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Maziar Bahari: Why the U.S. should still talk with Iran

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By Maziar Bahari
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Since I was released from Tehran's notorious Evin Prison last month, the questions have come again and again: Can we still talk to these people? Should the Obama administration engage in dialogue with Iran? What should the West do in nuclear negotiations? After being jailed, interrogated and beaten by the Revolutionary Guards for 118 days for reporting honestly on the disputed June 12 presidential elections, I am often expected to oppose any dialogue. But the West still needs Iran and should continue talking to it -- no matter what it has done to people like me.

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Inside Evin, I was forced to confess that I was part of an insidious Western media conspiracy to overthrow the regime. I was forced to apologize to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. I was released as suddenly as I was arrested, without explanation. But my interrogator told me to send a message to the world: "We are a superpower. America's power is waning, and we will soon overtake them. Now that Americans have started this war against us, we will not let them rest in peace." He paused, perhaps realizing that he sounded defensive. I was a jailed journalist wearing a blindfold, not some sort of spy. (I'm not even American.) He changed the subject to "soft" war, a term Tehran uses to refer to an imaginary war that it says is promoted by the media against the "holy government of the Islamic Republic." "We will answer their attacks with all our might," he said.

The Revolutionary Guards are a schizophrenic bunch, plagued by both deep insecurities and a superiority complex. They have ambitions to take over the government and expand their business empire in Iran. At the same time, they are terrified of individuals and groups that question their grip on power. The Guards are the real power base of Khamenei. They are the main supporters of his claim to be Allah's representative on Earth. One of the most serious charges against me was insulting Khamenei. In a private e-mail I had wondered whether Khamenei has been blinded by power and had lost touch with his people, and if that was why he was answering people's peaceful demands with brute force. That was enough for my interrogator to kick and punch me for days and to threaten me with execution.

In Iran's triangle of power -- the Guards, Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the Guards are becoming stronger than the president and the supreme leader. Some Guards are devoted to Khamenei for religious reasons, but many of them use his status as a religious leader to legitimize their own actions. They also use Ahmadinejad, a former Guard, to increase their political power. The Guards have arms and money. They are the biggest industrial contractors in Iran. They have front companies all over the region and in the West and are involved in smuggling goods into and out of Iran. They answer only to Khamenei.

So can the West, especially the United States, have a dialogue with these people? Yes. Because there is no other choice. The West has to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear program and the stability of Iraq and Afghanistan. Not talking to Tehran doesn't work: The hostile rhetoric and actions of the Bush administration against even the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami helped the hard-liners to consolidate power. Only by engaging, even with a more radical regime, can the West force Tehran to measure the costs and benefits of dealing with the outside world.

I don't know exactly why I was released, but I can guess. Over four months, my friends and colleagues at Newsweek and elsewhere waged a massive public and private campaign for my release. Around the time that Iran was sitting down in Geneva to discuss the nuclear program, my conditions inside Evin started to improve. One Iranian official told me later that I had "become more of a liability than an asset in jail." At least some elements of the regime still make such rational calculations.

So what should the United States do? First, a nuclear Iran should not be tolerated. Although I believe that Iran will not start attacking other countries the day after it builds the bomb, having the bomb will embolden the Guards to intensify their repression inside the country and regional expansion. The American government should use all of its resources, including President Obama's charm, to persuade allies, especially China and Russia, to work with it to put in place smart sanctions that solely target Iran's nuclear program and do not affect ordinary Iranians.

At the same time the West has to separate the nuclear negotiations from talks about Iraq and Afghanistan. Tehran understands that insecurity in those countries is damaging to itself as well as to the United States. Iran would love to make its help conditional on a grand bargain with the West that would guarantee the security and survival of the regime and preserve its nuclear program. But the better course would be to use cooperation on those two countries as a confidence-building measure in negotiations.

The common perception among my American friends used to be: "If Americans support a certain faction in Iran, it would be easier for the regime to persecute them." That might have been true once. But Iran has entered a new phase. Opposition activists from all walks of life have been accused of being agents of the West. I was accused of working for the CIA simply because I wrote for an American magazine. The rumor du jour in Iran is that Obama and the Guards are reaching a deal to normalize relations, in exchange for which America will ignore human rights abuses in Iran. Hence, the opposition movement's slogan "Obama, either with them or with us." The United States has acted against the interests of the Iranian people in the past. Repeating that mistake for tactical gains would be the biggest mistake of the Obama administration.

As for the Iranian people, the more immediate victims of the brutal regime, we have to think long-term. Our anger should be sublimated into something more positive. We have been brutalized to think of the world in black and white. Seeing the shades of gray can be our strongest weapon against those who would jail, beat and torture us.

Maziar Bahari, a Canadian filmmaker and reporter for Newsweek, was released from Evin Prison on Oct. 17.


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