Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s correspondent in Iran, was arrested in Tehran on July 22 almost certainly not because of anything he had written, but because the hard-liners among Iran’s ruling elite seek to embarrass and weaken President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate. For good measure, they arrested Mr. Rezaian’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, also a journalist, and two American citizens working as freelance journalists.
Since Mr. Rouhani’s election in June 2013, elements in Iran’s intelligence services, its judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have sought to undermine him and his agenda of pragmatism and reform. For the sake of his credibility abroad, as much as for the cause of justice, he needs to speak out now on these journalists’ behalf and on behalf of many other unjustly incarcerated Iranians.
The Rezaian case involves much more than a journalist and his wife. The hard-liners are especially angry about President Rouhani’s attempt to reintegrate Iran into the international community. They disapprove of concessions they say the president is ready to make in the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program; confronting the West, they assume, is the way Iran can achieve regional importance. By contrast, Mr. Rouhani and his team believe that cooperating with the West is more certain to gain Iran the respect that it craves.
In short, the Rouhani team wants good relations with America; the hard-liners do not. They also oppose the president’s cautious attempt to ease up on political controls and official efforts to dictate how Iranians live.
By arresting Mr. Rezaian and Ms. Salehi — and unless there is an international outcry, we can expect charges of spying or endangering state security to follow — the hard-liners are sending several messages. Mr. Rezaian, who grew up in America, holds dual Iranian and American citizenship. His arrest during the nuclear negotiations throws down a gauntlet to Washington, even as it warns Mr. Rouhani and his team against pursuing reconciliation with Washington too eagerly. It seeks to remind the president who has more power where press freedoms or domestic political issues are concerned. By doing so, it aims to undercut other countries’ confidence in his ability to deliver on promises Iran might make in a negotiated deal.
The tactic is not new. The security agencies manage to discover spies and foreign plots whenever an Iranian government seeks a rapprochement with the West. In 1999, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was president, 13 Iranian Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan, including a 16-year-old boy, were arrested on fabricated charges of spying for “the Zionist entity” and “world arrogance.” Ten were eventually sentenced to prison terms — a carefully calculated decision that defied the concerns of members of the European Union, and chilled Iran’s relations with them.
Mr. Khatami’s failure to take a stand against a trial that was widely regarded as farcical left him looking weak, as did his earlier failure to speak up when a political ally, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the mayor of Tehran, was tried and sentenced on fabricated corruption charges. Those two events only encouraged his opponents to thwart the president in other ways, further weakening faith abroad that he had the clout within Iran’s political system — and most important, with its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — to withstand pressure from the hard-liners.
One element underlying this tactic is a longstanding campaign by the security agencies to make Iranians believe that America is plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic by using scholarly exchanges, journalists and academics to bring about a “velvet revolution” in Iran. This is a line of argument long shared by Ayatollah Khamenei, who warned in 2000: “The United States has devised a comprehensive plan to subvert the Islamic system. This plan is an imitation of the plan that led to the collapse of the former Soviet Union.”
From my own experience, I know that dual nationals are special targets for suspicion. In 2007, after visiting my ill mother, I was arrested and spent 105 days in solitary confinement at Evin Prison; almost every day, I was interrogated for eight to nine hours in a vain attempt to get me to confirm an imagined plot in Washington to set off a “velvet revolution” in Iran. I was released only after an international campaign made my fate a global issue.
Mr. Rezaian must have seemed a tempting target, although in his reporting for The Washington Post he wrote nothing particularly controversial. Iran’s security agents find it difficult to understand why any dual citizen who could live in America should choose to live and work in Iran, unless from nefarious motives. They also eye with suspicion the good working relationships that the media-savvy Rouhani team has built with many journalists working for the foreign press. Their very freedom to report seems to touch a raw nerve.
According to media accounts, the Rezaian-Salehi home has been searched, and the couple’s laptops and papers seized. This is also common practice. In my case, my Intelligence Ministry interrogators downloaded my articles, as well as reports on talks on the Middle East given at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where I work. These bits of reportage and analysis were culled as evidence against me.
Mr. Rezaian and his wife are likely being held in separate wards at Evin Prison, or perhaps at a secret detention facility. I have no doubt that they are being interrogated separately, have been unable to meet, and have no access to a lawyer. I wouldn’t be surprised if their interrogators fabricate a confession from one of them, in order to extract a false confession from the other. That, too, is common.
In addition to his weak response to the arrests and harsh sentencing of journalists and others, Mr. Rouhani was silent when guards beat political prisoners who had protested peacefully against conditions at Evin.
As President Khatami discovered, failure to take a stand against egregious behavior by the judiciary and the security agencies can fatally weaken a presidency. President Rouhani cannot keep postponing a showdown with the hard-liners. The Rezaian-Salehi case is an excellent opportunity for him to take his stand.
Haleh Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.