Iran’s recent arrest of several Iranian Americans on spying charges is best understood as a repeat performance of the Islamic regime’s imprisonment seven years ago of a group of traditional Jews.
In 1999, a dozen Jews from the Iranian city of Shiraz were thrown in jail and indicted for allegedly working for Israel. After an international uproar, followed by years of quiet diplomatic efforts, they were eventually released.
While obvious differences exist between then and now, some observers of the regime point to what they say is a common thread: In both instances, the spying charges were manufactured by hard-liners in Iran in order to undermine their moderate domestic foes and thwart diplomatic engagement with the United States.
When the Shiraz Jews were detained, the move was perceived as an attempt by hawks to weaken the recently elected reformist president Mohammed Khatami, who had initiated an overture toward the West. The recent arrests are being portrayed as a way for hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies to scuttle negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and over the recent opening of a diplomatic channel with Washington regarding the situation in Iraq.
“The incident in 1999 is widely interpreted as an attempt by hard-liners to undermine Khatami’s efforts of détente with the U.S.,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and an advocate of closer ties between Washington and Tehran. “The current arrests seem to fulfill the same purpose — poisoning the atmosphere to make the Baghdad channel between the U.S. and Iran collapse.”
In the past month, Iranian authorities have either charged or arrested Haleh Esfandiari, head of the Middle East Program at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; urban planner Kian Tajbakhsh; journalist Parnaz Azima, and businessman Ali Shakeri. All except Shakeri have been accused of espionage, a charge that carries the death penalty, and are suspected of trying to promote a “velvet revolution” in Iran, a reference to the popular demonstrations that helped bring an end to communism in Eastern Europe and triggered the recent political transitions in Ukraine and Georgia.
Esfandiari was charged with spying four months after being barred from leaving the country, where she was visiting her ailing mother. The wife of Shaul Bakhash, an Iranian Jewish professor at George Mason University in Virginia, Esfandiari has been accused in the hard-line Iranian media of working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Tajbakhsh worked for the World Bank and for the Open Society Institute, the foundation created by billionaire George Soros to foster democracy around the world.
Azima is a reporter for the American-funded Radio Farda. Shakeri, the one person arrested who hasyet to be charged, is a founding board member at the University of California, Irvine’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding.
In addition to those who were arrested, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in March after traveling to Iran’s Kish resort island.
The detainees’ families and employers, the Bush administration, Western governments and major human rights groups have forcefully denied the spying allegations and have called for the immediate and unconditional release of those who were arrested. Similar protests were aired when a group of religious Jews was arrested in Shiraz in 1999 and indicted on charges of spying for Israel. At that time, Khatami had ascended to power on a platform of opening a “dialogue of civilization” with the West. In addition, one of his first decisions was to launch a probe into the slayings of several reformist activists in the ‘90s, a gesture that infuriated the conservative camp and its allies in the security services.
Khatami failed to deliver during his two terms in office, dealing a major blow to the reformist movement and paving the way for the election of Ahmadinejad. As a result, the only viable alternative to the conservative camp is now the so-called pragmatists, who support the Islamic regime but are in favor of some accommodation with the West in the name of Iran’s national interest. Many observers believe that the hard-liners and the intelligence services are now trying to discredit the pragmatists in Iran and on the international scene by applying the same recipe they used against the reformists.
For example, there was the arrest in late April of Hossein Moussavian, a key negotiator on nuclear issues until 2005 and an ally of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, the leading representative of the pragmatist faction. Moussavian, who is free on bail, is being accused of leaking information to foreign countries. He played a central role in clinching a deal in 2005 with France, Great Britain and Germany, under which Iran suspended its uranium-enrichment activities. The halt was reversed after Ahmadinejad came to power in August 2005, having soundly defeated Rafsanjani.
In addition to the internal power struggles, Iranian suspicions about Washington’s intentions have been fueled by the continuing tensions over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and by talk of American military intervention.
Two weeks ago, ABC News reported that the CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert operation to destabilize the Iranian government. The White House has not confirmed nor denied the allegations.
The Bush administration has earmarked $75 million in this year’s budget to fund Iranian pro-democracy groups and activities, a move seen by Tehran as a backdoor way of trying to bring down the regime. Moreover, Iran has recently accused Britain and the United States of supporting ethnic minority rebel groups operating in sensitive border areas as part of a destabilization campaign authorized by the Bush administration.
One area of particular concern is Kurdistan, the largely autonomous northern region of Iraq. In addition to domestic concerns about restiveness among its own Kurdish minority, Iran has grown wary of reported Israeli presence in this area bordering Iran. Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli-based expert on Iran, claims that this helps explain the presence of Iranian intelligence officials in Kurdistan, five of whom were arrested by American forces there in January. To some observers, the recent wave of detentions is a maneuver by Tehran to obtain their release. A few months ago, several Iranian officials arrested by the United States in Baghdad were freed at the same time that Iran released 15 British sailors it had captured in the Persian Gulf.
“I do believe that the [most recent] arrests are a warning shot and retaliation against the U.S. arrests in Iraq,” said Gary Sick, an Columbia University expert on Iran, “perhaps with the idea of arranging a swap or release in return for some benefits.”