Just when you think the roiling relations between the U.S. and Iran might be quieting down — they heat up again. In the last week, while two U.S. aircraft-carrier strike forces continued to patrol the Persian Gulf (after “exercises” that took the carriers directly through the Straits of Hormuz and off Iran’s coast), American accusations against the Iranians have only escalated. Just as, last month, American officials continued to insist that the Iranians were supplying sophisticated roadside bombs to Iraqi insurgents (who are the enemies of their Shiite allies), so, this week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates “tied Iran’s government to large shipments of weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and said Wednesday such quantities were unlikely without Tehran’s knowledge.”
Similarly, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told CNN: “[T]here’s irrefutable evidence the Iranians are now doing this.” (Forget the fact that the Iranians have long been fierce enemies of the Taliban and that the Afghan Defense Minister dismissed such claims out of hand.) In Baghdad, General David Petraeus, head of President Bush’s surge operation, also lashed out at the Iranians. (“The Iranian influence has been very, very harmful to Iraq. There is absolutely no question that Iranians are funding, arming, training, and even in some cases, directing the activities of extremists and militia elements.”) And three Iranian diplomats were briefly detained and questioned by the U.S. military.
For the Bush administration, it seems, Iran has become the explanation for everything that has gone wrong (even, last week, in the Gaza Strip), the equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire reduced to a regional scale. According to Brian Ross of ABC News, the CIA has already helped launch secret terror operations inside Iran and President Bush has signed a “non-lethal presidential finding” to “mount a covert ‘black’ operation to destabilize the Iranian government.” In addition, the administration has been waging a complex, partly covert, “financial war” against Iran. (“The aim is to squeeze the Iranian economy so that the nation’s leaders will decide the price of developing nuclear weapons is just too high.”); and it also has a $75 million fund at its command to “promote democracy” or a “velvet revolution” in that country.
In the meantime, Helene Cooper and David Sanger of the New York Times report that a struggle continues within the administration about whether or not to launch an air attack against Iranian nuclear facilities before President Bush leaves office. Vice President Cheney and his supporters, as well as beleaguered neocons now increasingly outside the government, continue to push for this, organizing conferences around the world — as reporter Jim Lobe wrote recently at his Lobelog blog — to brand Iran “Public Enemy Number One” and call for the Bush administration to strike now. (“Mr. President, the truth is that one of the most evil regimes in the world as we know it is on the verge of acquiring the most powerful weapon in the world as we know it.”)
In the meantime, the Iranians, who previously captured (and then, with much fanfare, released) a boatload of British sailors, now seem to be rounding up and imprisoning any American citizen — in this case, four Iranian-American scholars and activists with dual nationality — who can be found in Iran and, in the last week, angrily linked their fate to that of five Iranian consular officials taken by American soldiers in a raid in Iraqi Kurdistan this January and held uncharged and largely incommunicado ever since. (“‘We will make the U.S. regret its repulsive illegal action against Iran’s consulate and its officials,’ state-run Mehr News quoted Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki as saying.”) All this is happening in the context of a massive crackdown on intellectuals, activists, union leaders, and academics, a grim, fundamentalist “cultural revolution” — aimed in part at the Bush administration’s planning for that “Velvet revolution.” According to the Washington Post’s Robin Wright, the result has been:
“arrests, interrogations, intimidation and harassment of thousands of Iranians as well as purges of academics and new censorship codes for the media. Hundreds of Iranians have been detained and interrogated, including a top Iranian official…. The move has quashed or forced underground many independent civil society groups, silenced protests over issues including women’s rights and pay rates, quelled academic debate, and sparked society-wide fear about several aspects of daily life.”
In addition, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a key military advisor to Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that, within an hour of an American attack on the country’s nuclear facilities, the Iranians would be lobbing “dozens, maybe hundreds” of missiles into the Gulf states that host U.S. bases (and enormous oil reserves). “The U.S.,” he said ominously, “will be as surprised with Iranian military capabilities as the Israelis were with Hezbollah in last summer’s war in Lebanon.”
And this list only scratches the surface of the ever-widening set of disputes and face-offs between the two ill-matched powers. This dangerous dance of fundamentalist regimes remains one of the more potentially explosive situations on the planet, whether either side actually plans to attack the other or not. It involves heavily armed forces in at least three countries (and at sea), endless possible flashpoints, and riven administrations, shakily governing two hostile lands involved in ongoing conflicts in two other lands, Afghanistan and Iraq, themselves in bloody chaos. If that isn’t a formula for disaster, what is?
In the midst of this, at the moment, are those four American citizens, under arrest in Iran and, tragically, pawns in a far larger struggle. Karen J. Greenberg, co-editor of The Torture Papers, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, and Tomdispatch regular explores the particular dilemma the Bush administration finds itself in when demanding their release — one that gives the old phrase, “hoist by one’s own petard,” new meaning. Tom
The Plight of American Prisoners in Iran
By Karen J. Greenberg
For Americans, it should be startling to see the word “detainee” suddenly appear in a different country, on a different continent, and referring not to alleged jihadi terrorists but to a group of Americans. After all, “detainee” is the word the Bush administration coined to deal with suspected terrorist captives who, they argued, should be subjected to extra-legal treatment as part of the Global War on Terrorism. Now, that terminology is, as critics long predicted might happen, being turned against American citizens. I am referring to the current detention of Americans in Iran.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government currently holds in custody Haleh Esfandiari, Kian Tajbakhsh, Parnaz Azima, and Ali Shakeri, Iranian-American scholars and activists accused of being spies and/or employees of the U.S. government intent on fomenting dissent and disruption within Iran. (A fifth American, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent engaged in business of an unknown nature in Iran, disappeared on March 8th.) The four are apparently behind bars at Tehran’s Evin prison, notorious for its special wing for political prisoners and, among human rights activists, for being the location of the lethal beating of a Canadian-Iranian journalist in 2003. Evin and other Iranian prisons are cited by Human Rights Watch for frequent torture and mistreatment of arrested Iranian dissidents.
