleh Esfandiari, whom I know, certainly deserves the protest being stirred on her behalf. But we have many cases of abuse of freedom of travel and speech -- some committed by the U.S. government -- that gain little notice. Why some and not others? To some extent, the protest in effect reflects U.S. policy preferences and the drumbeat of anti-Iran media coverage in this country.
More important, however, is how the case is becoming fodder for the attack-Iran posse. As Chomsky says in his statement, "These actions [by Iran] are deplorable in themselves, and also are a gift to Western hardliners who are trying to organize support for military action against Iran. Now is a time for diplomacy, negotiations and relaxation of tensions, in accordance with the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans and Iranians, as recent polls reveal."
The U.S. Navy is conducting extensive exercises in the Persian Gulf, what William Arkin tartly calls "dumbboat diplomacy," but is clearly meant as a signal that the United States is ready to strike. Bush is proposing new sanctions to punish Iran for its alleged nuclear activities. A covert operation by the CIA to degrade Iranian financial assets and step up anti-cleric propaganda was revealed last week by ABC News, another set of actions -- among many reported -- to bring down the regime. In the political game in Washington, "Bash Iran" is a free card used by nearly everyone to look tough on foreign policy.
In this hostile climate, some elements in Tehran are in effect saying, "We want nothing to do with America," and they are sending that message with harsh actions. Engagement by American intellectuals, athletes, NGOs and cultural groups has proceeded for several years now and can be viewed as, at worst, harmless and, at best, beneficial toward building bridges of dialogue. It was precisely such activities during the Cold War that lowered tensions and empowered a peaceful conclusion to that far more dangerous confrontation.
Very few serious analysts of the situation in the Gulf believe that hostile American action will result in a more placid outcome. Many in the U.S. military are vehemently opposed to air strikes, not least because of the catastrophe in Iraq. The Tehran state is sturdy and, like it or not, democratic in many respects. The NGO and academic engagement must continue, just as we must continue to object strenuously to unwarranted arrests. Neither tactic, however, is aided by Washington's contemptible and counterproductive strategy of regime change.
John Tirman is executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies.