China Seizing the Iran Moment

Following the brief tumult surrounding Trump’s decision to recertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal last week, Iran has reassumed its place on the back burner of U.S. policy concerns.

That Iran is only of occasional interest to this administration is significant, because a lot is happening there while everyone’s attention is focused elsewhere. See, for example, New York Times Iran Tehran bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink’s latest on China’s growing influence in Iran:

In addition to factory construction and entrepreneurship, China is investing heavily in Iranian infrastructure, including modernization of Iranian rail lines, deepwater port construction, and road revitalization. The rail projects are especially significant and involve standardizing track gauges to match those used in China (and if you don’t think track gauges matter, go take a look back at the history of Hitler’s failed invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II). Ultimately, Iran lies at the center of a Chinese plan to build one long supply line running from China all the way to Europe: a new Silk Road.

This is just further evidence that the United States is missing its Iran moment. While Trump and his cabinet members blabber about regime change and search for an excuse to scuttle the nuclear deal, China is busy filling the economic void left by the United States’s retreat from re-engagement. But there may be more at stake here. A lot more. If China’s plan to create unified supply lines running across Asia and the Middle East into Europe succeeds, the United States’s stands to lose much more than just the opportunity to invest in Iran.

Non-Crime and Punishment

Like many students working on Iran, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the recent announcement that Iran had convicted an American PhD student of espionage. The student, Xiyue Wang of Princeton University (my alma mater), was arrested in Iran last August but his case only became known publicly following the announcement of his conviction by the Iranian judiciary this past weekend. Wang has been sentenced to ten years.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Wang is no spy. His research in Iran apparently consisted of digitally archiving some 4500 documents, presumably concerning the Qajar period (late 18th to early 20th century Iran), his intended thesis topic. In typically creative Iranian linguistic fashion, the judiciary claimed that Wang had “spider web” connections to American and British intelligence services, but offered no specifics or evidence. Even without all the facts, it seems pretty obvious that this was a bogus charge created by conservative political factions for the purpose of undermining Rouhani rather than a response to an actual national security threat.

Whenever an American gets detained or imprisoned in Iran, there are immediate comparisons to other Americans who have been detained there. Most will recall the case of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who along with his wife was jailed in Iran on specious espionage charges for a year and a half from July 2014 to January 2016. Other Americans, including Baquer and Siamak Namazi, remain in Iranian custody.

What sets Wang’s case apart from those of most Americans detained in Iran is that he is not an Iranian-American dual citizen. Iran does not recognize dual nationality, which officials claim gives them the authority to arrest and detain Iranian-Americans who typically travel to Iran on their Iranian passports. This allows Iran to deny them access to basic consular and diplomatic services while in custody. Even without an American diplomatic presence in Iran, this legal construct gives Iran total authority over their cases and makes negotiating their release considerably more difficult.

A better parallel for Wang’s situation might be the case of Matthew Trevithick, an American student who was detained in Iran for 41 days from December 2015 to January 2016. I find Trevithick’s case interesting because his life experience prior to his detention in some ways mirrors my own. After studying international relations, he set out to explore several less understood parts of the world, including parts the Arab world and Afghanistan. Like me, he eventually became interested in Iran and visited the country on a tourist visa in 2010. Wanting to learn more, he applied to study Persian at the Dehkhoda Insitute in Tehran, one of the most well-known Persian language institutes in the country.

I, too, applied to study at Dehkhoda, but unlike Trevithick, my 2014 application received no response. After making some inquiries, I was told that it was virtually impossible for American students traveling on American passports to study in Iran, language or otherwise. Even after the landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 in 2015 — a week after which Trevithick says his visa came through — people I spoke to about studying in Iran were still telling me that it was not safe for Americans to do anything there outside of conventional tourism.

In an odd way, I’m somewhat jealous that they able to succeed where I failed in getting a visa. Obviously, I’m not envious of what subsequently happened to them, and I am no doubt relieved that in my more naive days I was never given the opportunity to put myself in that situation. Still, I’ve never found a good reason why Trevithick — or now, Wang — were able to acquire visas that have generally been unobtainable for the vast majority of American passport holders.

Once in Iran, both made some incredibly bad decisions that lead me to question how much they actually knew about the country they were there to study. If you know, for example, that the authorities are prone to accusing Americans of espionage for engaging in even the most basic activities of student life, perhaps it’s not a good idea to go there as a student. This is especially true for those who have connections to American or British institutions, which adds an additional layer of suspicion to even the most mundane activities.

