Politics & Policy

Iran’s American Prisoners Are Not Bargaining Chips

Jason Rezaian

Jason Rezaian, an Iran correspondent for the Washington Post, was arrested at his Tehran home on July 22, 2014. On Monday he was hauled, for the second time, before Iran’s Revolutionary Court, where he is on trial for crimes against the state. No one knows what happened in the courtroom, but he seems no closer to being released than he was beforehand.

When it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran, “trial,” like “Republic,” is a term best defined loosely. For eleven months Rezaian has been held on unnamed charges, for which he is being prosecuted in confidential hearings. And the concept of a “trial” is stretched to its limit in national-security cases such as Rezaian’s, where a judge can prohibit an attorney not just from communicating with the press, but from communicating with his own client. Together, the four charges — one of which is espionage, his lawyer has indicated previously — carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, according to the Washington Post.

The charges stem from Rezaian’s activities in reporting for the Post. According to Iranian news agencies, evidence of his “espionage” includes his contacting the U.S. consulate in Dubai in 2013 to apply for a visa for his wife, an Iranian national, to travel to the United States, and an online job application Rezaian submitted to the Obama administration shortly after the 2008 election. (He received a form-letter rejection; not long afterwards, he was hired by the Post.)

As the court has gathered this “evidence,” the judge in Rezaian’s case has made use of Iran’s generous “temporary” pretrial-detention policies to hold him indefinitely. Thus, for the last eleven months Rezaian has been a resident of Evin prison, on the outskirts of Tehran, the deprivations and cruelties of which have been well documented. According to Rezaian’s family, which has been permitted only occasional, monitored contact, he has been kept in solitary confinement for most of his imprisonment. Health problems — a previous high-blood-pressure condition, chronic eye infections, and a testicular inflammation — have plagued him, and he has been permitted to see a doctor only twice. Rezaian’s brother reports that he has lost 40 pounds during his detention.

Rezaian is one of three Americans currently imprisoned in Iran. Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born Christian minister who moved to Idaho but returned to his native country to conduct humanitarian work, is charged with apostasy, while Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to death five months later on charges of espionage — after a 15-minute trial. The sentence was appealed and commuted to ten years’ imprisonment. The fate of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007 while working as a contract employee for the CIA, is still unknown.

The Obama administration’s record of concessions in ongoing nuclear negotiations suggests that it will allow these Americans to languish if doing so helps to secure a weapons agreement.

Various media have reported that John Kerry has broached the subject of these imprisoned Americans in the nuclear negotiations ongoing between the United States and Iran, but Iran has refused to consider the issue. The regime’s representative abroad, the silver-tongued Mohammad Javad Zarif, has said that he “hope[s] [Rezaian] will be cleared in a court of law,” but that he “cannot speak for the process.” And despite President Obama’s declaration, at April’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, that “we will not rest until we bring [Rezaian] home to his family, safe and sound,” the Obama administration’s record of concessions in ongoing nuclear negotiations suggests that it will allow these Americans to languish if doing so helps to secure a weapons agreement.

America has deigned before to deal with unsavory governments, but surely the treatment of the Americans imprisoned in Iran is a reminder that the government in Tehran is among the worst — an offender of basic human rights, and an arbiter of entirely unjust “justice.” For the crime of practicing journalism, Jason Rezaian has been railroaded by a regime loyal not to any rule of law but only to the increase of its own power. The Obama administration has stated that an agreement with Iran will be based not upon trust but upon strong verification procedures. Those procedures had better be muscular indeed, because it would be woefully naïve to suppose that a regime that conducts its internal affairs in this way can be trusted when the stakes are even bigger.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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