There is a standard, typical formula in the confessions made by intellectuals and dissidents freed from prison in the Islamic Republic of Iran. What Ramin Jahanbegloo said in the first interview he gave after his release on bail on 30 August 2006 was very far from this template. So far, in fact, that it suggests a different explanation of what happened to the detained scholar than that proposed by Rasool Nafisi (see “Steer clear, or else“).
The first piece of evidence for this view is that Jahanbegloo's argument in the interview he gave to the Iranian student news agency (Isna) seems strong, coherent and consistent enough to rule out the possibility of it being imposed on him by his interrogators.
In a key section of the interview – which is not yet available in full in English translation – the political-science lecturer and philosopher describes how some American think-tanks provided him with research opportunities and financial support so that he could conduct comparative analysis of socio-political change in contemporary east-central Europe and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Jahanbegloo describes how this research gradually led to a strengthening of his ties with these think-tanks, and how he eventually realised that the main people interested in the research were intelligence officials and those associated with the U.S. State Department, who sought to use it to help form their polices towards Iran.
Jahanbegloo then expresses regret that he was deceived by a quasi-academic structure that effectively treated him as an unofficial analyst for foreign intelligence services. He says that if he knew politicians were exploiting his purely academic activities, he would have never got involved with such institutions in the first place.
The last point strikes me as a little odd, since I know Ramin personally from the time he lived in Toronto; I know that he is not so naive as not to realise what think-tanks do and where the research they pursue ends up being most useful. But I also understand how, for professional and economic reasons, a serious scholar could be dragged into such a dark and dangerous game.
Indeed, all Iranian activists and researchers are vulnerable these days to being dragged out of their “normal” activities and inveigled into joining various projects and organisations with a not-so-hidden political agenda: to prepare the way for the infamous strategy of regime change – in either of its forms, as military attack or velvet-style revolution – that the Bush administration has pursued towards Iran since 9/11.
Ramin's interview also mentions the economic aspect of the position of secular scholars like him. He complains that the Islamic Republic has left such people no choice but to either leave the country or work for foreign organisations in Iran.
Jahanbegloo points out that he has never been a politician. But his love for his country and the wonderful potential of an enthusiastic, lively and rapidly changing young society, convinced him that he could wield a positive, educative influence. These considerations encouraged him to return to Iran from Canada, and to remain there even under the harsher conditions of the life and government after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in June 2005. He has always been true to himself. Tehran's parallel worlds There is a second part of the explanation for the opinions Ramin Jahanbegloo expressed in the interview, which relates to the changing conditions inside the Iranian intelligence apparatus.
Tehran's Ministry of Intelligence was embroiled in its biggest-ever scandal in the late 1990s after the exposure of the role of its agents in the murder of more than a dozen writers and intellectuals. The presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) responded with an overhaul in the ministry's staff, missions and methods. The minister himself was forced to resign, and the growing influence of the “reformist” Khatami inside the ministry scared the conservative establishment.
The infamous paranoia of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, saw this process as a risk to Iran's stability and security, as well as to his own position. As a result, he established or at least ignored the creation of several alternative or “parallel” intelligence apparatuses in the judiciary and police that could marginalise and exclude the younger politicians and officials around Khatami.
These parallel organisations were quite small, run by inexperienced and untrained staff, and very poorly equipped and managed. It was some operatives of these structures – not the intelligence ministry itself, which after a generation had become professional, efficient, and skilful – who were responsible for the brutal assassinations.
The highlight of this conflict between “official” and “unofficial” security organisations was the death of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photographer who was murdered in detention in July 2003. The official account of the incident produced by the investigative committee appointed by Iran's pre-2005 election (and reformist-dominated) parliament, showed that Kazemi had been well and unharmed while in intelligence-ministry custody; it was only after a branch of the judiciary had taken over the interrogation that she was harmed. The report bluntly accused , a young judge with close ties to the supreme leader's office who was also responsible for the heavy-handed crackdown on the reformist newspapers.
After Khatami and the reformists were ousted, there was no longer need for a parallel, unofficial intelligence apparatus; it was dismantled and Mohseni Ejeie – a figure loyal to and trusted by Ayatollah Khamenei – appointed minister. It is even said that he reports directly to the supreme leader, bypassing President Ahmadinejad (whom Khamenei trusts even less than he did Khatami in intelligence and foreign policy).
These new circumstances in the intelligence system, against a background of increasing international diplomatic and public-opinion pressure, mean that it would make little sense for the intelligence ministry to continue a policy of imposing arbitrary arrest, mental and physical torture, and self-abasing confession on dissidents, artists, and academics.
This is the context in which Ramin Jahanbegloo's actions can be understood. Ramin admits his mistake in indirectly helping the Bush administration in its plans for regime change in Iran through fomenting internal unrest and instability. These plans are now public knowledge, as is the fact that many Iranians are continuing to make the same mistake. But Jahanbegloo is smart enough to realise his error and change his path.
Sometimes the trigger for a person to confess to his or her mistakes is not torture by a brutal bunch of interrogators but his or her honest and couragous encounter with the larger picture to which he or she is contributing. Thanks to the work of the reformists who governed the country until 2005, Iran has passed the stage of state terror. The danger now is that the regime-change plan of the Bush administration has the effect of turning everything in Iran back to a pre-Khatami stage. Such a policy must be opposed.