by Ali Gharib
The warnings of opponents of a nuclear deal as well as its more cautious boosters—that we shouldn’t expect reform from Iran in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear accord—earned a dispiriting data point yesterday. Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American Washington Post reporter arrested more than a year ago, was convicted of espionage in a closed proceeding. All the proceedings in his case, of course, were closed. The security apparatus of the state kept a close hold on everything, probably because that “everything”—the evidence against Rezaian—wasn’t very much. “If there was a single piece of evidence that Rezaian had done anything wrong, the Judiciary would have held a public trial,” said the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran’s (ICHRI) Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi in a recent release noting the proliferation of rumors of a forced confession as the linchpin of the government’s otherwise hollow case. That information is scant shows just how hollow the case was: we still don’t know of what, in particular, Jason was convicted, nor what sentence was handed down.
Rezaian’s ordeal is only the latest in a pattern of injustices in Iran. Observers like ICHRI have noted that the case defies even Iran’s own laws. That, however, is of little concern to those who imprisoned Jason. (A disclosure: Jason is a personal friend.) Abuses by the Iranian government are nothing new. The history of the Islamic Republic’s relatively short history is littered with violations of its own citizens’ rights. But the case and conviction do carry with them a larger symbolism: the nuclear deal is no panacea for what ails Iranian society. There’s hope among supporters of the deal that, as Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo has put it, “[G]radual relief from sanctions that have suffocated Iran’s economy will give breathing space to demands for more rights and freedoms.” That may be true, but in the short term, the forces of reaction will act furiously. The cloud that hangs over Jason’s arrest and trial is not justice but politics—local politics and geopolitics alike.
Jason’s case was always a touchstone for American politics. His conviction will hand American hardliners—Republicans in Congress and the hawkish think-tanks they rely on—a reasonable excuse to urge caution on advancing implementation of the nuclear deal or, more likely, to demand that the agreement be scuttled. That’s the point: the hard-liners running the security, intelligence and judiciary functions of the Iranian state—which, as Jason’s case demonstrates, are deeply entwined—don’t want the deal to move forward quickly. They fear exactly the scenario Jahanbegloo and other civil society opponents of sanctions have laid out from the beginning. Though their harshest words are always reserved for America and the West, they hate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with a burning passion, all the more because he has ascended to the presidency, installed a cabinet that includes among its ranks much-dreaded Reformists, and clearly convinced Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to cut a deal with their foremost demon, the Great Satan of the United States.
Interpreting the Conviction
Yesterday, on the dark day when Jason’s conviction was announced to Iran’s state television viewers, none encapsulated this dynamic quite as succinctly as the Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari:
Hardliners’ passionate opposition to any steps toward reconciliation with the U.S. was on display during the clamorous debate in Iran’s parliament over the nuclear agreement. The legislature voted to advance the deal this weekend, but a rowdy crowd of deputies surrounded the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, who had come to explain and defend the agreement; one reportedly threatened to have Mr. Salehi killed and buried under an Iranian nuclear facility.
By finding Mr. Rezaian guilty, Iran’s security agencies and judiciary are effectively warning Mr. Rouhani. They know that this conviction will strengthen those in the U.S., including members of Congress, who are skeptical of President Barack Obama‘s outreach to Iran; and they will continue to try to obstruct Mr. Rouhani’s outreach to Washington. The conviction is a way of saying that they are not subject to Mr. Rouhani’s control. They care little if, at the moment Iran’s president and his economic team are seeking to attract foreign investment, they are sending the message that Mr. Rouhani has limited power to guarantee the safety of the foreign investors and the Iranians who do business with them. Fearful of a “soft war” and a “soft revolution,” Ayatollah Khamenei is leaving Iran’s government and security agencies working at cross purposes.
As far as political and civic freedoms go, this is a reality that too few have grappled with: the bifurcation of Iranian politics between reform-minded moderates and hardliners has always suggested that the rights situation in Iran will get worse before it gets better. Rouhani won an unfree but not pre-determined election with a mandate to strike a deal, but his hardline opponents retained their hold on various halls of powers, chief among them security and judiciary postings. Those who oppose dealing with the West on just about any score will use any means at their disposal to try to hit the brakes on engagement. But with Khamenei supporting the nuclear deal for the moment at least, the hardliners are relegated to tapping the brakes more than slamming them. Jason seems clearly to be caught up in this power struggle. As Esfandiari put it, “It is hard not to conclude that Mr. Rezaian is an unfortunate pawn by which Iran’s intelligence ministry and judiciary seek to achieve other ends.” Others will sadly follow. Not all the cases will receive the same attention as Jason’s, but provocations from elements of the establishment trying to assert—or re-assert—their vision of the Islamic Republic will continue.
All that said, however, the Iranian hardliners, in tacit collusion with their American counterparts, are unlikely to undo the deal. The rising tide of investors’ post-deal interest in Iran will overcome whatever obstacles they try to erect (although some of us, Jason’s colleagues and friends, might want his release to be a prerequisite). The popularity of Rouhani, from his election straight through to the celebrations that erupted after the nuclear deal, are a testament to his popularity and Iranians’ desire for a change. Fight though hardliners may, the country is not at all united behind them.
After the Conviction
It’s difficult to know how to ensure that the voices of moderation prevail. Despite the likelihood of an uptick in rights violations, it’s important not allow such provocations to impede the deal. Opening up Iran to business in the wake of lifting sanctions provides the best chance at hitting hardliners where it hurts: alleviating Iran’s economic woes, empowering Iran’s middle class to chip away at the monopolies established by businesses aligned with the hard-liners such as the Revolutionary Guards, and showing that Rouhani’s moderate pose offers benefits for all Iranians and not just the well-connected few that benefited in the era of heavy sanctions.
As to the fates of Jason and those like him who will be caught up in these battles, the question is more complicated. There are hints that a “prisoner exchange” might be in the offing, where Jason would be freed in exchange for Iranian sanctions-busters caught up in the American justice system. The result would be awkward, matching an injustice by even Iranian standards against well-founded criminal cases by American ones (whatever the Iranian government thinks of them). But that sort of principle seems malleable enough in the face of an opportunity to free Jason. Plus, with the sanctions being dismantled vacating some of the charges against those who defied them seems less grave. For those other than Jason, it is hard to tell what could ease their suffering. I don’t pretend to have these answers, but one tack would be to further empower and support Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, whose work has pressured the Iranians through embarrassment, if nothing else, as they defied his mandate. We can all recognize and deplore these injustices, as we did yesterday in Jason’s case.
For now, though, those us empowered with pens and voices are left only to say that we deplore the injustice against Jason. We stand with his wife, his mother, and his brother as they continue to campaign for his release. We believe the nuclear deal should stand, but that none of us will rest until Jason is back with his family, with the freedom we know he should justly hold. These admonitions might not amount to concrete change. But they will let the hardliners in Iran—and especially Ali Khamenei, the hardliner in chief—know that we are watching in disgust.