FPI Bulletin: Tehran's Show Trial for an American Hostage

May 27, 2015

Iran’s trial of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian demonstrates that Tehran expects no meaningful consequences from America for its actions. On the contrary, Washington’s desperate push for a nuclear deal, along with its refusal to challenge Iran’s regional aggression, has left Tehran more confident than ever that it can provoke the White House with impunity. Under these circumstances, Tehran’s belligerence will continue unless President Obama imposes consequences on Iran for its behavior rather than rewards it with further concessions.
On July 22, 2014, Iran arrested Jason Rezaian, a dual citizen of the United States and Iran, without charges and incarcerated him in Evin Prison — a facility notorious for the torture, rape and execution of political dissidents. While in prison, the Post reported, Rezaian “has been subjected to harsh interrogations and suffered through long stretches of solitary confinement.” After nine months, Iran allowed him to see a lawyer for one hour, and finally disclosed the four ambiguous charges against Rezaian: “collaborating with hostile governments”; “propaganda against the establishment”; gathering information “about internal and foreign policy” to provide to “individuals with hostile intent”; and espionage. For these alleged crimes, Rezaian faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
Rezaian is not the only American prisoner of Tehran. In September 2012, Tehran incarcerated Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini at Evin Prison, and later transferred him to the Rajai Shahr Prison, another facility known for its brutality against prisoners. In January 2013, Tehran sentenced Abedini to eight years in prison for engaging in Christian outreach. In April 2015, Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh, wrote on Facebook that his guards were “threatening Saeed that he will never go free and additional charges (and years) will be added to his sentence (which they have done to other Christians and fellow inmates). They continually threaten Saeed that the only key to his freedom is denying Christ and returning to Islam.”
In August 2011, Tehran jailed Iranian-American Amir Hekmati, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, at Evin Prison, and in January 2012 sentenced him to death for allegedly committing espionage. Upon appeal, Iran’s court system overturned the penalty, instead sentencing Hekmati to 10 years in prison on the charge of “cooperating with hostile governments.” In April 2015, Hekmati’s sister, Sarah, described the regime’s latest method of torture against Amir. “He was drugged with lithium for a long period of time,” she said, “and then forcibly it was removed so that he would have to endure painful withdrawal symptoms and then he was whipped on his feet.”
In 2007, Robert Levinson, a former employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), went missing in Iran’s Kish Island. Eight years later, Iran continues its refusal to assist the United States in locating him.
To date, the Obama administration’s response to the imprisonment and torture of its own citizens has proven largely rhetorical. In an April 2015 speech, President Obama pledged “that we will not rest until we bring [Rezaian] home to his family, safe and sound.” In March 2015, he issued a statement calling on Iran to “immediately release” the prisoners. In January 2015, he met with the family of Saeed Abedini and vowed that his release constitutes a top priority. In December 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that he has “repeatedly raised Jason’s case, and the other cases of detained or missing U.S. citizens, directly with Iranian officials.”
In May 2015, by a vote of 90-0, the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution stating that the United States government “should undertake every effort using every diplomatic tool at its disposal to secure their immediate release.” Yet the failure in the administration’s current strategy stems primarily from a misunderstanding of the broader strategic context. By delinking negotiations on the nuclear program from all other acts of Iranian aggression, the White House has effectively told Tehran that it can imprison and torture Americans without consequence. As State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said last month, “They really are separate issues.”
Ironically, Iran’s behavior suggests that it sees the two issues as very much related. As the Washington Post editorialized last week, “Placing Mr. Rezaian on trial just 35 days before the deadline for completing the accord looks like yet another attempt at intimidation — one that relies on the blatant abuse of the human rights of an American journalist.” Put differently, Iran appears to believe it can extract further concessions from the United States by victimizing American prisoners.
U.S. policy should reverse this dynamic by demonstrating American strength. It should emphasize, through the credible threat of economic pressure and military force, that Tehran faces devastating consequences if it refuses to dismantle its nuclear program and halt its regional aggression. American policy should leave Iran reluctant to provoke the U.S. in any way — for example, by torturing American prisoners — lest the United States walk away from the negotiating table and eliminate prospects for meaningful sanctions relief, Iran’s core objective in the talks.

In December 2013 testimony before Congress, Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of Saeed Abedini, emphasized the importance of American strength in dealing with Iran. “Iran is curious: How strong is our American president?” said Mrs. Abedini, who will testify before Congress again next week. “How serious is he about our American security? Would he act with firm resolve to protect and defend?” Yet the trial of Jason Rezaian suggests that Iran’s curiosity has given way to certainty — in the weakness of American resolve and in the belief that Tehran can abuse Americans with impunity.

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