Iranians thought the nuclear deal would spark a new relationship with the West. But the supreme leader had other plans.
TEHRAN — It was, in the words of the Washington Post‘s executive editor, Martin Baron, “the grimmest” of milestones. On Dec. 3, Jason Rezaian, the newspaper’s Tehran correspondent, spent his 500th day in Evin Prison. He has now been detained in the Iranian capital two months longer than the 52 Americans who were held captive in the U.S. embassy by radical students who stormed the building in 1979, heralding a revolution and the end of Iran’s formal diplomatic relations with America.
For the moment at least, the prospect of Rezaian being freed appears based more on hope than solid facts. There is no sign Iran’s judiciary, in spite of last summer’s nuclear deal with the West, is softening its stance. If anything, it has been sending strong indications that it will refuse to be influenced by outside pressure. On Nov. 22, a judiciary spokesman in Tehran confirmed Rezaian had been convicted on charges of espionage and that his punishment included jail time. The length of his prison sentence was not disclosed; the offenses are thought to carry a maximum jail term of 20 years.
Having first warned of foreign “infiltration” in September, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took an even harsher line on Nov. 25. “There is a deceitful, crafty, skillful, fraudulent, and devilish enemy,” he told commanders of the Basij militia, a volunteer paramilitary force that takes orders from the country’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. “Who is that enemy? Arrogance. Of course today, the manifestation of arrogance is America.”
Khamenei went further, suggesting foreign investment and cultural influences would be the first way the West would try to bring down Iran’s Islamic system. “The most important means are two things: One is money and another is sexual attraction,” he said, warning that Iran’s “decision-makers and decision-builders” would be targeted by foreigners who want to change the beliefs and lifestyle of Iran’s people.
The comments are a world away from the pragmatism Khamenei showed in agreeing to the nuclear deal just months ago. While the supreme leader seemingly wanted a deal to end sanctions so that Iran could rejoin the global economy, his actions since suggest he doesn’t want to upset loyal elites who have been enriched in the past decade.
Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi wasted little time in following the supreme leader’s cue. Two days after Khamenei’s remarks, he claimed the United States had allocated $2 billion to depose the regime in Tehran. He explicitly placed Secretary of State John Kerry, the man with whom Iranian diplomats negotiated the nuclear deal, at the center of the conspiracy. “Some $200 million out of this sum was given personally to John Kerry,” he said. “Kerry has so far headed 34 projects to depose the Islamic regime.”
Both Rezaian’s imprisonment and Naqdi’s allegations signal not only a split within Iran’s political elite over its future relations with the United States, but also a deeper divide between its politicians and long-suffering people. While the religious power center of the Islamist establishment seems more vehement than ever about the need to protect the principles of the 1979 revolution, many of Iran’s technologically savvy young population shun the mosque and look outward to the West for its entertainment and inspiration.
As such, many are still leaving the country, convinced their hopes cannot be realized. “I am not free,” said Golnaz, a 33-year-old MBA graduate who recently moved to Canada to join a tech firm. Being friends with foreigners led to her being followed and her emails being hacked. She believes President Hassan Rouhani is trying his best, but, given the resistance he faces, it is not worth the risk of continuing to waste years of her career.
Rouhani and his top officials are caught in the middle between the people and the regime. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif initially said that he hoped Rezaian would be found not guilty but has since backed off that line when questioned about the reporter’s fate, probably sensing the backlash in an increasingly abrasive domestic climate. “The charges are serious and it’s a judiciary process,” Zarif said on Oct. 17, five days after the Washington Post first reported Rezaian had been convicted.
Rouhani, meanwhile, has openly raised the possibility of a prisoner swap, thought to involve at least three Americans, including Rezaian, for 19 Iranians convicted of sanctions offenses in the United States.
“If the Americans take the appropriate steps and set them free, certainly the right environment will be open and the right circumstances will be created for us to do everything within our power and our purview to bring about the swiftest freedom for the Americans held in Iran as well,” Rouhani said of the 19 jailed Iranians at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 27.
