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Confession Time in Iran

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
July 30, 2007

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Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Center describes herself as a link in a chain of civil society groups intended to “shake the system” in Iran. Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant for the Open Society Institute, talks about his role in creating a “rift between the rulers and the people” in Iran. Academic Ramin Jahanbaglou says straightaway his activities “served the interests of Iran’s enemies.”   The three civil society activists were featured in an Iranian TV program on July 18 and 19. Their taped “confessions”—Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh remain held incommunicado—mark a new phase in the Iranian regime’s offensive to weaken internal voices for change and to make a case for a further crackdown on allegedly treasonous behavior.

Though some Iranian moderates criticized the TV broadcasts, authorities expressed satisfaction they had revealed U.S. intentions to overturn the government (RFE/RL). The move against reformists comes amid what the Economist calls a “white” coup. The magazine says Iran’s unelected power centers, like bodies affiliated with the military, are steadily rolling back reforms and reacting against Western influences that have helped make the country’s civil society one of the most robust in the region.

It is also a time of retrenchment against international pressure to suspend Iran’s uranium enrichment, seen in the West as a cover for an atomic weapons program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on July 25 repeated vows that Iran will never give up pursuit of a nuclear energy program, adding: “Acceptance of Iran’s legal rights is an inevitable end (IRNA)” to Iran’s nuclear case.

But modest UN sanctions, combined with a U.S. campaign to deter investment in Iran, are believed to be having an impact. A new move by U.S. pension funds (WSJ) could affect billions of dollars in investment and further compound the dysfunction in Iran’s oil sector. Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, sees a further hardening of views (IHT) toward Iran on the UN Security Council ahead of talks on a new round of sanctions. In an Online Debate, Jake Colvin of the National Foreign Trade Council says sanctions have a poor record but Simon Cox of the Economist says the quirks of the Iranian economy make the country vulnerable to sanctions.

Many experts on Iran still see expanded talks with the United States as the best way of inducing Tehran to alter its posture on its nuclear program and other regional activities. Jeremi Suri of the University of Wisconsin-Madison sees hope in the improved relations (BosGlobe) that followed the opening of dialogue between Washington and Beijing in the early 1970s. Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani of the Hoover Institution urge “unconditional negotiations about everything” and say U.S. sanctions offer valuable leverage (Hoover Digest).

Few are under the illusion that such a dialogue will be easy. The second round of U.S.-Iran talks on Iraq produced a deal to set up a special panel to explore security measures but also involved recriminations from both sides about the other’s motives in Iraq. Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji, a strong critic of U.S. military threats toward Iran but a supporter of sanctions, argues the long process of improving Iranian behavior will involve a “fundamental reorientation of prevailing American policy discourse about the Middle East” (Boston Review).

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