What Iran’s Rouhani Doesn’t Want to Talk About
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was in New York this week trying to rescue the Iran nuclear deal that the U.S. abandoned last spring. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Rouhani contrasted himself with U.S. President Donald Trump: Iran, he said, abides by its commitments.
That’s not quite how Hua Qu sees it. Since the summer of 2016, she has written five unanswered letters to Iran’s mission at the UN, pleading the case of her husband, Xiyue Wang. Wang, a doctoral student in history at Princeton, was arrested in August of that year while in Iran doing research in the national archives. He had been scheduled to return to New Jersey in a matter of days.
Instead, he is in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Like most foreigners arrested in Iran, he was charged with espionage. And, as in almost all of those cases, the charges are trumped up.
It’s not surprising that Rouhani would rather talk about the nuclear deal than Iran’s hostage-taking. Slightly more surprising, perhaps, is that the Europeans would rather talk about the nuclear deal, too. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif this week announced their plans for a new financial instrument that in theory would allow European companies doing business with Iran to evade U.S. sanctions. Although most European businesses have already announced plans to divest from Iran, the EU wants to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive.
On the one hand, this strategy is understandable. If Iran decides to go back to stockpiling enriched uranium, or kicks out international inspectors, an already volatile Middle East could boil over. On the other hand, by making the nuclear deal the main topic of discussion, the Europeans are giving Iran tacit permission to continue funneling weapons to militias and terror groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. The message is clear if indirect: Don’t worry about releasing political prisoners, please just don’t enrich more uranium.
When I talked to Qu this week, she was painfully aware of this dynamic. “My husband has been used as a pawn for negotiations with the Europeans,” she said. “There are dozens of cases like this. They should not tear a family apart for their political interests.”
Yahya Basha, a Syrian-American medical doctor, would also like the world to focus more on Iran’s other malign behavior. In an open letter to Rouhani this week, his organization, Americans for a Free Syria, said that Iran’s policies in Syria were responsible for transforming “that which started as a simple protest into a bloody, radicalized and regional war.” He pleaded with Iran’s president to “listen to your people: stop your military intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.”
U.S. policy is to punish Iran economically for its regional aggression. Trump himself has said he is open to talks with Iran’s leaders, but that does not look likely.And while European leaders will make boilerplate condemnations of Iran’s interference in Syria and its detention of dual nationals, they have focused most of their diplomatic energies on the nuclear deal. That leaves it to private citizens like Basha and Qu to appeal to the humanity and compassion of Iran’s president.
The sad truth is that it almost certainly won’t work. Even if he wanted to free Wang or other political prisoners, for all intents and purposes Rouhani serves at the pleasure of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And Khamenei, by all accounts, remains the same rigid fanatic he has always been.
What will it take to rescue Iran’s political prisoners? The same thing it will take to end Iran’s support for Syria’s dictator: a wholesale change in Iranian behavior. And the best chance for that happening is for Iranians to change their regime.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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