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Iran uses activists for propaganda

Interviews with two detained Iranian-American activists ran on state-run Iranian television Wednesday. Analysts say their self-implicating statements were coerced.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 2007

Istanbul, Turkey

Using methods that hark back to the years following Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian state-run television on Wednesday night broadcast what it called "confessions" of two Iranian-American academics accused of undermining the regime.

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Called "In the name of Democracy," the 50-minute film deftly spliced images of "velvet" revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan with segments of interviews with the two dual citizens. The film sought to portray the detained activists' work for American think tanks and civil-society groups as a tool for a US policy of regime change in Iran.

The documentary comes amid one of the most comprehensive crackdowns on political activism since the revolution. Confronted with $75 million worth of pro-democracy funding set aside by the US Congress – and frequent rhetoric about regime change – Tehran is taking a page from its old playbook to fight what it sees as a mounting threat to political stability.

"The impetus comes from die-hard people around [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, the former Revolutionary Guards, people who now dominate the intelligence services," says Ervand Abrahamian, an Iran expert at the City University of New York. "They practiced this under Khomeini, so they are really going back to the old methods [that] did work."

In the film, Haleh Esfandiari, head of Middle East programs at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, spoke of facilitating scholarly exchanges, networks of Iran experts, and meetings at international conferences. Ms. Esfandiari, looking pale and drawn, sat on a couch in a black head scarf and robe beside a plant – not in her cell at Tehran's Evin prison, where she has been held in solitary confinement since May 8.

"What was my role here?" she was heard to ask while describing her work identifying experts. "In the course of these years, when you put these number of meetings back to back, you would come to the conclusion that, willingly or not, a network of connections would be formed," said Esfandiari.

Other segments showed Kian Tajbakhsh, a US-educated urban planner, speaking with notes about his work in Tehran with the Soros Foundation. Mr. Tajbakhsh sat in what appeared to be a wood-paneled office instead of his prison cell. He spoke of an "overt" Soros program, and then other "dimensions" that included creating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and bringing Iranian contacts to Europe.

A third academic, Canadian-Iranian Ramin Jahanbegloo, who was held for four months last year and released, said the Wilson Center "receives most of its money ... from the US Congress," and spoke of conferences where he met Americans and some Israelis "who were mostly intelligence agents."The activists' arrests coincide with a broader crackdown launched this spring on any form of dissent in Iran – from labor and student leaders to women's groups and young people defying strict Islamic dress rules. Meanwhile, President Ahmadinejad has served up combative anti-US rhetoric to counter accusations from the US that it is pursuing nuclear weapons and meddling in Iraq.

Colleagues and family members decried the interviews with the two prisoners – who have not been able to meet lawyers in more than 10 weeks – as "coerced" and the film to be "propaganda." A second episode is due to be broadcast Thursday night.

"They didn't say anything that would amount to a confession," says an Iranian analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. "However, when put together with the [velvet revolution] documentary, very, very professionally, with the comments of [all] the individuals, it did give you a feeling: 'Ah, these guys were working together in a network, that is so extensive and [well established] that it would be able to topple the regime.' "