Arrest of Iranian-Americans: Espionage or Bargaining Chips?

Although not surprised, I am outraged by the serial arrests of Iranian-American scholars in Tehran. They have all been officially or unofficially charged as agents of a "soft collapse" mission led by the US. Security forces have also called them "Velvet Agents", in reference to the "velvet revolutions" which occurred in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004.

The irony is that, to date, Iran's Intelligence Service or Judiciary forces have not been able to drum up one bit of evidence or prove any of the alleged espionage charges against these scholars, intellectuals, journalists and lawyers, even in a single case!

Early this week, Abdolfattah Soltani, a very prominent lawyer, who collaborates with Nobel Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, said that he has finally been acquitted of espionage-related charges on appeal; he spent 219 days in jail in 2005-2006. He was given a five-year sentence in March 2006 for leaking documents on Iran's controversial nuclear program, and for spreading propaganda against the regime.

The Islamic regime has become extremely skeptical about the intentions of US, as it perceives they are following a covert path of "regime change policy". They have targeted journalists and intellectuals, and most recently the Iranian-American top scholars, to build a case for their conspiracy theory. The last two scholars who have fallen victims of these ill-fated measures are Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center (WWC), and Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh, sociology scientist and consultant to the Open Society Institute.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that Iran's government is willing to stop this game, and as a matter of fact appears to have raised the ante, fueled by reports of the "US covert plan" against Iran, the allocation of money to support Iranian civil society, and the entrance of nine US warships carrying 17,000 personnel into the Persian Gulf last Wednesday.

It is not difficult to read the hardliner's psyche: they know that the Iranian-American community can put pressure on the administration to change some of its policies--policies that might bring harm to innocent people by the Islamic Regime. Many ex-pat's have criticized the Bush administration in its policies, and have asked them to stop giving excuses to the Iranian government to suppress its people.

It is also important to remember that the five alleged Iranian diplomats seized by American forces in Iraq in January of 2007, are still captive, and the US has not shown any sign of releasing them. Perhaps the serial arrests are intended as a bargaining chip. The Islamic regime might have been counting on the release of its diplomats in Iraq in response to its release of 15 British sailors who were taken captive for two weeks in April. And despite the fact that both countries sat behind a negotiation table on Iraq just days ago, there is no indication of release of captives on either side.

At a time when Iran is facing further UNSC sanctions over its nuclear program, a resolution that is bound to put even more economic and political pressure on Tehran, the hardliners are trying to gather popular opinion behind them. They need to save face by depicting the US in a vulnerable and weakened position. Catching US in a comprised position in the War on Iraq, engulfed in combating reappearance of 'Talibanism' in Afghanistan, and facing a new wave of Al-Qaeda style conflicts in Lebanon, Iran's government is seizing the moment to neutralize the administration's pressure on Iran by any means. Apparently, the serial arrests of the Iranian-Americans, a well-covered phenomenon by the mainstream media, are being used for further provocation.

With unclear motives on both sides, and minimal interaction, it is unclear how this crisis could be resolved, but I have no doubt that the Iranian government has chosen to pursue aggressive policies in domestic and international affairs in any effort to thwart its critics from the inside and its so-called enemies on the outside.

It appears that both the conservative administration in Washington and Tehran resort to similar tactics: the best defense is to attack -- and bluff by going 'all in'. As long as they pursue harsh rhetoric toward each other, resort to shows of muscle, and engage in policies based on erroneous facts, there is little chance for peace or true US-Iran relations.