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Through the looking glass
The first in a series of new books by former detainees lifts the veil on the secretive and often bizarre world of the Iranian Intelligence Services.
February 21, 2010 4:53 by Iason Athanasiadis
She describes her time shuttling back and forth from her mother’s home to an Intelligence Ministry interrogation cell and her eventual incarceration there. “He imagined that the Wilson Center was an agency of the American government, that we were implicated in some plot against the Islamic Republic, and that we routinely held meetings to plan strategy to this end.”
Esfandiari was one of a number of Iranian academics educated or resident in the West, such as philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo and urban planner Kian Tajbakhsh, who were arrested from 2006 onwards and accused of acting as vessels of Western influence agitating for a soft overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
“Just imagine a puzzle,” Hajj Agha told Esfandiari, using the English word, for which he seemed unable to come up with a satisfactory Persian equivalent. “You have all the pieces in your head. Just put them together and give it to us. Tell us the mechanism, describe the model for us,” as if there were a one-size-fits-all, do-it-yourself kit for bringing about soft revolutions.
The interrogators appeared well versed in Western political theory and bandied about the names of specialists such as Crane Brinton and Theda Skocpol who have expounded on revolution. Francis Fukuyama and Michael Foucault were also favorites of the Iranian Intelligence Service.
When I was in an Iranian prison, my own interrogators had a similar tendency to digress from purely intelligence-related questioning into debates on ‘westoxification,’ neo-liberalism, and their perception of non-violent movements as Trojan Horses for Western influence. While waiting in the corridor to be processed through the prison bureaucracy, she saw Persian-language Shiite eschatological tracts or thick tomes refuting Saudi Arabia’s variant of Wahhabi Sunnism.
Esfandiari’s interrogators also appear to have been inspired by her predecessor in Evin, Ramin Jahanbegloo. The Iranian-Canadian political theorist and student of Isiah Berlin was so talkative, Esfandiari writes, that he may well have inspired the Iranian authorities to arrest her in the first place.
Unlike the British sailors that were arrested in Iran in 2007 or the three American hikers that are currently imprisoned in Evin Prison, Esfandiari is an Iranian who grew up there and perfectly comprehends both sides of the debate. In one of the book’s most engaging sections, she lays out the “simple, even compelling, but ultimately mad logic” that drove her interrogators’ reasoning.
“The United States wanted regime change in Iran; American officials had repeatedly said so. Congress had allocated funds for this purpose and the administration, no doubt had additional secret funds at its disposal. These funds were given to think tanks and foundations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, whose mission was to advance democratization – in effect, regime change – in specifically targeted countries.