Jailed in Damascus

Two years after President Bashar al-Assad's regime had me arrested, there seems to be no end in sight to the bloodshed in Syria.

My time in Syria was short but decidedly varied: one week as a tourist, 10 days as a student, and two weeks as an inmate. As the Syrian conflict continues to unfold, my brush with the regime's paranoia was just one of the first instances of what evolved into an extremely bloody crackdown.

I was arrested on March 18, 2011, the first Friday of what was then termed the Syrian "revolution," after stumbling upon a protest in old Damascus. Just a student at the time, I was suspected of being a journalist, spy, or other unwelcome ilk. I was charged vaguely with "breaking Syrian law" and spent the next two weeks crammed in a basement prison run by the infamous secret police.

This week marked the second anniversary of my release. Since then, the Syria I so fleetingly knew has, for better or worse, unraveled.

The pre-revolution police state in Syria was stifling. No one publicly talked politics, communication networks were monitored, and the consequences of dissent made opposition practically unthinkable. I distinctly remember one college-aged friend refusing to even mention the then fledgling Arab Spring until we were in my apartment, and he had convinced himself that we had not been followed. I thought he was overreacting.

After being swept up by plain-clothed police, I realized why the authorities were so feared. My three interrogations consisted of a strip search, blindfolds, accusations of stoking unrest, and vows to "deal with [me] with violence." At one point, my interrogators even paraded me in front of a state TV camera in an apparent attempt to show that "foreign hands" were behind the protests. Between questioning sessions, I was locked away.

I spent the first week in a three-by-seven-foot cell with one other man. That was followed by another week in a 12-by-12 foot bathroom alongside more than 20 others, some of whom had been living there for more than a year. My companions included weapons dealers and counterfeiters, but also a mentally handicapped soldier and innocent bystanders. Most everyone was beaten, electrocuted, or otherwise abused regularly. Fortunately, I avoided this fate, but was threatened with and forced to listen to torture for days on end.

The regime's tools of repression have become drastically more ruthless throughout the past two years. They now routinely include rape, kidnapping, cluster bombs, missiles, attack helicopters, and more. An estimated 70,000 people have already lost their lives, and the violence is only getting worse: March was the bloodiest month yet of the Syrian uprising. The flow of refugees has also gone from a trickle to a torrent, with the total recently climbing above one million. What began as a struggle for dignity has devolved into a messy civil war with no end in sight.

Syria's cultural heritage is being destroyed as well. The covered market (souq) in Aleppo, with its labyrinth of shops, colors and smells, was the largest of its kind in the world and a favorite stop during my short-lived Syrian travels. In September, the souq burned to the ground when clashes between government soldiers and rebels sparked a fire that ripped through the wooden stalls like kindling. Hundreds of years of history gone in an instant.

Even Damascus has not been immune from the conflict. Bombs have exploded near my old apartment in the Mezzeh district, and also in Bab Touma, the predominantly Christian quarter of the old city where I used to go for the occasional beer and where, lore has it, Saint Paul once lived. The 2,000-year-old synagogue in the Damascus suburb of Jobar -- which stands as a reminder of the country's once-thriving Jewish minority, which has now all but disappeared -- has reportedly been damaged and looted as well.

The surest sign, however, that the battle for Syria is creeping closer to seat of power came last week when mortar fire hit a Damascus University cafeteria, killing at least 10. During my brief time as a student, I studied Arabic in the university's non-descript set of classrooms and courtyards. The flagship institution of the Syrian education system was not a particularly inviting house of learning, but by breaching the relative calm within its walls, the uprising has taken a symbolic step closer to the heart of the regime.

Until the attack, Damascus University stood as a symbol of the regime's strength in the capital. Alumni include President Bashar al-Assad, his sister, and other high-ranking members of the government. Current students have been subjected to censorship and dorm raids, in a largely successful attempt to keep rebellion at bay. Assad has even used the campus as the venue for a number of his fervent speeches aimed at discrediting the opposition and drumming up support for the regime.

Irrespective of how the shells landed in the university -- a topic of much debate -- the attack is surely a blow to the regime's confidence. It represents a loosening of its grip on a city it has controlled with an iron fist for decades.

The jail in which I was held has likely seen thousands of Syrians go through its doors over the last two years, with many fewer coming back out. Yet revolutionaries continue to fight on. The fear barrier was broken long ago, and there is no going back.

