July 20, 2007 -- EVER since its creation in 1979, the Islamic Republic in Iran has been obsessed with conspiracy theories, especially "foreign plots" to topple it. This paranoia was demonstrated again Wednesday with the televised confessions of two U.S. citizens of Iranian origin arrested in Tehran and accused of working for the "Great Satan."
To most Iranians who watched the sordid show, the two "enemies of Islam" seemed unlikely heroes of an international conspiracy. Haleh Esfandiari-Bakhash, 67, is a petite grandmother who works for a Washington think tank; Kian Tajbakhsh, a 40-something researcher working for a foundation created by billionaire George Soros.
According to Tehran state-controlled media, the two went to Iran as part of a U.S. plot to promote a "velvet revolution." Yet their TV confessions were so obviously forced that even the Public Prosecutor's Office in Tehran has distanced itself from them. A spokesman for the office told reporters: "The confessions must be regarded as a television production. . . . What the accused said on TV is not related to actual charges against them."
What is really going on?
Frequent visitors to Iran, the two had never been molested before. Both belong to groups opposed to regime change in Iran and critical of the Bush policy of challenging the Islamic Republic.
Esfandiari works for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars - whose director, ex-Rep. Lee Hamilton, has championed normalization with the Islamic Republic for decades. He was a key member of the Iraq Study Group, which urged the opening of a dialogue with Tehran practically on terms demanded by the mullahs.
And Hamilton built his position partly on Esfandiari's advice. The Woodrow Wilson Center has organized numerous workshops on Iran, but seldom invited regime opponents. Its guiding principle was that the Islamic Republic is what most Iranians want, and that America should help the "moderate faction" in Tehran.
Esfandiari's writings on Iran over three decades could be described as sympathetic to the Islamic revolution, although critical of some regime policies, especially on women's issues.
Soros, meanwhile, is an open opponent of Bush's policy on Iran. He has met a number of "moderate Khomeinists," indicating support for their faction. In 2004, he poured $15 million into support for Sen. John Kerry's presidential hopes. Soros would be the last person to want to overthrow the mullahs and hand Bush his biggest victory.
Both Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh have always denounced the anti-mullah opposition as nostalgia-stricken monarchists, residual leftists or worse. Both always refused to grant interviews to Iranian-opposition TV and radio shows beamed from Los Angeles, or to even the U.S.-funded Voice of America. Whatever the two were up to, they did not go to Iran to help liberate it from the Khomeinists.
Some have tried to pin the arrests on feuds within the regime. In this analysis, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his radical faction feared that the two Americans were looking to help the "moderate faction" (led by ex-President Hashemi Rafsanjani) make a comeback in next year's general election.
Yet Esfandiari hasn't lived in Iran for more than 32 years; she hardly knows enough people to create a "network" for any conspiracy. Similarly, Tajbakhsh hasn't lived in Iran since his teens.
In fact, the two were easy prey for a predatory regime that, unsure of the popular mood, increasingly fears its own shadow. Their illegal arrest and inhuman treatment is part of a broader campaign by the radical revolutionary faction to terrorize its enemies inside Iran and confuse adversaries abroad.
* In recent weeks, some 150,000 women and young men have been arrested, fined, beaten up or kept in prison for days on charges of contravening the Islamic Dress Code enacted last May.
* A massive purge of the universities is under way, with thousands of students, teachers and faculty deans shown the door for allegedly "un-Islamic" sentiments. Over 400 students and teachers are reportedly held in various parts of the country without being charged.
* A state of emergency has been declared in parts of four western provinces, where ethnic minorities live, and in parts of the southeast bordering Pakistan.
* At least 30 trade unionists have been arrested and one of Iran's best-known labor leaders, Mansour Osanloo, abducted by agents of the regime. A news agency covering labor in Iran has been shut down and its assets seized.
* Dozens of newspapers and magazines have been shut and the black list of authors and books has been extended to include hundreds more names and titles.
* Several prominent figures of the rival faction, including a brother of ex-President Muhammad Khatami, face show trials on charges resembling those against Tajbakhsh and Esfandiari.
* Ahmadinejad's faction has also launched a campaign of blackmail against Rafsanjani and his entourage, including Khatami, by threatening to publish details of their alleged corruption and misuse of public funds between 1989 and 2005.
When Tajbakhsh and Esfandiari traveled to Iran a few months ago, they may have believed it would be just another visit to their former homeland. They didn't appreciate the fact that Ahmadinejad means what he says: His "second revolution" is preparing for war against the Iranian middle classes at home and the Western democracies abroad.
The episode underscores two facts: First, no dialogue is possible with a regime that demands nothing short of total submission at home and abroad. Second, the regime feels weak enough to fear a "velvet revolution" led by women, workers, students and, ultimately, even the more moderate clergy. Hmm . . . maybe someone will try it, even though the two captive Americans did not.