This paranoid style of Iranian politics and internal security is nothing new. Iranian society has long been susceptible to a good conspiracy theory, dating back to before the Islamic Revolution. Anyone who has read the famous Iranian novel My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkad will note the way in which the conspiratorial pronouncements by the eponymous character about British infiltration resemble those of the Supreme Leader when discussing the United States and the West. Unjustified detentions and kangaroo court convictions based on specious allegations of spying have been chronicled by other writers for decades. In one such example, Roger Cooper, a British man who was held in Iran for over five years from 1985-1991, recalled in his autobiography, Death Plus Ten Years, the way the guards at Evin prison talked about Britain and the United States:

As I began to have conversations with some of them I heard extraordinary stories about England, clearly black propaganda spread by fanatics. Apart from AIDS being endemic, our drinking water was recycled sewage, and homosexual marriages were commonplace. The Queen, or possibly Mrs Thatcher (the two were sometimes confused), decided who the next President of the United States would be, because Americans were very weak in politics and the British were extremely clever.

I don’t mean to victim-blame here. Again, neither Trevithick nor Wang did anything explicitly wrong as students. I’m just surprised that neither of them — nor, for that matter, their friends or advisors  — seemed to consider what their presence in the country might look like to the Iranian authorities, or what the political climate in and outside of Iran might mean for their ability to study there. This was a costly oversight since it is ultimately those perceptions that matter more than reality.

In Iran, the truth won’t always set you free.

[UPDATE 7/21]

I forgot to mention in my post that Trevithick actually penned a Washington Post op-ed today in which he essentially says the same thing about keeping students out of Iran, although he blames the universities that are “recklessly” sending them there rather than the students themselves. It’s strange advice coming from someone who presumably obtained his visa and traveled there independently of any academic institution. But I guess a there was some lesson learned here. Better late than never, I suppose.

Iran, 9/11, and the New York Times

Quick Programming Note: I’m not going to be posting as much in the coming weeks. I have a couple of big projects I’m working on which, along with other commitments, leaves little time for the blog. I’ll still update when I find something of note, but unless the U.S. starts a war with Iran (not impossible!) it will be a little less frequent for a while. 

Here’s something interesting: The New York Times has finally corrected its articles stating that Iran sponsored 9/11.  It took long enough. I actually first noticed it about a week ago in a June 29 article about the Manhattan skyscraper that was due to be seized by U.S. authorities due to its owners’ links to Iran. Here’s the original copy:

The government has agreed to distribute proceeds from the building’s sale, which could bring as much as $1 billion, to the families of  Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks, including the Sept. 11 attacks.

While it’s true that the federal court that made the ruling regarding compensation of victims of terror attacks included Iran as among those responsible for 9/11, there is absolutely no evidence to support that claim. The way the NYT wrote it plainly asserts it as an established fact. It would be hard to blame the average reader for taking it as such. The Times is, after all, the paper of record.

Here’s the correction they issued on July 6, 2017:

An article on Friday about a jury’s decision to let the federal government seize a Midtown Manhattan skyscraper it says is controlled by Iran overstated Iran’s responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks. While a federal court found that Iran had some culpability for the Sept. 11 attacks as a state sponsor of terrorism, it has not been established that Iran sponsored the attacks, which were planned and executed by Al Qaeda. (A similar error occurred in a Sept. 25, 2013 article in The Times.)

It’s that last sentence that really gets me. I wasn’t even aware that this same mistake went as far back as FOUR YEARS AGO. I hadn’t even applied for my PhD program yet. Think of how may people may have seen that story or cited it as an indication of Iranian involvement in the September 11 attacks in the time since then.

Just to be clear, I don’t point this out as part of some argument against the BIASED LAMESTREAM MEDIA or whatever. I still think that the NYT is an excellent paper, but it is this kind of sloppy reporting that fans the flames of those who wish to discredit the media (or objective truth in general). With the possibility of a U.S.-Iran conflict becoming ever more real, these kinds of mistakes are unforgivable.

(h/t FAIR)

[Update — 7/8/17]

A lawyer friend has pointed out to me that there are two ways to understand the NY Times mistake. The first is as a news report of a misguided judicial decision. To the unquestioning observer, the court appears to be reasoning that since the 9/11 attacks were acts of terrorism, and Iran finances terrorists, Iran bears some responsibility for the injuries suffered on 9/11. This may be syllogistically logical, but charging Iran with a causal contribution is factually very attenuated.

The other way of looking at Iran’s relationship to 9/11 is to accept the linkage by those who believe that every U.S. enemy must have had a hand in the attacks. This requires ignorance of reality and context. If Al Qaeda terrorists, an organization of mostly Sunni Muslims, brought down the airplanes, and Iran’s leadership and population are over 90% Shia Muslims (who are considered heretics by extremist Sunnis), it is problematic to assert that Iran colluded with Al Qaeda in planning the 9/11 hijackings. This does not mean that Iran is not a sponsor of terrorist activity, but it suggests that it is misleading and, possibly dangerous, to base news analyses and policy justifications on Iranian responsibility for 9/11.

In either case, that a legal decision contradicts or ignores facts  may be evidence of Shakespeare’s conclusion that “The law is an Ass.”