Iranian officials have claimed that the type of academic or civil-society initiatives in which the detainees were engaged essentially served as a front for a longer-term strategy to bring about a "velvet revolution" in Iran.
The Islamic Republic of Iran News Network (IRINN) broadcast statements by Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Institute; Kian Tajbakhsh, a city planning consultant working with the Soros Foundation; and a former detainee, sociologist and philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo in a two-part program called "In The Name Of Democracy" that was broadcast on July 18 and 19.
The program documented what its producers argued were U.S. plans for peaceful regime change in Iran.
Government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham told reporters on July 22 that the televised confessions did not constitute "legal" evidence but rather revealed "the nature of a cultural assault" on Iran by the United States. At the same time, he said the security-related "criminal" charges against Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh are separate issues to be dealt with by the judiciary and investigators. He suggested that "the issue of their being spies and charges against them concern judges and the judiciary," adding that "they have committed a criminal offense, an act against national security with the methods they used."
The head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, argued on July 21 that the program provided "outstanding" evidence of alleged U.S. "interference in Iran's internal affairs," the "Javan" daily reported. He said the detainees' statements showed how the United States is allocating what he described as "enormous sums" to "obstruct" Iran.
Elsewhere, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said the televised statements demonstrate that -- despairing of swiftly removing Iran's government -- Washington has turned to more gradualist and "long-term" initiatives. Rezai urged state television to provide the public with "in-depth" programs informing them of "the tricks and tactics of this new conspiracy."
The conservative Islamic Coalition's Hamid Reza Taraqqi said the televised remarks showed the way the United States is violating international laws, adding that countries in the region should take note. Taraqqi said Iran should present evidence and take unspecified legal action against the United States for allegedly violating the UN Charter. He avoided saying whether he thought the detainees' televised statements constituted such evidence. Iran's judiciary has reportedly said those broadcast remarks have no "legal weight." Taraqqi expressed concern that the United States was seeking out "political elites and students" to use as allegedly subversive instruments in the country. He said those groups are well-suited to such a purpose because of their tendency to criticize.
Conservative dailies have echoed such approving positions. The daily "Iran" commented on July 22 that the program has shown the public the real aims of apparent civil-society programs run by groups like the Soros Foundation -- allegedly to create interconnected "lobbies," detach society from government, and incite social groups such as students or workers. The paper noted that the "current" that includes the Soros Foundation might have had some success in attaining allegedly subversive aims in recent years in countries like Georgia or the Ukraine -- where mass demonstrations forced initially unyielding governments to stand down. It added that in Iran, however, it has "merely managed to take up two hours of the national broadcasting medium's time needed to identify and reveal these sinister goals." "Iran" daily also denounced an unspecified website for criticizing the broadcasts, and speculated that that criticism itself might be a sign of the United States' ongoing efforts at what it called "infiltration."
The right-wing daily "Resalat" commented on July 22 that the confessions indicate Iran has gone on the "offensive" against alleged U.S. plans to subvert it. It accused Esfandiari's lawyer, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, of being one of a wider circle of Iranians possibly involved with these subversive plans. The paper asked how Ebadi -- suggesting she was herself a suspect -- could presume to defend Esfandiari and criticize judicial procedures in the case. It claimed that Iranian security agencies have already identified a number of other Iranians involved with a broader plot -- including presumably Ebadi. But it said authorities are not revealing those names -- or have censored the names of some of them mentioned on the television program -- to give them time to consider whether they are "with the Iranian nation" or its "enemies."
Some Iranian Critics
The programs showing Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh, and Jahanbegloo have also faced some criticism inside Iran. The pro-reform daily "Hambastegi" argued, according to AP, that this is no longer the age of televised confessions, adding that Western states would be using the method if it were useful.
Tehran-based analyst Mohsen Shafii told AP separately that the televised statements were "propaganda," as the people shown were not free. Iranian government spokesman Elham denied that the detainees had been pressured, saying that Iranian authorities "act within the bounds of the law" and adding that "that is the policy of our Islamic and moral system."
The reformist Participation Front issued a statement questioning the usefulness of such programs in informing the public of allegedly "unfriendly" U.S. polices, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on July 23. The Participation Front said the program was likely designed for "domestic consumption" and "in line with" allegedly restrictive policies of the "governing current" ahead of parliamentary elections. The party warned of "preparations" made "in the shadow of such scenarios and spectacles" to "pressure the country's political society."
It should be noted that Iranian authorities also continue to limit the freedom of two other Iranian-Americans on security-related charges -- including Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima, whose passport was confiscated, and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California at Irvine.
Iranian officials might concede that the televised remarks do not constitute legal evidence against Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh. But one might suspect they also claim to have other evidence for use in any trial. The broadcasts appear to provide them with the political evidence they might need to accuse the United States and its alleged agents of foul play and subversion in Iran.
That might prove useful in quelling dissent in Iran, as the Participation Front has warned. As the comments of officials in recent weeks have shown, the government does not see subversion coming from a restricted quarter. Its logic appears to be that many groups -- students, journalists, workers, feminists, "elites," reformists, and liberal aspirants to parliamentary seats -- are potential, and perhaps unwitting, agents of Iran's enemies. Last week's broadcasts appear to represent an effort by the Iranian government to provide substance to the frequent -- but vague -- claims of subversion and "creeping coups" that it has made in recent months.