On June 26, 2008, Silva Harotonian’s world was turned upside-down when what started as an afternoon drinking tea with friends ended in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. The story of Silva, a young Iranian of Armenian descent, is one of good intentions and unfortunate misunderstandings.
Our campaign from January 2009 to March 2010 had to face the challenge of civil and human rights in Iran as well as the complications of foreign non-profit, non-governmental organizations operating in a theocratic republic. The situation became much trickier for Silva and her family after the Iranian presidential elections and the resulting protests, civil disobedience and increased government scrutiny and arrests.
We developed and executed a global program designed to raise international awareness, build leverage that could be used as part of diplomatic negotiations, develop relationships with key influencers and minimize anything that might link Silva to the U.S. or cause attention that Iran would find objectionable. The momentum we built gave IREX and Silva’s lawyers the additional leverage they needed to successfully negotiate for Silva’s freedom.
Situation Analysis
The International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) is a nonprofit organization that organizes international education and professional training opportunities around the world. Silva Harotonian, an Iranian citizen of Armenian descent, was a coordinator for IREX’s Maternal and Child Health Education and Exchange Program – a program that helps Iranian and American public health professionals observe each others’ maternal and child health care initiatives. While in Tehran to meet participants and explain travel logistics for an upcoming exchange, Silva was detained and charged with violating Iranian law and plotting a “soft revolution” against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For seven months, Iranian officials advised IREX and Silva’s family to stay quiet and let the legal proceedings take their course. But, on January 19, 2009, Silva was convicted of “attempting to overthrow the Iranian government” and sentenced to three years in Evin prison. One week later IREX hired Edelman.
Facing the challenge of civil and human rights issues in Iran; the complications of foreign non-profit, non-governmental organizations operating in a theocratic republic; and the protests and arrests surrounding Iran’s presidential elections, Edelman created and executed a program designed to raise international awareness and develop relationships with key influencers. With the help of this program, IREX and Silva’s family and lawyers gained the leverage they needed to negotiate Silva’s release.
The ultimate goal of the program was to help secure Silva’s release from Evin prison. In accomplishing this, our primary objective was to create immediate and broad-based public awareness of Silva’s struggle – giving her a voice since hers was temporarily silenced. A complementary objective was to avoid making Silva’s situation any worse by doing anything the Iranian government could use to support its erroneous allegation that Silva was a “spy.”
Because everyone associated with this program – IREX, Silva’s family and Edelman – was based in the U.S., we had to be targeted in our approach and find neutral channels of communication. In addition to comprehensive research into our target audience, we studied similar detainments over the past few years to try and identify parallels to Silva’s case and what tactics were used that might be applicable in this campaign. We also looked closely at prisoners who had been released from Evin prison to determine release strategies and restrictions for Silva if she were given a furlough or a full pardon.
The research identified four recurring elements that we would need to include in our program:
·         Heavy media push by the family or home country.
·         “Face saving element” for the arresting country, including public confessions from the incarcerated or a personal appeal from high ranking political officials.
·         Releases timed in conjunction with holidays, major events or significant speeches.
·         Alignment of high-profile advocates and international influencers.
Audience Analysis
Recognizing the intricacies of the Iranian government and its inherent suspicion of the United States and media, we focused very heavily on identifying specific influentials who could impact Silva’s situation and targeted our messages and outreach appropriately. From our research into the theocratic republic, we recognized the most important figure was Ayatollah Syed Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, the supreme ruler, and secondarily President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Our campaign targeted the people who could influence the people who were trusted by the Ayatollah and then Ahmadinejad. These people were found around the world, in many different countries and mainly consisted of religious clerics and governmental representatives with influence with the religious leaders.
Our research had shown that while they were a very small and hard to reach segment of the population, this was a group who could be engaged through specific channels. We aligned with individuals who could share our story and seed the ground for negotiations while maintaining a private, respectful tone.
Because Silva could not speak for herself we tried to give her a voice whenever possible through her family, through IREX and through her former cell mate at Evin prison, journalist Roxana Saberi.
Given the complex nature of Iranian/American relations and the obvious emotions of Silva’s family we had to consider and respect the diplomatic needs of IREX and the U.S. Department of State and the personal desires of her family.
·         Developed an advocacy website as the core platform for Silva’s “voice” and a number of tracking tools so the family and IREX could demonstrate the international support for Silva even without a large, and potentially embarrassing, media campaign against Iran.
·         Created and updated online content including family interviews, event updates, viral video reflecting Silva’s plight, and an online petition.
·         Emphasized Silva’s Armenian heritage and relied on the Armenian diaspora in the U.S. and Europe.
·         Targeted international media to show widespread support for Silva while maintaining a respectful tone toward Iran and downplaying U.S. connections.
·         Assisted public and private diplomatic efforts to make personal appeals for Silva’s release.
·         Identified key Iranian and Armenian holidays and significant historical dates to time program pushes accordingly.
·         Engaged and mobilized respected human rights organizations and champions around the world.
·         Organized a press conference and symbolic event at the Human Rights Esplanade in Paris on Thursday, June 25, 2009 – commemorating the one year anniversary of Silva’s detention.
Evaluation of Success/Measurement
Our extensive international campaign, implemented from multiple U.S. offices and Europe delivered positive results:
·         Personal appeals for Silva’s release to President Ahmadinejad were sent from U.S., French and Armenian officials.
·         The team enlisted and leveraged the public support of Roxana Saberi, American journalist and former cell mate of Silva.
·         The campaign garnered international media coverage in top tier outlets including Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, UPI, Le Monde, International Herald Tribune, Chicago-Sun Times, U.S. News and World Report, USA Today, The Washington Times, Huffington Post, BBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and extensive coverage in Armenian language outlets in the U.S. and abroad.
·         Coverage of the Paris events was aired in Tehran, a media market known for its heavy censorship of anything thought critical of the regime.
·         The website was such a successful advocacy tool that Iranian officials made taking it down one of the conditions for Silva’s freedom.
·         On November 5, 2009, after three months of private negotiations and 11 months into her three-year sentence, Silva was paroled from Evin prison. In March 2010, she was allowed to leave Iran. She is now living in the U.S.