Studying the Society and Politics of Repressive Regimes

Daniel L. Byman

Haleh Esfandiari’s recent incarceration in Iran’s notorious Evin prison highlights the dilemmas facing researchers who study the society and politics of repressive regimes.

Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar who directs the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has studied the progress of democracy in Iran, with a particular focus on the role of women under the Islamic Republic.

Her visit to Iran was personal: Her 93-year-old mother had fallen ill. Once in Iran, Esfandiari was first barred from leaving the country, then interrogated, and then detained for months in Evin prison, facing constant pressure to confess to anti-government activities.

During that time, Iranian officials ignored international appeals for her release, as well as calls for her freedom from hundreds of academics around the world. Eventually her mother had to surrender the deed to her apartment so that Esfandiari’s bail could be posted.

Although Esfandiari’s case was the most prominent, other dual-nationality citizens, several of whom also went to Iran to see sick family members, have faced similar horrors.

Scholars like Esfandiari are bridges between two cultures, helping different and often hostile governments and peoples better understand each other.

Although Esfandiari’s work is critical of the Islamic Republic, it is not blindly so. She and area specialists like her also display an insight into Iranian perceptions that comes from direct engagement. Through work like hers, Iranians’ pride, their problems, and the sometimes legitimate grievances they have with the West and the United States in particular are explained to audiences in Washington and beyond.

The government of Iran imprisoned Esfandiari to block such bridges. And the tactic is working.

Tehran’s abuse of Esfandiari and other scholars casts a pall on many people’s plans to travel to Iran for research. Both American scholarship on Iran and Iranian scholarship on America will be far worse as a result — and U.S.-Iran relations will suffer further as a consequence.

In their campaign of intimidation, Iranian officials are lumping together the regime’s bitter foes, its mild critics, and dispassionate scholars. Ludicrous claims that scholars are CIA plants find some credence given Iran’s own history as an object of foreign manipulation and the prevalence of conspiracy theories — a hallmark of authoritarian regimes that restrict freedom of information.

But the choice of victims suggests a purpose beyond scoring some cheap publicity. Iranian leaders are also sending a message to their own people that the “dialogue of civilizations” endorsed by former President Mohammad Khatami is over. Iran’s current regime favors threats and recriminations over engagement and understanding.

Esfandiari’s problems with the Iranian government should send shudders down the spines of scholars who do research on other repressive countries, too.

Even scholars who don’t work directly for the U.S. government can find themselves accused of official ties because of their sources of support: Scholars at the Wilson center, like Esfandiari, and those at the U.S. Institute of Peace receive funds from Congress. Other scholars do occasional contract work for various U.S. agencies.

Even those who are “merely” professors are vulnerable, since many public and private universities receive funds through a variety of federal programs. When you throw in NGO’s that operate internationally, like the Soros Foundation, which, Iranian officials claim Esfandiari “confessed” had given grants to the Wilson center, the list of potential targets for these conspiratorial allegations becomes endless.

Sadly, it is easy for a repressive or paranoid government to rhetorically transform a gentle scholar into a menacing spy, no matter how absurd the allegation.

Scholars working in such a context run several risks. At worst they can end up like Esfandiari: thrown into a brutal prison as an almost casual gesture by the regime, with their names blackened in the news media and their careful scholarship distorted for political purposes. Some governments simply deny access to scholars who criticize their brutality.

Imagine having spent years learning a tough language like Russian or Chinese, or mastering the intricacies of a political system like Zimbabwe’s, only to find that an opinion piece you wrote decrying real oppression has led you to be blacklisted. You could be denied a visa, refused access to government-linked universities and institutions, and otherwise frustrated in your quest for information. At the very least, many authoritarian systems manipulate the information given to scholars, contaminating their data.

Scholars themselves can do little in the face of such pressures. It is easy to call for courage and prudence on the part of those studying these countries, but Esfandiari’s case illustrates how suddenly, and how unpredictably, the winds can change.

The result is a culture of fear and intimidation, the archenemies of good scholarship. Scholars who focus on countries with repressive regimes will choose to write on less-controversial issues, or they will stop their analyses short of policy relevance, for fear of attracting unwanted attention from the government.

Those who do policy-relevant work will often refrain from exposing themselves to risky activities — say, by refusing to meet with controversial political figures — making their analyses less rich. Still others will simply choose safer areas of study — the political economy of Western Europe, or successful democratic transitions in Japan and Korea — to avoid the risks of studying states with repressive governments.

Yet those regimes need the most scholarly attention. Often their politics are in transition, making older analyses quickly obsolete. (Iran, for example, has had in the past 25 years a revolutionary period, a postrevolutionary period, “Thermidor” under Khatami, and then a conservative consolidation.) Their closed political systems limit the role of the news media in informing public and government understanding, making the role of academic experts all the more important.

The governments, like that of Iran, are often shortsighted as to what serves their own interests, failing to recognize that, absent the impact of scholars like Esfandiari, U.S. policy is likely to be blunter and harsher.

Esfandiari’s problems were linked to the broader issue of democracy promotion. Iranian officials pushed Esfandiari to admit that she had sought to foment a “Velvet Revolution” there, and, indeed, many U.S. officials would like to see just that in Iran.

U.S. support for democratization increases repressive regimes’ suspicions of scholars like Esfandiari, who are now seen as the vanguard of revolution rather than as harmless researchers. Scholars should recognize that Washington’s policies will shape the reception of their activities, even if their own politics are not those of the current administration and their direct ties to the U.S. government are few.

We can hope that cases like Esfandiari’s are the exception, but in a way, the dictatorships are right. The Iranian government has emerged stronger, exploiting cases like Esfandiari’s to head off calls for policy changes at home. In so doing, it is furthering a self-fulfilling prophecy of isolation and the contempt of other nations.

The Iranian and other repressive regimes, even more than most scholars, understand that dialogue, criticism, analysis, and integrity are their enemies, and that if they fail to suppress them, the regimes will not survive.