Paying the price for the nuclear deal

Iran’s parliament approved the nuclear deal today, an outcome that was really never in doubt despite whatever kvetching you may have heard coming out of Tehran in recent weeks.

Jason Rezaian: victim of the nuclear talks’ success

That’s the good news. The very bad news is that Iranian media announced yesterday that imprisoned Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was convicted of…well, whatever it is the Iranians have charged him with. “Espionage,” I guess. Nobody really knows what the charges against Rezaian were and nobody knows the official nature of the verdict, because the Iranian government won’t talk about it, and the reason they won’t talk about it is that the charges are almost certainly complete bullshit and the “conviction” very likely rests on a coerced confession. The procedure under which Rezaian was tried and convicted appear by all outward appearances to have violated even Iran’s own laws (which don’t exactly privilege the rights of the accused to begin with), to say nothing of international standards regarding fair trials and basic human rights.

Rezaian allegedly collected information regarding Iran’s nuclear program and individuals and corporations that are involved in it, something that sounds suspiciously like “journalism,” but again this is Iran we’re dealing with. The real purpose of railroading Rezaian like this is to send a message, from the conservative Iranian judiciary, to two audiences (apart from the obvious message it sends to foreign journalists, that the Iranian judiciary may arrest and convict you simply for doing your job): Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the United States. To Rouhani, and his reform-minded supporters, the message is simple: don’t let your success on the nuclear deal go to your head.

“I think it is all part of an effort to send a message to Rouhani that the nuclear deal is a one-off and that he will not be able to satisfy the demands of his supporters for a more liberal social order,” said Barbara Slavin, a fellow with the Atlantic Council who makes frequent trips to Iran. “In a way, Jason is a victim of the success of the nuclear talks.”

The bottom line, as Ali Gharib writes at LobeLog, is that Rezaian’s conviction is symptomatic of an unfortunate truth: even if the nuclear deal put Iran on a path toward internal reform and re-engagement with the international community, its human rights situation will probably get worse as conservatives do whatever they can to stop things from changing.

As far as political and civic freedoms go, this is a reality that too few have grappled with: the bifurcation of Iranian politics between reform-minded moderates and hardliners has always suggested that the rights situation in Iran will get worse before it gets better. Rouhani won an unfree but not pre-determined election with a mandate to strike a deal, but his hardline opponents retained their hold on various halls of powers, chief among them security and judiciary postings. Those who oppose dealing with the West on just about any score will use any means at their disposal to try to hit the brakes on engagement. But with Khamenei supporting the nuclear deal for the moment at least, the hardliners are relegated to tapping the brakes more than slamming them. Jason seems clearly to be caught up in this power struggle. As [the Wilson Center’s Haleh] Esfandiari put it, “It is hard not to conclude that Mr. Rezaian is an unfortunate pawn by which Iran’s intelligence ministry and judiciary seek to achieve other ends.” Others will sadly follow. Not all the cases will receive the same attention as Jason’s, but provocations from elements of the establishment trying to assert—or re-assert—their vision of the Islamic Republic will continue.

To the United States, the message is similar but a little more complicated: back off, but also let’s talk about a prisoner swap. Obviously Iranian conservatives resent what they see as Western meddling into their internal affairs, whether it comes from America or from the UN. Rezaian’s conviction is a message to the West that, despite the nuclear deal, Iran isn’t bending the principles of the Islamic Revolution to suit anybody else’s wishes. At the same time, there’s already been talk that the Iranians would be open to swapping Rezaian (and maybe/presumably the other US citizens being held by Iran) for people who are, according to Tehran, either imprisoned in or pursued by the United States for sanctions violations. Nobody likes the idea of releasing people who may have legitimately committed crimes, but it may be the only way to finally get these people released.

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