Politics & Policy

Exploiting the Confessional

Turning the tide against Iran.

Monday evening, the Iranian government aired confessions by Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh, both distinguished American citizens who have been detained in Iran for the past several months. The confessions were coerced and false. They are an affront to justice and a tragedy for Haleh and Kian. But they are also an opportunity for the United States to mobilize international public opinion against the rogue Iranian regime.

Haleh, a small-framed, soft-spoken, and warm-hearted scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., was assaulted in December by three armed men who stole her U.S. and Iranian passports. The Iranian government refused to issue her a new passport and subjected her to interrogations. She was imprisoned on May 8 and has been in solitary confinement since that time. Kian, a young academic, was in Iran evaluating humanitarian-relief and rebuilding projects as a consultant for the Open Society Institute, a foundation in New York that provides money for research on democracy and civil society. He was imprisoned on May 11. Both Haleh and Kian are being held on the outrageous charge of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government.

Those who have been calling for dialogue with Iran should be biting their tongues, and nobody more so than Lee Hamilton. He is the head of the Woodrow Wilson Center and, as co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, recommended that the Bush administration “constructively engage” Iran. In fact, Hamilton tried to do just that on the issue of Haleh, and sent letters and other communications through back channels to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asking that he use his “good offices” to correct the “mistaken” imprisonment of Haleh. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s attempts at constructive engagement were met by obstinacy and now a forced confession.

Hamilton’s experience undercuts entirely his argument, and the argument of many others, that negotiations with this Iranian regime could be a useful exercise. If Iran cannot be persuaded that a frail, 67-year-old academic poses no mortal threat to the Iranian government, it is hard to imagine that it can be persuaded of anything, particularly on more controversial issues such as Iraq or nuclear weapons.

Instead of wasting time and credibility on dialogue, the United States should use its diplomatic resources to forge an international consensus against Ahmadinejad’s regime. The detentions of Haleh and Kian serve as a perfect issue around which to mobilize a tougher stance towards Iran among European governments, many of which have already taken an interest in the issue. At the United Nations, too, the United States could propose a resolution condemning the detentions and forced confessions, and calling for immediate release. Such a resolution would have a high likelihood of passing because very few governments would want to associate themselves with these indefensible detentions. The resolution would isolate the Iranian regime, particularly if the vote were supported by some of Iran’s traditional allies in the developing world.

Media outlets must also do their part to keep attention focused on Haleh and Kian. The Iranian government fears international public opinion, because at some point the negative views from around the world begin to affect the Iranian people’s perception of its own government. If Iranians see that the rest of the world is outraged by their government’s detentions — which they undoubtedly will, because despite the restrictions on the free flow of information in Iran, many Iranians have access to satellite television and the Internet — they will start to question their government’s official story that Haleh and Kian are American agents. Such questioning has the potential to undermine the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s regime in the eyes of the Iranian public and could lead to a broader backlash against the country’s oppressive political system.

Intense pressure, both at home and abroad, could also lead to a speedier release of Haleh and Kian. Under this scenario, the Iranian government would ultimately view their continued detention as too costly and would find a graceful and face-saving way to release them. This outcome is not guaranteed, but at least it is an alternative to the current approach that has produced nothing but forced confessions.

Monday’s confessions could be a defining moment that allows the United States to turn the tide against this Iranian regime. The Bush administration should work hard to exploit this opportunity, both because of its strategic value and because it presents the best hope for bringing about the unconditional release of Haleh and Kian.

Alexander Benard is a third-year student at Stanford Law School. He is a 2007 Claremont Institute Publius Fellow and a 2006 Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom Law Fellow. He has interned at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Department of Defense Office of General Counsel.

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