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.
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.' "
Still, the film's persuasive power didn't impress everyone in the audience. "They haven't made any serious confession," said Nilufar, a Tehran housewife, who was contacted by a reporter in Tehran and asked that her full name not be used. "I see the whole thing as being stupid. Anybody that has been deprived of sleep and tortured would say anything they want."
The Bush administration has spoken frequently of regime change, and includes Iran as part of an "axis of evil." The vitriol has prompted fears among security forces in Iran of an East European-style "velvet revolution."
In the film, Mr. Bush is seen during a speech saying "the untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." The movie also shows President Vladimir Putin of Russia – which has clamped down on NGOs over concerns of similar, Western-sponsored unrest – complaining about such pro-democracy efforts.
After showing scenes of street violence abroad, and then in Iran, the narrator asks, "How are velvet revolutions led? Which country is next?"
The purpose is to "reinforce the concern in the Iranian public that there is an American plot against Iran [and that it is] an imminent threat," says Mr. Abrahamian.
"The theater [of the film] adds to that," says Abrahamian. "It also tells Iranians to beware of anyone from abroad who is talking about human rights. So even if you are not involved in regime change … you would be tarred with the same brush."
On Tuesday, a group of six women Nobel laureates – including Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who represents Esfandiari – said charges of "actions against national security" were "entirely without foundation." The academic, Ms. Ebadi said, was a "tireless promoter of and believer in dialogue between Iran and the international community."
"This reprehensive pattern of activity by interrogators in Iran has occurred before: jailing innocent people, confining them, and then producing a framed or cobbled statement or confession," says Lee Hamilton, the head of the Wilson Center.
In the film, Esfandiari described how her center was a "highway" for Iranian speakers to come to the US, to find fellowships, and provide analysis. The US government would also provide some money for research. The aim, she said, was "to create a little change in decisionmaking bodies inside Iran, a sort of change from within."
After the broadcast, state radio said in a commentary that the "wide reaction by Western media and governments" to the case "indicates a calculated conspiracy to topple the [Islamic] system in Iran."
Such political theater before television cameras is not new and was used extensively against political suspects in the early years of the revolution.
People from across the political spectrum were "brought in front of the cameras to make confessions," says Abrahamian, author of the 1999 book, "Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran." "It was a routine thing: you made a video. It [was so common] it became a joke."
Esfandiari's daughter, Washington lawyer Haleh Bakhash, wrote that her mother "sounded wooden – unnatural and coerced."
"When the television program ended, I felt contempt for my mother's jailers and interrogators," Ms. Bakhash wrote in The Washington Post Thursday. "But I was filled with admiration for my mother [who] preserved her dignity, held her head high, and did not lie."