Fooled by Winds of Reform

By Camelia Entekhabifard, the author of “Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth — a Memoir of Iran” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 24/08/07):

On many early mornings in Tehran, my uncle Ali would bang on our door to deliver large heaps of mammoth mushrooms from the mountain of Shemiran. Every summer and early autumn when I saw thunderstorms gathering in the sky, I knew we would have giant bunches of wild, tasty mushrooms the following day. My uncle believed that the storms pushed the mushrooms up from beneath the mountain’s numerous stones. Mushroom hunters like Ali would wake up early the next morning to go after those fresh, juicy mushrooms and cut off their heads.

As a journalist and writer in Iran, I have often compared myself, and many of my colleagues and friends at other Iranian newspapers, to those mushrooms. In 1992, when I started working in Tehran, I was very careful about what I would report. That is, until right after the election of Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president, in 1997. Then I, like so many other journalists, quickly went to work for the country’s leading reformist papers. Moderate clerics began using those newspapers as conduits for challenging religion-based laws, like the restrictive dress code and death by stoning. President Khatami brought reform to the political system and exposed the involvement of Iranian intelligence agents in the murder of a number of intellectuals.

Every day, Iranian journalists, with the encouragement of the Iranian people, disclosed news or challenged the system. We trusted that the changes that had come about would remain and that we would be protected by the government we had elected.

The last newspaper I worked for in Iran — Zan — was closed by the judiciary in the spring of 1999. I was in the United States at that time, and as soon as I returned to Tehran, I was arrested. The government held me in solitary confinement for three months, and during that time I confessed to crimes I never committed and did whatever a human being could do to save his or her life.

I now wonder if all the opportunities we had seen for reform were really illusions created to trick us. Did the Iranian government encourage a fleeting era of reform in order to identify its opponents so as to come after them? Was President Khatami’s election the thunderstorm that ultimately allowed the government to hunt us down?

This storm drowned not only us but also those expatriate Iranian intellectuals and scholars who had begun to visit Iran again after President Khatami traveled abroad with his famous message of “Iran for all Iranians.” Many academics started to travel back and forth to Iran after this historic announcement. But recently some of them have been arrested too.

Ramin Jahanbegloo, who is an Iranian-Canadian scholar, spent four months in an Iranian prison last year. He “confessed” on Iran’s national public media that at conferences outside Iran he “got acquainted with” many Americans and Israelis, some of whom were “intelligence figures.” Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photographer, died under interrogation while in detention in Tehran. And, of course, Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American academic who directs the Middle East program at the Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, spent more than 100 days in Evin Prison before being released on bail on Tuesday. She, too, made a statement on television, which Iranian officials cast as an admission that she was associated with a “velvet revolution” against the regime in Tehran.

The situation in which Dr. Esfandiari finds herself today is the same one that has repeatedly been endured by Iranian citizens who have dared to think differently and who have sought to progressively influence the country’s youth. The message being sent to Iranian scholars abroad is the same one being given to intellectuals at home: “You are not welcome here anymore.” Those who have had a taste of Iran’s jails and interrogation — including scholars and writers of my generation who work for reformist media in Iran, and the British sailors who were recently detained by the government — know what I am talking about. They, too, have endured psychological torture and false charges.

In prison, all you have left is to pray for your freedom so that you can leave the country for good and never return. This is what the regime really wants: for any writers, scholars or academics who could have some sort of intellectual influence over the Iranian people to leave Iran for good and be too afraid to return.

It is still not clear whether Ms. Esfandiari will be allowed to leave Iran soon. I would not be surprised if she is now promising herself to never visit her mother or her homeland again, and to advise other Iranians to do the same.