While few will miss the regime, what comes next is far from certain. The fractured network of freedom fighters is underequipped, inexperienced, and vulnerable to extremism. The infighting within the political opposition, which the United States has recognized as the sole representative of the Syrian people, has also raised concern.

Observing from afar, my predictions are bound to be futile. Moreover, the Syrian experience has diverged dramatically from the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and even Libya, making it difficult to use those events as guideposts. That said, whatever or whoever replaces Assad will be new -- an intimidating prospect, but one that should not preclude progress. But if the magnitude of a conflict is any indication of the path to recovery, Syria has a long and difficult road ahead.

Regardless, tomorrow's Syria will undoubtedly be different than yesterday's, and I look forward to visiting again soon.



From Princeton to Persia

Meet the American who wants to be Ahmadinejad.

Hooshang Amirahmadi is not your typical candidate for the Iranian presidency. A tenured professor of public policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a decidedly snazzy dresser, Amirahmadi is literally worlds away from the man he hopes to succeed: the virulently anti-American Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the fact that he hasn't lived in Iran for nearly 40 years -- and that most experts think he has no chance of getting approval from Iran's Guardian Council to even stand in the election -- does not appear to have killed any buzz from his four-month-long campaign.

So far, seven other candidates have announced their bids for Iran's presidential election, scheduled for June 14, but many of the political heavyweights -- including Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, lawmaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, and Ali Akbar Velayati, a top foreign-policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- have yet to throw their hats in the ring. Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, is rumored to be fighting an uphill battle to position his former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to succeed him. Regardless of the outcome, Iran's next president will inherit a souring standoff with the United States over the Iranian nuclear program, as well as a strained economy. Amirahmadi, however, claims he can take care of all that.

The professor plans to travel to Iran the first week of April, then officially register as a candidate in May, and wait for approval from the Guardian Council, a panel of clerics that oversees elections in Iran. Contrary to a recent report from Fox News, the Guardian Council has not yet approved Amirahmadi's candidacy. ("Thanks for the support, Fox News," he told me, "but they never get anything right.")

When I sat down with Amirahmadi in a Manhattan hotel lounge in February, he was sporting a light-gray suit, red tie, and white pocket square. He had just finished scolding a reporter from Le Monde who had indelicately implied that he had no chance of winning. "Why are you even interviewing me right now if you've already decided I have no chance?" Amirahmadi retorted. "I mean honestly, why?"

Amirahmadi left Iran in the 1970s after refusing an order to join the Shah of Iran's party. He then earned a Ph.D. in planning and international development at Cornell University and began a career working to improve U.S.-Iran relations. He has published 20 books and scores of articles on Iranian politics and economics. In 1997, he founded the American Iranian Council, a bipartisan think tank focused on bettering relations between the two countries. He has traveled to Iran dozens of times over the years and likes to think of himself as a shuttle diplomat, regularly participating in development projects and political conferences in the Islamic Republic.

It wasn't until the spring of 2005 that Amirahmadi made a big political move, registering as a presidential candidate within only a few weeks of the election. He failed to get the Guardian Council's approval because he registered late, according to his version of events. (Most analysts suggested he would have been barred no matter what.) He did not run in 2009, but decided to contest this year's election in part because of what he sees as favorable social and economic trends for his candidacy.

"For one thing, I think that Iran of today is very different from Iran of 2005 or 2009. U.S.-Iran relations have never been this bad. Sanctions on oil, sanctions on banks, sanctions on all kinds of other stuff," he explained. "I think that some of the most key problematic trends are coming together -- on the U.S.-Iran front, on the economy, on factions."

Iran's darkest hour is the moment Amirahmadi has been waiting for. "Unless someone jumps on and takes control of the steering wheel, that bus could end up off the cliff," the New Yorker quoted him as saying at a February campaign kickoff event in New York City. "In short, Iran needs a president who is a bridge builder, a peacemaker, and an economic manager.… Ladies and gentlemen, I have spent 30 years of my life doing just that," he said.

This spring, the Amirahmadi campaign trail hit Virginia Tech, the University of California/Berkeley, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and Queen's University in Northern Ireland -- admittedly not hotbeds of likely voters, but candidates are prohibited from campaigning in Iran until they've received official approval -- to drum up attention and financial support for his campaign. His campaign motto is "For Real Change in Iran," and he promises to create 6 million new jobs to slow down the country's 15 percent unemployment rate, ensure the equality of all minority groups, and repair U.S.-Iran relations after "shaking President Obama's hand in the White House in the first 100 days of office." So far, though, he's raised $36,000 of the $3.6 million he's shooting to bank before registering in Iran in May.

