A Test for Iran

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

THE OBAMA administration has chosen to support international negotiations with Iran next month in spite of Tehran's declarations that it will not discuss its nuclear program. The White House says the United States and its five partners will insist on raising the U.N. Security Council's demand for a suspension of Iranian uranium enrichment. Yet if engagement with Iran is to have any hope of success, at least one other item should be on the agenda: the government's recent repression of domestic opposition, and in particular its prosecution of Western citizens.

Since August the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been staging show trials of some 140 politicians, civil society activists and journalists accused of trying to carry out a Western-orchestrated "color revolution" in Iran. The crudely staged cases are the latest phase in a coup by extremists, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, against more moderate factions that represent the majority of the country -- and that include the proponents of a genuine rapprochement between Iran and the West. By opening talks with the Ahmadinejad clique, the international alliance risks strengthening the extremists' hand in a fateful power struggle. If they win, the negotiations are doomed.

One way to avoid this pitfall is for the United States to insist on discussing the human rights issues raised by the show trials. The obvious lack of due process for leading regime opponents contravenes international human rights standards that Iran claims to respect. The cases of torture and rape of prisoners courageously documented by opposition presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi should be as worthy of discussion as the non-nuclear subjects that Iran wants to bring up.

The United States and several other countries also have a direct interest in the cases of people with dual citizenship and embassy employees who have been swept up in the purge. These journalists, scholars and functionaries were not part of the opposition movement, but the regime is using them to bolster its claims that all of the opposition is part of a foreign conspiracy. Two cases that stand out are those of Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian American scholar, and Maziar Bahari, a Canadian American filmmaker and accredited correspondent in Iran for Newsweek magazine, which is published by The Washington Post Co.

Mr. Bahari was arrested at his mother's home on June 21; Mr. Tajbakhsh was picked up July 9. Both have been denied access to consular officials or their own lawyers. At a ghastly "press conference" after his appearance at his trial Aug. 1, Mr. Bahari delivered statements echoing the regime's propaganda about Western plots and the supposed role of journalists in them. Mr. Tajbakhsh, who was due to begin teaching at Columbia University this month, played no role in the opposition protests yet has been charged with being one of their planners.

There is an easy way for the Obama administration to test Iran's seriousness about negotiations: It should demand that Mr. Bahari, Mr. Tajbakhsh, and other Western citizens being cruelly used as pawns in the regime's domestic repression be immediately released and allowed to leave the country. Whether or not Mr. Ahmadinejad makes that simple concession will reveal whether the regime has any intention of mending relations with the United States.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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