His remarks, however, were followed by a sharp reminder at how little control he apparently exerts over many of his country’s security institutions. Barely two weeks later, the intelligence section of the Revolutionary Guards arrested an Iranian-American businessman, Siamak Namazi, at the home of relatives in Tehran. Around the same time it emerged that a Lebanese IT expert with residency in the United States, Nizar Zakka, had disappeared after a conference in the Iranian capital a month earlier. Adding to Rouhani’s image of powerlessness, Zakka had been invited to Tehran by the government. State television, a fiefdom of hardline conservatives who operate under Khamenei’s authority, later said Zakka was arrested for spying.
Namazi, though long based in Dubai, is well known in Iran. His family’s Atieh Group had strong business connections with the government during the presidency of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, from 1989 to 1997. Namazi also spoke out in favor of better Iranian-American relations and, while serving as a partner of Atieh’s Tehran consultancy, had advised foreign companies on how to do business in the Islamic Republic.
The latest arrests are another embarrassment for Rouhani who has made a major play for foreign investment to rebuild Iran’s sanctions-ravaged economy. On Nov. 28, more than 100 foreign companies in the oil industry, headed by Shell, BP, Total, and Petronas, came to Tehran and heard Iran’s oil minister make a pitch for $30 billion of investment. There was undoubtedly interest among the visitors — but if the IRGC continue to arrest foreign businessmen, the enthusiasm could quickly disappear.
As harsh as Khamenei’s remarks appear, a more optimistic interpretation is that the government is willing to take symbolic actions that signal a staunch anti-American stance — while in reality having no practical effect. On Nov. 5, for instance, the Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Trade announced it would ban the import of all American consumer goods. A push “to boost national production” was necessary instead, officials said.
The announcement was greeted by laughter among many Iranians. “They are already here,” Sara Ahmadi, a 30-year-old business executive, said of foreign brands, pointing out that there are three Nike stores on one Tehran street alone. Those shops, stuffed with clothing and exercise equipment bearing the famous “swoosh” logo of the world’s largest sports manufacturer, feature genuine merchandise — not the Chinese knock-offs sold in street markets in the capital. Several of the massive malls that have opened in Tehran in recent years also have Nike stores.
But it’s instructive that those malls were all built by companies linked to the IRGC. Iran has had commerce in Western goods in recent years, but it has mostly been restricted to regime loyalists. The hiked prices of the Nike goods on sale in Tehran suggest they were smuggled in to the country, likely from Dubai or Turkey, with the cooperation, whether tacit or explicit, of the Iranian regime. The inflated prices for premium Western products also mean that only the country’s economic elite, which overlaps strongly with its political elite, can afford to buy them.
While such contradictions perturb Iran’s rapidly aging clerical leadership, they leave Rezaian and his fellow captives looking like bit part players in a much bigger puzzle.
The nuclear deal may well have made the diplomatic deals struck in the past considerably more difficult today. In 2010 and 2011, for instance, three American hikers detained by Iran were freed after Oman brokered their release. Then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had ordered them to be freed, only to be temporarily thwarted when the judiciary cancelled their release.
Iranian authorities, such as the IRGC and the judiciary, seem inclined to play the same game with Rouhani. Even talk of a prisoner exchange in the aftermath of the nuclear deal seems certain to provoke hard-liners dead set against any broader opening toward the United States.
“To the hard-liners that would look like another deal with America, and they don’t want to send that signal,” said a Western diplomat in Tehran.
The growing list of people languishing in prison, including dozens of Iranian nationals on political charges, continues to dent Rouhani’s “moderate” reputation ahead of parliamentary elections in February next year, seen as a crucial test of the president’s clout and his hopes of re-election in 2017. Though most Iranians see the judiciary rather than Rouhani as the culprit, he is a potential fall guy for the frustrated.
“The government has been backed into a corner and, whatever they do, Rouhani and his people face a problem in getting out of this mess that the judiciary has created,” the diplomat said.
But more hopeful Iranians say Rouhani retains public confidence and shouldn’t buckle in the face of provocations from the most anti-Western elements of the regime. If the hard-liners are routed in the February elections, Rouhani will have a stronger mandate to pursue his agenda.
“Ahmadinejad and his cronies are not coming back,” a veteran political analyst said. “The public mood has shifted and this is the hard-liners’ last hurrah. The worst thing Rouhani could do would be to kowtow to them. But for now at least, none of that helps Jason Rezaian.”
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