OpinionIran in the World PressIran's latest U.S. hostage

Iran’s latest U.S. hostage


ImageWall Street Journal – REVIEW & OUTLOOK: In 2003, an Iranian-born Canadian photojournalist named Zahra Kazemi was arrested in Tehran, jailed in its notorious Evin prison and charged with espionage. Less than three weeks later, Kazemi was dead.

The Wall Street Journal

Goodwill begets an espionage trial.


ImageIn 2003, an Iranian-born Canadian photojournalist named Zahra Kazemi was arrested in Tehran, jailed in its notorious Evin prison and charged with espionage. Less than three weeks later, Kazemi was dead. An Iranian doctor who examined her before her death later reported that she had been raped, sustained a skull fracture and had her fingernails ripped out.

Now another foreign journalist is imprisoned at Evin and also charged with espionage. In late January, Roxana Saberi, a U.S.-born reporter of Iranian descent who had been living in Iran for several years, was arrested for buying a bottle of wine. In early March, she was accused of "illegal activities," including working without press credentials. She was later indicted for espionage and on Monday her case went to trial, which lasted a day; a verdict is expected within weeks.

Ms. Saberi's credentials as a journalist can hardly be in doubt. Among other venues, she has reported for the BBC, National Public Radio, Fox News and the Associated Press. But honest journalism in any closed society is always likely to resemble "espionage," at least in the eyes of a suspicious dictatorship.

Thus, in addition to Ms. Saberi, Iran has in recent years also jailed or detained several other U.S. citizens, including Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center; Parnaz Azima, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Ali Shakeri, a businessman and Iranian democracy activist; and Kian Tajbakhsh, a scholar working for George Soros's Open Society Institute. All were eventually released, but a former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, went missing in Iran in March 2007. Florida Senator Bill Nelson believes he is being held in an Iranian prison.

Mr. Levinson aside, all of the detained were dual U.S.-Iranian citizens. Also notable is the regime's suspicion of people like Ms. Esfandiari and Mr. Tajbakhsh, both of whom are better known as advocates of engagement with the regime. The regime's mentality only becomes intelligible in the context of seeing these scholars as advocates of political reform, which it views as a soft form of revolution. Among the accusations Iran leveled against Ms. Esfandiari was that the Wilson Center had "played key roles in the intrigues that have led to colorful revolutions in former Soviet republics in recent years."

For now, the important thing is to assure Ms. Saberi's safety and to work for her release. But it is worth noting that her arrest came days after President Obama was inaugurated, that the espionage charges were brought about the same time U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke shook hands with Iran's deputy foreign minister in the Hague (an encounter the Iranian foreign ministry officially denies, by the way), and that her "trial" coincides with news that the Administration will drop the longstanding U.S. demand that Iran cease its uranium enrichment as a precondition to direct talks.

Advocates of engagement often make the case that talks are the best way to foster better relations with Iran, and a better Iran altogether. Ms. Saberi's prosecution is as good an indication as any of the real nature of the regime, and of how the mullahs intend to reciprocate Mr. Obama's open handshake.

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