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 repression and ready to embrace change. But 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.
We are witnessing today the intensification of the post-election crackdown, perhaps the severest the country has experienced since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. This campaign is aimed not only at the usual dissidents among the intelligentsia, political activists, students, and journalists, but also at men once considered regime insiders.
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.
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.