American Hikers in Iran Are Too Useful to Release

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

William O. Beeman, Commentary, New America Media

NAM Editor’s Note: American hikers Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd are a precious catch for Iran, which is hoping to get some political mileage from their detention, observes NAM contributor William Beeman. Bauer freelanced for NAM.

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Three Americans, journalist Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd, have been detained in Iran since July 31, 2009 for entering the Islamic Republic from Iraq at a remote mountain border without visas. Now, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki has announced that they will be tried in Iranian courts. It is likely they will be charged with espionage.

The three Americans appear to have strayed innocently into Iranian territory, but they have provided an unusually strong opportunity for the Iranian government to continue to engage the United States in tit-for-tat attacks.

Superficially, the detention and eventual trial of these three individuals resembles the earlier detention of a number of Iranian Americans traveling in Iran, the most recent being journalist Roxana Saberi, who was released last summer after having been charged with espionage. Iranian-American academic Kian Tajbakhsh remains in custody facing a 12-year jail sentence after his espionage conviction.

The case against Bauer and his friends provides many political advantages to the Iranian government.

First, there can be no question that people who stray over international borders without proper documentation are subject to scrutiny and legal action. Here, the Iranians have an open and shut justification for holding the three hikers, and can claim indisputable high legal ground for their actions.

Second, Iran wants to make the point that foreign spies are operating in its sovereign territory. The United States has admitted to maintaining operatives in Iran, as has Israel. Israel has even bragged about assassinating an Iranian nuclear scientist. Thus, although the three Americans are probably not spies, they serve as reminders to the Iranian public and to the international community of the real spies that Iranian authorities have not caught.

Third, Iran has reportedly linked the American detainees to 11 Iranians that have been held by U.S. federal officials, as reported by Laura Rozen in the blog, Politico . These individuals are charged with violating export laws — essentially by supplying arms and military equipment to Iran. They were arrested in several European countries, and have been held incognito and incommunicado for more than a year in some cases. The Iranians certainly hope to see movement on releasing these detainees.

Iran also charges the United States with engineering the disappearance of nuclear researcher Shahram Amiri during his pilgrimage to Mecca last spring.

Finally, the Iranian government is desperate for a distraction from the unprecedented opposition disturbances in protest of the June 12 presidential elections. December 18 marks the beginning of the month of Muharram, when Shi’a Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (s), murdered in 680 C.E. There will be street processions, religious demonstrations and ritual mourning for 10 days. This is the perfect smokescreen for anti-government demonstrations.

To add to the government consternation, sections of the regular Iranian military have threatened to emerge from their barracks to protect “the people” from the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and Basij units that have been attacking the anti-government opposition. A big show trial against “foreign spies” will reinforce the Iranian government claims to its own citizenry that all the troubles in the Islamic Republic today are being fomented by foreign agents.

It is clear that both the United States and Iran have a lot of human traffic to account for on each others’ soil. The real impediment to sorting out these matters is that the United States and Iran still have no comprehensive way to talk to each other. Moreover, there is too much to be gained in both nations by mutual demonization to move forward toward rational discussion. Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons program remains a red herring, preventing any real progress in reaching an accord between the two nations.

For the hapless hikers, the worst-case scenario is one where they get caught up in the maelstrom of events that have nothing to do with their meager crime, and end up as object lessons in the mutual hostilities between Iran and the West.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and is past president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His most recent book is “’The Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.” (Chicago, 2008).

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Roxana Saberi’s Release Bodes Well for U.S.-Iran Relations

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By William O. Beeman, New America Media

2009-05-12T113428Z_01_TEH102_RTRMDNP_3_IRAN-USA-JOURNALIST Roxana Saberi, the 32-year-old Iranian-American journalist convicted of espionage in Iran has been released to her family, and will soon return to the United States.

While her international community of family, colleagues and friends can rejoice in her release, it was predictable from the moment of her arrest, based on the history of such events in Iran in the past.

Although no one will know for sure exactly how events proceeded against her, it is possible to speculate how Saberi’s arraignment and trial developed.

The espionage charges against Saberi were utterly unfounded. They were likely the result of an escalation within the Iranian judicial system as official after official tried to cover their tracks for a series of abortive attempts to charge her with a crime.

She was first detained for the relatively minor offense of having purchased a bottle of wine. Since religious minorities in Iran are allowed to manufacture, sell and consume alcohol, the country is awash in liquor. It is easily obtainable by everyone—even government officials. Most likely the arresting official did not know that Saberi was an American passport holder born in the United States, and was probably chagrined to discover that this case was likely to create international brouhaha.

A more serious charge was then sought to justify the first arrest. The discovery that her press credentials had expired some months earlier provided that opportunity. Saberi had continued to file stories for a number of American news outlets, reportedly because officials assured her that the expiration of her press pass was inconsequential. Since she could demonstrate that Iranian officials had allowed her to continue writing, this charge would also not hold water.

Finally, the serious charge of espionage was lodged. As foolish and unsubstantiated as this charge was, it was plausible in Iran. Rumors that American CIA operatives were active in Iran were widely promulgated in Iran. These suspicions were reinforced through extensive documentation found in New York Times reporter James Risen’s 2006 book “State of War.” Additionally, on April 4, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz confirmed an earlier rumor that an Iranian nuclear scientist had been assassinated by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, inside Iran.

Iran experienced one horrendous situation involving a foreigner arrested for spying in Iran in 2003. Canadian-Iranian Zahra Kazemi was raped, beaten and tortured to death (although Iranian authorities claimed she died of a stroke) for allegedly having photographed prohibited parts of Evin Prison, where she was later incarcerated. Her death caused an international uproar. The Iranian government, clearly badly burned by the Kazemi case has since been careful to make sure that her situation is not repeated.

Foreigners — dual nationals — accused of espionage have been held for a time, usually in conspicuously humane circumstances, while the government wrings as much publicity out of the event as possible for a domestic and regional audience. The accused prisoners are then released in a show of clemency.

This was the case with Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Ms. Efandiari was visiting her 90-year-old mother in 2006 when she was arrested. It is likely that her connection to Lee Hamilton, director of the Wilson Center, made her an object of suspicion. Hamilton had long connections to the CIA and to groups promoting democratic revolutions in places like Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Kian Tajbakhsh was arrested at about the same time on the same charges. Tajbakhsh worked for George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Soros had also been active in the same “revolutions” in the region.

Both Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh were held under relatively humane circumstances and released some months later.

The Iranian presidential election next month was also a likely reason for a quick dispensation of Saberi’s case. Iran would like the world to focus on the election, and not on an ongoing saga of an international journalist in their prison system.

In the Saberi case, Iran actually did itself some good. It showed that it had a functioning judicial system—however imperfect—with an appeals process that eventually yielded the correct result.

The Obama administration, by engaging in diplomacy and sober statements of concern regarding Saberi, not only aided the process of her release, but likely set the stage for further improved relations between the United States and Iran. We now have a situation where Iran undertook an action of which the United States disapproved. The United States expressed itself in a non-hostile manner, and the Iranian government responded with a positive redress of that action. This bodes well for future U.S.-Iranian relations. It is only regrettable that this had to come at the price of Saberi’s unjust incarceration.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is past president of the Middle East section of the American Anthropological Association. He has lived and worked in Iran for more than 30 years. His most recent book is The “’Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other” (University of Chicago Press, 2008).