Haleh Esfandiari is the Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and the author of My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran. She was held in solitary confinement in Evin Prison in Iran for 105 days in 2007. (April 2011)
The decisive election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president has been greeted around the world as a sign that Iranians are tired of hardline policies at home and abroad and are ready to embrace change. But the obstacles Rouhani faces are formidable. The internal security situation has grown worse. Journalists and intellectuals are routinely jailed for the mildest challenge to the ruling ideology. According to Amnesty International, Iran executed 314 individuals last year—one of the highest rates of execution in the world. Rouhani will win a lot of credit with the young and the urban middle class if he manages to remove the morals police from the streets, yet any attempt to ease controls over the press, civic associations, and political activity will be opposed by Iran’s ubiquitous security agencies and by the powerful Revolutionary Guards.
Following the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad in 2009, the world looked on as tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in protest, only to be repressed by force, arrested, or worse. Though there is far less coverage of Iran now—few foreign correspondents are allowed into the country—repression has continued and even intensified since these events, with widespread arrests, purges of university faculty, closure of publications, and a clampdown on political activity. Still, supporters of the Green Movement have not been entirely silenced, as Zahra’s Paradise, a powerful new graphic novel set in contemporary Iran, makes clear.
As the Libyan uprising was gathering force in late February, Iran’s presi- dent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, criticized Libya’s leader, Muammar Qaddafi, for using violence against his own people and advised him and other Middle Eastern heads of state to listen to their publics. The irony was not lost on anyone. Only …
As the Libyan uprising was gathering force last week, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, criticized Libya’s leader, Muammar Qaddafi, for using violence against his own people and advised him and other Middle Eastern heads of state to listen to their publics. The irony was not lost on anyone. Only two weeks earlier, on February 14, Ahmadinejad had sent hundreds of riot police, paramilitary basijis, and baton-wielding goons in plainclothes to disrupt demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities called by Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the opposition, in solidarity with the people of Tunisia and Egypt. By the end of the day, 1,500 protesters had been arrested; two had been killed.
In late September, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York asserting his government’s respect for human rights, several young students in Iran were receiving lengthy prison sentences for their efforts to speak out in defense of those rights. Indeed—as a small photography exhibition about student repression in Iran at Georgetown Law School this month powerfully reminded us—hundreds of Iranian students, journalists, and bloggers have been jailed, many of them in deplorable conditions, since the disputed elections of June 2009. And though the matter has received little attention in the press, many more continue to be arrested and sentenced.
It is entirely appropriate that two women have become the iconic symbols of Iran’s protest movement. Thanks to cell phones and the Internet, millions of people around the world saw footage of the blood-soaked face of the young Neda Agha Soltan, as she lay dying on a Tehran street, shot by security forces during a peaceful demonstration. But even before last June’s rigged presidential election, Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi, had gained international renown as the first woman in Iranian history to campaign alongside her husband—making speeches of her own and taking a strong stand on controversial social issues.
For me Iran’s sentencing this week of Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh to at least twelve years in prison—the harshest sentence so far passed down by the revolutionary court—is particularly fraught. In 2007, he and I were fellow prisoners in Tehran’s Evin Prison. He was held in the men’s section and I in the women’s section of Ward 209, reserved for political prisoners held by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. We had been arrested within a day of each other, and we shared, in separate interrogation rooms, the same interrogators. He began to send me books; thanks to him I was able to escape the confines of my prison cell by reading the novels of Dostoevsky and Graham Greene.