Iranian dissent: Behind Iran’s new hostage diplomacy

Iranian dissent: Behind Iran’s new hostage diplomacy June 7, 2007
Haleh Esfandiari, security threat

The capture and subsequent release of British sailors by Iran earlier this year helped galvanise the Iranian government and its wily president, Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, in efforts to detract from nuclear suspicions and domestic dissent. Internally, the list of items and people deemed newly suspicious and curtailed or detained by the Iranian government has grown to include western hairstyles, Finnish fishermen, and yet more student newspapers. Now, a 67-year-old grandmother named Haleh Esfandiari has joined them.

Esfiandiari, a dual Iranian-American national who is the Middle East Director at the Woodrow Wilson Center, was arrested on her recent trip to Iran where she was visiting her ailing 93-year-old mother. The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence claims that Esfiandiari “confessed” to “driving a velvet revolution strategy in Iran.” Nobel Peace Prize winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi tried to represent her case but was denied access to her by the Iranian judiciary. Nearly a month after her detention, Esfiandiari languishes in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons, the same site where journalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death.

Two other dual national Iranian-Americans have also been held: Kian Tajbakhsh, a scholar with the Open Society Institute and Ali Shakeri, a peace-activist from Irvine, California. None of the Iranian-Americans held are known monarchists – in fact, both Esfiandiari and Shakeri were known for their desire for mutual dialogue and respect between the two nations. It is the most high profile detention of Americans in Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis and marks a shift in that Iran is now justifying its crackdown based on its national security interests.

When the women’s rights activists were arrested recently, for example, the government saw their criticism of Iran’s discriminatory gender laws as an affront to Iran’s national security. Against the backdrop of US threats to “liberate” yet another country in the Middle East, the Iranian government was able to placate public outcry within Iran by accusing the activists of being foreign agents.

Hadi Ghaemi, Iran Researcher at Human Rights Watch, feels that Iran will use the arrests of the Iranian-Americans to fuel its propaganda machine. “We shouldn’t be surprised if the Iranian authorities parade the detainees in front of TV cameras before releasing them on heavy bails,” says Ghaemi. Officials in the US have also not missed the chance to exploit the politics out of the situation.

Remarking about the arrests, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shifted the discussion from Iran’s internal human rights record to Iran’s role in the region. She noted, “It just underscores the nature of the Iranian regime and it just gives strength to the argument that the regime does not, in addition to all of the problems that it causes internationally, does not treat its people… very well.”

Yet curiously against the backdrop of this rising mistrust between Iran and the US, both nations recently sat down for their first official diplomatic discussions since relations broke off in 1979. Many, it seems, are beginning to give the idea of normalized relations a consideration. The Iraq Study Group famously called for open relations with Iran and presidential candidate Barack Obama has hinted about his desire to talk to Iran directly if elected president. But it appears hardliners in both the US and Iran are trying to stall any effort for cozy ties.

Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, claims that normalized relations is exactly what Iran’s hardliners fear most as they feed off of Iran’s isolationist and anti-American stance. “Whenever diplomatic openings between the US and Iran have emerged, forces in both countries favoring the status quo have lashed out to undermine diplomacy,” says Parsi. “The arrests of these four Iranian Americans seem to fit that pattern – the extreme wing of Iran’s hardliners are trying to are trying to sabotage the US-Iran talks in Baghdad through these provocative arrests.”

Within the US, many prominent Iranian activists like former political prisoner Akbar Ganji believe that the US is poisoning the chances for internal, organic reform emerging from within Iran by allocating State Department funds for “democracy promotion” in Iran. This US funding, coupled with the increasingly bellicose rhetoric by the Bush administration, has given the hardliners in Iran an added pretext to raise suspicion about domestic reformers, many argue. Others insist that the efforts of pro-Israeli groups like AIPAC have successfully “convinced” many in Washington to stall dialogue with Iran until it renounces its support for Hizbullah and recognizes Israel’s existence.

The irony, of course, is that hardliners in Iran are only further eroding their support by rounding up reformers and the US is only bolstering hardliners by calling for “regime change.” The best solution, as author Reza Aslan points out, may be in doing nothing at all. “Abandoning regime change in Iran is the surest way to ensure the regime’s collapse,” he says. “This is because, contrary to widespread perception, Iran is already a democracy. It’s just not a very successful one.”

Zahir Janmohamed is an associate editor of and co-founder of the Qunoot Foundation. He is based in Washington, DC.

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