Will Elections Loosen the Grip of Iran's Hard-liners?

"Roxana, when you go back to America," my cellmate entreated me last month, "please tell others that our country is not only about the nuclear issue. It is also about people like us."

My cellmate was one of the many "prisoners of conscience" I left behind when I was released from Tehran's Evin Prison on May 11. Many were women, student and labor activists, researchers, and academics who have been detained solely because they peacefully pursued freedom of expression, freedom of association or religious beliefs. Several of them face vague charges such as "acting against national security," like I did.

Iran's hard-liners frequently accuse such people of using "soft warfare" -- allegedly in collusion with state enemies, the United States in particular -- to penetrate Iranian culture, society and politics. Such "soft threats" are very real, my interrogator declared one day during my 100 days in Evin. Even if the threat of a military attack appears to have subsided under President Obama, he said, Washington will continue using soft warfare to undermine the Islamic Republic and its Islamic ideology.

Tehran has legitimate security concerns. But hard-liners often exaggerate and exploit "soft threats" to tighten their grip on society and to silence critics. This "security-oriented" view has become especially prevalent under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

His victory in 2005 empowered hard-liners who reversed many political and cultural openings made under his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. The past four years have brought tighter restrictions on books, film and the press; stricter monitoring of the Islamic dress code; and mounting risks of ethnic, political and social activism. Meanwhile, hard-liners have often ignored laws or interpreted them in ways to restrict basic freedoms while monopolizing power.

During this crackdown, dual nationals and Iranians with links to foreigners have been particularly targeted. In 2007, Iranian American scholars Kian Tajbakhsh and Haleh Esfandiari were accused of acting against national security. The next year, Esha Momeni, a graduate student from California, was arrested. She has been released on bail but is still prohibited from leaving Iran.

This year it happened to me.

I was arrested Jan. 31. On my first day in prison, my interrogators claimed that certain foreign academics I had met for coffee were enemy spies and that one was using a student-exchange program to gather intelligence for the United States. My captors claimed that by providing news analysis for TV reports in 2003, I had directly supplied the CIA with information on Iran. They insisted my actions had been a front for intelligence activities.

My interrogators soon made clear that just as Tajbakhsh and Esfandiari had been released after "confessing" to fomenting a "soft revolution" (a charge both denied), I could win freedom if I "confessed" to spying for the United States. I was not a spy, but after enduring increasing pressures, I eventually lied and said that I was. (When I later recanted, my interrogators told me privately they knew from the beginning my "confession" had been false.)

At one point, I shared a cell with Silva Harotonian, who was arrested while working for an American nongovernmental organization on a U.S.-Iran exchange program for health professionals. She had been convicted, along with HIV/AIDS physicians Arash and Kamiar Alaei, of cooperating with the U.S. government to instigate a "soft revolution" -- an allegation I could never imagine to be true of the woman I met.

I also got to know two Baha'i female leaders, who along with five male colleagues have been detained for more than a year without trial. While peacefully pursuing the religious rights of Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority, they have been accused of spying for Israel and "spreading corruption on earth," charges punishable by death.

It is not uncommon for "prisoners of conscience" to be detained without due process. Some are freed on exorbitant bail. As in my case, many have limited or no access to attorneys of their choice and cannot study the "evidence" against them. When hearings occur, they usually take place behind closed doors. On top of severe psychological and mental pressures, some are physically tortured, and a few have died in custody.

Iran's people and civil society have paid the price of this "security approach." This use of force has failed to address the root causes of social, economic and political issues while individual freedoms and human rights are being violated. Many Iranians have become suspicious of authority and, often, of one another.

How long will this security approach endure? Tomorrow, the people will have a chance to speak up through their votes. While Iran's presidential elections are not completely free and fair, they are often quite competitive.

The executive branch is one of many forces determining Iran's policies. But if Ahmadinejad defeats his two main moderate opponents, hard-liners will probably intensify domestic pressures even more during his second term.

Tehran's ties with Washington will also influence the future. Under the Bush administration, the State Department set up a "Democracy Fund" that many Iranian authorities claimed was a "regime change" policy. Silva Harotonian, the Alaei brothers and many other activists are victims of this reaction.

The Obama administration has been wise to avoid talk of regime change as it makes cautious efforts to improve relations. If these ties significantly improve, Iran's hard-liners will lose their main pretext for their tight grip on power and society. If they want to continue their clampdown, they will have to find another excuse for their unjust treatment of Iranians like those I left behind in Evin Prison.

Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-Japanese-American journalist sentenced in April to eight years in Iranian prison. She was freed on appeal in May and has returned to the United States, where she is writing a book about her experiences.