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Detente on ice
Does an Iran that sentences an innocent American scholar to prison really want 'engagement'?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

THERE WERE hints of progress in the nuclear talks with Iran on Wednesday as Iranian negotiators in Vienna accepted for consideration a plan under which Iran would ship most of its current stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country. But there also was a contrary signal from Tehran about the desire of its extremist regime for detente with the West. That was the reported sentencing of Iranian American academic Kian Tajbakhsh to 15 years in prison on a blatantly bogus charge of espionage.

Mr. Tajbakhsh, a well-known expert on urban planning, had no role in the protests that erupted after Iran's fraudulent presidential election in June. He told friends that he was "keeping his head down." In fact he was preparing to begin a teaching appointment at Columbia University this fall. But Mr. Tajbakhsh, who was educated in Britain and the United States but has lived in Iran since 1999, was a convenient pawn for the regime's hard-liners. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters in Iran's Revolutionary Guard are trying to prove that the vast opposition movement against them is the product of a conspiracy by Western intelligence agencies and nongovernmental organizations such as the Open Society Institute, for which Mr. Tajbakhsh once worked as an adviser.

The arrest and trial of Mr. Tajbakhsh and more than 140 other people, including a number of opposition leaders, constitute a key element in the coup that the regime's hard-liners have staged against more moderate elements -- including those who genuinely favor rapprochement with the West. The tactical concessions that Mr. Ahmadinejad's government is hinting at in Vienna complement the crackdown: By striking deals with Western leaders, the ruling clique seeks to legitimize itself at home. If it wins the domestic power struggle, there is no chance that it will retreat from its attempt to acquire nuclear weapons or to gain influence over the Middle East through terrorism and militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Obama administration and other Western governments say that they are cognizant of the danger of strengthening Mr. Ahmadinejad and his superior, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But they have been cautious about following the advice of Iranians such as Nobel Peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who is urging the administration to talk as much about the treatment of people such as Mr. Tajbakhsh as it does about Iran's nuclear program. To be sure, White House and State Department spokesmen protested Mr. Tajbakhsh's sentence; the White House statement said that he "embodies what is possible between our two countries." We hope that President Obama himself will see fit to speak up about Mr. Tajbakhsh's case and others like it. The fact that Tehran is imprisoning the very people capable of building bridges between Iran and the United States is a clear message to the president about how the regime regards his "engagement" policy.

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