Iran’s conviction of 31 year old Iranian-American ABC journalist Roxana Saberi on espionage charges has provoked international outrage. Moreover, it appears to have been both a secretive show trial and perhaps one where the defendant was tricked into saying things that were used against her. In any event, what could be more angering than having a country falsely imprison a beautiful young journalist, with virtually no one believing she is guilty. Clearly, now is not the time to be extending an olive branch to Iran, or attempting good faith measures! Or is it?
The world of global politics is opaque and confusing. Americans have been conditioned to see foreign countries as acting as a kind of ‘unified rational actor.’ Thus Iran is treated as a fiction-person, an individual who in this case is misbehaving; we should certainly not reward such actions. On the contrary, we should condemn and punish Iran, just as we would condemn and punish an individual who would violate the liberty of another.
That way of seeing the world yields simplistic analyses of global issues, often allowing emotion to guide public opinion. Taking a deeper look, however, things aren’t so easy.
First, Iran is a country of political factions. The hardline faction has been dominant, but does not maintain a monopoly on power. Moderate and even liberalizing factions exist, and have their own bases of support and power. And it isn’t all about America, religion, or politics. There is a lot of oil money involved here, there are economic arrangements and deals that go to those who have the most power and control the action.
Second, this prosecution is likely meant by the hardline faction as a provocation to the West to try to stymie any attempt by the US to improve relations with Iran. The Iranian hardliners were a weaker lot back in 1999, when President Clinton considered moves to improve the relationship between the US and Iran. They could not prevail in elections, and some questioned whether their hold on the Guardian Council (the group of clerics that has the final say on Iranian law and who can be a candidate for public office) would remain as solid. Iran’s clerics are also not a unified group.
The Ayatollah Khomeini, archetect of the revolution that deposed the Shah and installed the current fundamentalist regime was a strong believer in theocracy. Yet other clerics have different views. The Iraqi Ayatollah Sistani, who lived in exile in Iran during much of Saddam’s rule, had a different view, one that saw the clergy as absent from most of day to day politics. Many religious folk in Iran share that view, even if that currently isn’t dominate in the Guardian Council. Because of the diversity of perspectives, Iran’s religious elite could not embrace complete theocracy as a form of government. They had to opt for democracy, and currently Iran is the most democratic country in the region, save Israel.
That democracy means that the fundamentalist hold on power is always tenuous, and has to respond to changes in public opinion. For the extremists, George W. Bush was the best thing to happen to them — a gift from Allah. First, he made war on their arch enemy — Saddam Hussein — and helped bring their fellow Shi’ite Muslims to power in Iraq. Shi’ites are only about 10% of the Muslim world, but most Iranians and 65% of the Iraqis are of the Shi’ite sect of Islam. Iraq went from being a secular Baathist state to an Islamic republic. Moreover, the bombast of the Bush Administration made it easy for the extremists to arouse anti-American fervor, leading to their first electoral victories since the revolution. The surprising rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was due in large part to growing Iranian anti-Americanism.
Since then, they maintain power by provoking reactions to their statements and policies. Threats to attack Israel, controversies over Iran’s nuclear program, and the on going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have bolstered the extremists’ hold on power. They want the relationship between the West and Iran to be cold, they want provcative anti-Iranian rhetoric and actions to come from the West, they parlay that into anti-American public opinion which supports them.
It is quite likely that the conviction of Saberi is an effort by the extremists in Iran to block any rapproachement between Iran and the US, and to undercut the appeal of Obama to the Iranian public. The economic problems caused by the drop in oil prices plus a general lack of good governance by the conservatives in power has given Iranian moderates new hope. If the public moves away from knee jerk anti-Americanism to a sense that cooperation is possible, moderates might again win a majority in the Majles, and perhaps defeat Ahmadinejad in the upcoming Presidential election.
Looked at in that way, using this as an excuse to ostracize, cut back on confidence building measures, and maintain pressure on Iran would be to play into the extremists’ hands, at the expense of the moderates. We’d be being played as suckers, doing just what the extremists want, ostensibly because we oppose them. Because most Americans don’t understand the complexity of Iranian politics or world affairs, the reaction to the Saberi conviction is knee jerk and emotional — precisely what the Iranian fundamentalists hope for.
So while the US has to maintain pressure on Iran over this case, this can’t be allowed to torpedo Obama’s efforts to fundamentally alter the relationship. Iranians are ready for a government that is more open to the world, and more moderate in its approach to religion and international politics. Iran is a democracy where the people want more control, with limits on the ability of the elite to hinder following the will of the people.
So President Obama shouldn’t take the easy political route of simply condemning Iran over this, and playing to populist emotion. This case is a sign that the fundamentalist in Iran are weakened, and they know it. They want to rachet up the emotion and rekindle anger. A cool head and rationale, patient response is the best way to assure they do not succeed.