Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Engagement Trap: Provocation in Iran

Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen has been sentenced to eight years' imprisonment by Iran's regime for alleged espionage. She was a journalist working for the BBC and NPR.

We know two things for sure:

--She didn't spy on Iran because U.S. intelligence doesn't use journalists as agents and she'd be too obvious in her situation.

--She wasn't arrested for writing critical articles because both the BBC and NPR are very soft on the regime.

In cases like this, a government has a whole escalating scale of ways to protest such treatment, though the fact that she is an Iranian citizen does limit U.S. options. The Obama administration chose the lowest possible response, that of "dismay."

The Iranian government might well release her as a cheap way to "show" it wants to be friends with America, and then demand huge concessions in exchange. It is quite possible she will be forced to sign a "confession" to obtain her release, as happened in a previous case, which the regime will then use to "prove" it was correct and to stir up (if that's possible) even more anti-Americanism.

Possibly, the Obama administration will privately convey that it expects Iran to release her as a sign of good will. But it should be noted that this is the first, albeit small, test of the engagement strategy which carries with it real perils.

After all, every time the Iranian regime does something nasty, U.S. officials will warn that any response could wreck the chances for engagement.

And every time the regime makes the tiniest "concession," often creating a provocation in the first place in order to give it a chance to play nice, U.S. officials will say that it deserves something in response. President Obama will then "thank" the Islamist regime for its generosity in releasing an innocent woman who it has probably tortured.

That's the trap which engaging in a policy of trying to make friends with a radical dictatorship creates.

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