In Iran, the Amirahmadi campaign has relied on satellite television broadcasts and social media to connect with voters. But without hard polling data, the only metric Amirahmadi can use to measure his popularity is Facebook. The campaign launched an all-Persian Facebook page for Iranian voters on March 19, and eight days later, it had 5,500 likes. It's not quite overwhelming support, but Amirahmadi maintains that he is well-known in Iran because of his media presence and his academic and development work.

"The bottom line is that many, many people are telling me that if I pass the Guardian Council that I will be the next president in Iran," he said in a phone interview a few weeks after I met him. "I do not have a name recognition problem."

The Amirahmadi 2013 campaign headquarters -- for now -- is in the candidate's home in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and college-age daughter. His expansive and ornately styled house sits on more than 30 acres of land in a wooded, hilly section of Princeton. "One of my friends said I'm crazy to run for president because my house here is better than the presidential palace in Iran," he joked. This friend, it turned out, is former Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Maleki.

On a weekday morning in February, Amirahmadi's staff gathered around a table in his basement to strategize. Two web designers and a media coordinator, Kayvon Afshari, all 20-somethings, met to discuss the campaign's website. "As far as the staff goes, you're pretty much looking at it," Afshari explained. The 27-year-old former CBS News staffer manages all the candidate's social media, engagements, and public relations.

Amirahmadi also has a policy team composed of a few of the professor's colleagues at the American Iranian Council and some of his former students, but none was present on the morning I visited his campaign headquarters. Upstairs, a photographer was taking portraits of the candidate, who had to keep shooing Coco, his dog, off his chair.

Amirahmadi remains optimistic about getting approval to run in the election, but few Iran watchers agree. Most are doubtful that the professor will find himself on the ballot this summer.

"There is absolutely no possibility he will be permitted to run by the Guardian Council," Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Other experts have chimed in with the same dismissal.

Despite what his critics say, Amirahmadi thinks that things could go very differently this time around. Having met two Guardian Council members already on a 2012 visit to Tehran and Qom helps, he said, and he is seeking meetings with more members during his upcoming trip to Iran.

"I mean honestly, who would not want me more than Ahmadinejad?" he said. "I mean, forget Ahmadinejad. Can you put your finger on any of the candidates in Iran that anyone in his right mind would want more than Amirahmadi?"

Sometimes, it's hard to know at what register his notes of optimism start to ring quixotic. Amirahmadi believes that Supreme Leader Khamenei actually might not be opposed to his candidacy: "I don't think he's going to find a better outsider than I am," he told me. "In fact, this job description, for the presidency of Iran, is really written to fit me -- it fits me."

But many of Amirahmadi's stated policies are clearly anathema to Khamenei; it's hard to picture the supreme leader agreeing, for example, to a reduced focus on nuclear technology in favor of cybertechnology or to a reform movement ensuring equal rights to religious minorities. Furthermore, during a recent real-time question-and-answer session on Reddit, an online discussion forum, Amirahmadi outlined some goals -- including a promise to remove all media censorship -- that exceed the scope of presidential authority in the Islamic Republic.

Despite the dissonance, Amirahmadi foresees no power struggle with Khamenei, whom he says he knows personally from his work in Iran and whom he insists has much less power than Iran watchers think. ("As if Khamenei is the god of the Earth," he said during our interview.)

Should Amirahmadi's campaign gain momentum in Iran, however, it's hard to see how the two wouldn't butt heads, particularly given the nature of the campaign he intends to run. By publicizing his campaign internationally, it seems that the professor hopes to put the Guardian Council in the global spotlight, forcing its members to approve or reject an outspoken reformist with the world watching. It's a risky gambit, particularly if he intends to start pre-campaigning within Iran.

For Amirahmadi, failure to get approval does not mean the end. He plans to stay in Iran for the summer and build a coalition with an approved candidate. In the fall, he will return to his professorship at Rutgers and continue shuttling between Iran and the United States in order to groom reformist candidates for provincial and municipal elections in Iran. Whether he is a hopeless ideologue or a hapless visionary is an open question, but for him, it won't be left up to the Guardian Council.

"Regardless of what happens to me in this election," he said, "we're just going to be there to continue building this grassroots movement and see what happens. Our movement is an innovative movement. It's the right movement -- to change society for better."

Cole Giordano