The Iranian government has said that the detained are threats to “national security,” despite protests that they were visiting their families and/or engaged in purely peaceful work. The U.S. Government has been denied information on their treatment and the possible accusations against them.
The Bush administration is naturally incensed over the incarceration of these Americans. As well its officials should be. “It is absolutely incredible to us,” said State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey, “to think that there could be any possible doubt in the Iranians’ minds that these individuals are there simply to conduct normal, basic human interactions, including family visits.” President Bush himself has insisted that “their presence in Iran poses no threat.” The Associated Press reported that Bush was also “‘disturbed’ by the fact that Iran has still not provided any information about the welfare and whereabouts” of the missing Levinson and has condemned Iran for being “defiant as to the demands of the free world.”
President Bush is correct. These detentions represent a travesty of justice and a violation of the rules of conduct among nations. It is horrifying that these Americans, who are engaged in foreign affairs at non-governmental and scholarly levels, are held, seemingly without recourse to law and certainly without respect for international rights.
But there is another disturbing reality here which must be faced. In numerous ways, the U.S. has robbed itself of the right to proclaim the very principles by which these prisoners should be defended. Though President Bush and his spokespersons may not see it, their past policies have set a trap for the government — and for Americans generally. More than five years after setting up Guantanamo, and then implementing national security strategies based upon torture, secret prisons, and illegal detentions, the Bush administration has managed to obliterate the moral high ground they now seek to claim in relation to Iran.
The new American prisoners in Iran belong, in part, to a broader diplomatic game of chicken now raging between the two governments that began with the U.S. capture in January of five Iranian officials in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, prisoners the U.S. continues to hold somewhere in Iraq without charges. The more telling context, however, is that of Bush administration detention policy from the moment in 2002 when it set up its prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, offshore from American justice, to this day.
At the inception of the war on terror, the Bush administration broke the very rules it now accuses the Iranians of breaking. As part of a high-stakes stand-off with countries associated with Islamic fundamentalism, it was the Bush administration that first collected individuals, some guilty of crimes, some simply swept up in the chaos — initially off the Afghan battlefield and then off the global one. Often, they did so with very little knowledge of, or care about, whom they were rounding up. They incarcerated these prisoners for long periods without releasing their names or, often, their whereabouts; they refused to give them the established rights of prisoners of war; they defied the united protests of allies around the world; and they sought to justify this whole policy with the term “detainee.”
In fact, uncomfortable parallels between notorious Guantanamo and grim Evin abound. At Gitmo, as at Evin, information about “detainees” has often been difficult to obtain. At Gitmo, as at Evin, the government has been a champion of denying prisoners access to lawyers. At Gitmo, as at Evin, “national security” concerns invariably trump the need to produce evidence or to indict prisoners. At Gitmo, as at Evin, there have been repeated reports of coercive interrogations and the mistreatment, as well as torture, of prisoners.
At Gitmo, as at Evin, authorities deny such accusations despite obvious evidence to the contrary. One year ago, journalists were invited to assess conditions at Evin for themselves. Allowed to see only the women’s section of the prison, they were shown the medical facilities and told about the excellent food the prison serves — self-evident proof of the fair treatment of prisoners. So, too, media tours of Guantanamo stress the quality of the food and the superior medical treatment available in the prison complex. At Gitmo, suicide is an ever-present threat. At Evin, according to a BBC journalist on the tour, authorities boasted of only one suicide in six months — as if that were a record to be proud of. Iranian authorities refused to discuss “political prisoners” because “Iran does not recognize this as a category.” So, too, the most suitable term for those held at Gitmo, “prisoner of war,” has been forbidden on the premises.
In all these ways, but especially by wielding their chosen term “detainee,” and by defining “detainees” as essentially without rights as Americans would understand them, the Bush administration has stripped the United States of its traditional standing as the foremost champion of human rights. It has relinquished its bona fides to express the kind of moral outrage that could indeed buttress international support and legal due process for Americans who have been illegally imprisoned. Even more surprising, when administration officials, including the President, denounce the Iranians, they are tin-eared. The hypocrisy in their own words just doesn’t register. When George W. Bush shows his outrage at the imprisonment of Americans without cause, evidence, or due process, it’s as if he has no sense that, in much of the rest of the world, these are exactly the charges that ring out against his own administration.
Essentially, a frantic, fear-filled, information-impoverished, but stubbornly defended policy has finally blown back on America’s own citizens. This was something former Secretary of State Colin Powell — who last weekend called for the closing of Guantanamo — predicted in January 2002 might well happen to captive U.S. troops, if not citizens, if the United States refused to classify its detainees in the Global War on Terror as prisoners of war.
Whether or not President Bush hears the hypocrisy in his own pleas, the fact remains that his detainee policy has deprived the government of a means of defending its own citizens on the international stage. It has, in effect, amputated the very legs it would need to stand on to protest against the Iranian detentions.
Try as they might, Bush administration officials can only cry foul by calling attention to their own systematic violations of justice and the law. In their mouths, the appeal to fundamental rights rings hollow indeed, depriving Americans of the protections afforded by once-accepted standards of decency and justice. Here, as on so many other fronts, the President’s fierce “national security” policy has created an ever more insecure future for this country.
Karen J. Greenberg, the Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, the co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, and the editor of The Torture Debate in America. She recently took a Pentagon-guided tour of Guantanamo.
Copyright 2007 Karen J. Greenberg