Thursday, May 31, 2007

Haleh Esfandiari and U.S.-Iran relations

Haleh Esfandiari has been charged with espionage by the Iranian government. Dr. Efandiari is an Iranian-American and is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is a scholar with expertise on various subjects related to the Middle East. She has a 93-year-old mother in Iran whom she visits on a regular basis.

While visiting her mother in December she was robbed. Both her U.S. and Iranian passports were stolen and she was not permitted to leave the country. She was placed under house arrest and interrogated a number of times. Then, she was taken into custody a few weeks ago and detained at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison where she remains today. She has now been charged with espionage.

(Jeff Weintraub reprints an article by her husband, Shaul Bakhash, about her predicament. A “Free Haleh” website can be found here. A statement by Middle East scholars protesting her arrest and imprisonment can be found here.)

Her harassment and detention is part of a pattern others with dual Iranian-American citizenship are facing. Human Rights Watch and other organizations are calling for an end to the harassment of dual-nationals in Iran.

What is the United States to do?

The unfortunate plight of a few American citizens in Iran must seem like small potatoes in American-Iranian relations compared to the other two big issues: Iranian influence in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear program. The problem is the United States is operating from a position of weakness. Our military is stretched very thin and cannot pose much of a threat to Iran. We have not had diplomatic relations since seizure of the American Embassy in the 1979 and holding of American hostages for 444 days so nation-to-nation talks are rare and usually through third parties. Sanctions are already in place but the American appetite for oil has helped keep the price high and Iran wealthy.

Obviously, Ms. Efandiari and the others are pawns in some larger game played by those who are afraid of closer U.S. - Iranian relationships. These actions represent a real insecurity by the rightwing Ahmadinejad regime because they are not that popular at home and need an external enemy. This could provide an opening if U.S. officials are smart enough to take advantage of it.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has these thoughts (via the International Herald Tribune):
… President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - the man who shows us how tough he is by declaring the Holocaust a myth - had his goons arrest Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar and dual Iranian-U.S. citizen, while she was visiting her 93-year-old mother in Tehran. Do you know how paranoid you have to be to think that a 67-year-old grandmother visiting her 93-year-old mother can bring down your regime? Now that is insecure.

It's also shameful. Haleh directs the Middle East program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. She went to Iran in December to visit her aging mother - a trip she's made regularly for the past decade. According to her husband, Shaul Bakhash, himself a renowned Iran expert in the United States, while Haleh was traveling to the Tehran airport on Dec. 30, to return home, she was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men - Iran's Intelligence Ministry always needs three men and three knives when confronting a grandmother - and they stole her belongings and her U.S. and Iranian passports.

This was followed by six weeks of intermittent questioning by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence. Then, on May 7, Haleh was arrested. She has been formally charged with "endangering national security through propaganda against the system and espionage for foreigners," an Iranian spokesman said - apparently because of her work organizing academic conferences of Iranian and U.S. experts.

Why does Iran's leadership do such a thing? Because its hard-liners fear relations with the United States and want to scuttle the Iran-U.S. dialogue that began this week in Baghdad. Just like Castro's Cuba, Iran's mullah dictators thrive on their clash with America. The conflict gives them status among anti-American countries, our sanctions allow them to explain away their poor economic performance, and U.S. "threats," both real and imagined, allow them to crush all legitimate dissent by labeling it part of a U.S. conspiracy.

What to do? Obviously, one option is a military strike combined with fomenting revolution. But that could easily leave us with another unstable, failing state in the Middle East. I don't want to create another boiling Iraq. A second option would be more economic sanctions to change the regime's behavior. The third option is engagement aimed at restoring relations.

Alas, the Bush Iran policy has dabbled in all three, but never committed itself to one, and, as a result, Iran's hard-liners have been strengthened. The only way out of our corner now is to get some leverage. And leverage can come only from stepped-up economic sanctions - particularly doing something to bring down the price of oil, Iran's lifeblood - combined with aggressive engagement, like declaring that we don't seek the toppling of the regime and that we are ready, if Iran curbs its nuclear program, to restore full diplomatic and economic ties the next day.

In other words, our only hope of either changing this Iranian regime or its behavior, without fracturing the country, is through a stronger Iranian middle class that demands a freer press, consensual politics and rule of law. That is our China strategy - and it could work even faster with Iran. The greatest periods of political change in modern Iran happened when the country was most intensely engaged with the West, beginning with the constitutional revolution in 1906.

Unfortunately, the Bush strategy - diplomatic/economic isolation plus high oil prices - has only frozen the regime in power and transformed it from mildly repressive to a KGB state with a nuclear program. So now we face an Iranian regime that is both powerful and paranoid.

It has the resources to snub the world and its own people's aspirations. Yet, no matter how much this regime tries to buy off its people with oil money, it knows that many despise it. It's actually afraid of its own people more than anyone - so afraid it even criminalizes scholarly exchanges between Iranians and Americans that the regime can't control.

That's why a 67-year-old grandmother - whose only crime is getting people together in public to talk about building a better Iran - is such a threat.
What needs to be done is a radical national energy conservation program targeting oil consumption -- something that should have been done September 12th 2001 – to help force down the demand (and price) of oil. That would give the U.S. plenty of leverage with the Iranian regime. The U.S. should encourage the types of education and cultural exchange programs that Ms. Esfandiari represented and halt the counter-productive covert operations this administration is fond of. The United States should restore diplomatic relations with Iran. An embassy in Tehran would be far more useful than embassies in London or Paris – after all, the whole point of diplomacy isn’t to chat with your friends but to have a constant line of communication open with your enemies. And right now, we have a lot we need to talk about.

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