Steer clear, or else
Both Ramin Jahanbegloo's detention and his later interview were meant to send a message to Iranian intellectuals
September 1, 2006
The Iranian intellectual Ramin Jahanbegloo, detained at Tehran airport on 27 April 2006 and held for more than four months in prison, was released on bail on 30 August. The authorities first escorted him to his home with a box of sweets (a customary Iranian celebration of a happy event), and he then visited the Iranian student news agency (Isna) for an "interview" where he explained the reason for his arrest.
In the interview, Ramin (who holds Canadian as well as Iranian citizenship) said that intelligence officers from hostile states had attended seminars he had given on Iran outside the country, and that these foreign agents had used him and his scholarly expertise. He also maintained that his comparative study of the formation of east-central European civil society and Iran could have been utilised to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran; and that foreign websites on which his work had been published were run by "security officials", with the implication that these belonged to nations hostile to Iran (openDemocracy has published two articles by Ramin Jahanbegloo, as well as an reflection on his arrest and a petition in support of his release).
The self-abasing interview – which took the Isna reporters by surprise – continued with Ramin regretting that his work contained the potential for manipulation by foreigners; he suggested that Iranians themselves should convene seminars and conferences inside the country, thus avoiding the need to travel abroad and preventing such misuse.
The immediate cause of Ramin's arrest was a proposal he drafted for the German Marshall Fund, in which Ramin had compared Iranian and eastern European intellectuals, and purportedly discussed the balance between the strength of a country's civil society and the overthrow of its political regime. That was his mistake, he said: he had been duped into believing that this was intellectual work, while in reality the document represented opposition to Iranian national interests – an outcome he never intended. He said that now, he planned to go to India to continue his studies about that country, and stay away from politics.
Ramin, in criticising "American-style democracy", said that his treatment in Evin prison was good, and in no way comparable to what has been happening in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prisons. He added that in prison he could read and write, watch TV, and use the services of specialised doctors. (His wife found no signs of mistreatment in her several visits to the jail, only that Ramin seemed "very tired"). He also testified that the other prisoners were well treated.
The subject of this article, Ramin Jahanbegloo, heads the department for contemporary studies at the Cultural Research Bureau, Tehran. He was arrested in Tehran on 27 April 2006, and released on 30 August 2006.
Both Ramin's detention and his later interview were meant to send a message to Iranian intellectuals; steer clear of politics, and stop attending seminars and conferences in the western countries or writing for journals published there. This approach is in line with a recent order by the ministry of Islamic guidance that bans Iranians from giving interviews with broadcasters outside Iran.
The new administration in Iran, mostly formed by former military personnel, seems to have no real appreciation for academic work and the dissemination of ideas (except religious ones). In this context, the treatment of Jahanbegloo is another step in attempts to close the intellectual space that was partially opened by the reformists under Mohammad Khatami (president 1997-2005). The interview can also be seen as a declaration by the state that planning to strengthen civil society and prepare the society for a peaceful transition to democracy is not an intellectual pursuit, but a crime. To desire change in a regime which was described by Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, the chief of the Assembly of Experts, as "Godly" and the "the most perfect in the world" is not acceptable, and liable to be punished by the state authorities.
A tightening squeeze
But the interview also demonstrates a new tactic in the regime's campaign against independent, free thought, one more subtle than torture and street assassinations. Alongside routine efforts to discredit, quell, and possibly force Iranian intellectuals to leave their country, the tactic involves a combination of arbitrary detention and financial pressure.
The approach involves severe monetary reprisals if the released detainee disobeys the authorities after his or her release. In another case, a radio analyst who travelled to Iran to visit her ailing mother was interrogated for a month, and allowed to leave the country conditionally. She was asked to post her mother's house for bail. The house will be confiscated if the analyst refuses to obey a summons by the relevant Iranian ministry to return.
This new tactic seems to be more effective than old-fashioned television confessions, after which almost all those released reversed their statements, thus making a mockery of such orchestrated public performances. The strong bonds in Iranian families, and the fact that in most cases its house is the only property an urban family owns, mean that great psychological as well as financial pressure is exerted: the prospect of homelessness, especially for ageing family members, is intensely worrying.
In the case of Ramin Jahanbegloo, it seems that he was promised freedom and a passport if he gave an interview to "an agency of his choice", in order to tell them "just what he has confessed under interrogation." The offer had a twist: to make sure that Ramin would keep his side of the bargain, he had to post two houses as bail – his mother's as well as his own. The student news agency interview was the result. Comment
Rasool Nafisi teaches the sociology of development at Strayer University in Virginia. He contributes to various news agencies, including the Voice of America, BBC, and Radio France International. Visit rnafisi.com
. This article was first published in OpenDemocracy.net.