For President Obama, who already has shown his desire to talk to Iranian leaders, there is no foreign policy lesson more helpful than that of Roxana Saberi's case of arrest and release. It shows how the Iranian government functions and could teach the United States how to speak to hard-liners in Tehran. These lessons are:
1- Everything in Iran is impossible, and at the same time, anything is possible. One day you can be accused of espionage for no apparent reason, go to prison and three months later you could walk free, simple as that. On the contrary, you can go to prison under the same conditions and reason (like the case of Silva Harotonian who has been jailed since June 2008, simply, for working for an American NGO) and stay in prison for years. It all depends on many different factors. Uncertainty rules!
2- The Iranian political system is a modern structure, yet, it functions tribally. It has a modern constitution and a separation of powers. Everyone is due legal council and a fair and just trial. According to the Iranian constitution Saberi should never have been arrested, charged with espionage or been sentenced to 8 years in prison. In addition, according to the same constitution, the President has no authority to interfere in the judiciary's cases. However, it seems that president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bends this very constitution in situations that serve him politically.
3- Just in case there was a belief that the Iranian intelligence services were actually operating efficiently, the truth is out. Nothing more than the arrest and release process of Roxana Saberi's case, the way in which Iran's intelligence services and judiciary operates, reveals their incompetency, lack of intelligence, inefficiency and lacking rule of law. There is a secret about the Iranian society; it is that there are no secrets in Iran. Culturally, Iranians cannot keep secrets. So, there is no need to send spies to Iran; it's a wasted investment.
4- Things get done in Iran when there is a camera before President Ahmadinejad. Back channels never work with the Iranian government, at least with the current administration. But put Ahmadinejad on centerstage and expect unbelievable results; like the release of the 15 British naval personnel in 2007 that were captured in the Persian Gulf and released when Ahmadinejad stepped in.
5- The U.S. and Iran are in a love-hate relationship. Iranians love the U.S, no doubt about it. They'll do whatever they can to get the U.S. government to talk with them. President Obama did not respond to Ahmadinejad's courageous congratulatory letter he sent to him upon his election to presidency. The Obama administration also did not even speak to Iranians when Obama shook hand with Ahmadinejad's buddies Hugo Chavez, or Evo Morales when lifting part of the embargo against Cuba. Mr. President (Obama) you should respond to Ahmadinejad's letter. Just send a response that opens with a poem of Hafiz or Rumi, and see how it goes. When you do not pay attention to these gestures, somethings could go wrong in this world. That's why direct talks with Tehran are the best way to keep harm to a minimum.
6- Negotiating with the Iranian government is tough. Not because of the complexity of the issues involved, but because of the differences in the very style of the languages in which these two parties converse. The Persian language is like poetry. It's ambiguous, vague, and multi-directional, and more importantly, dramatic. Therefore, it is not always clear to distinguish what they mean from what they say. This combined with an obsessive sense of bargaining among Iranians makes any negotiations torturous for those non-Persian speakers. Because of this you can't anticipate anything; so it's best to just engage.
7- In Iran, unlike many Western countries, going to prison based on politically motivated charges is an honor and prisoners are treated as heroes in their society. Most of the distinguished and popular politicians, academics and human rights activists who have voices within the Iranian society have tasted prison. Even Iran's 2003 Noble Peace Prize Laureate spent 23 days in prison in 2000, all the while regularly receiving death threats.
8- The more the Obama administration engages with Iran, the more it puts pressure on the Iranian government to act responsibly. The more the light is shown on the Iranian officials heads, the less recklessly they will act. The Iranian government is sensitive to international embarrassment. Particularly when their actions glean nothing in return.
9- The Iranian government is smart on it's own terms. The Roxana Saberi case diverted the attentions of the international community from the increasing number of arrested activists and students in Iran. These individuals have faced much more unfair and unjust trials and have spent more time in prison than Saberi. Today there are at least 4 Iranians imprisoned because of their involvement with U.S. agencies or universities, like the Alaie Brothers and Silva Harotonian, all of whom have been held for 7 months to a year for nothing but cooperating with and or working for projects that were funded by the U.S. State Department. Yet, U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, never mentioned their names over the course of these past two months. So, "The Iranian gesture and the relief for Ms. Saberi and her family should not be overstated."
Ahmadinejad's role in the game of Roxana Saberi's case has not only forced President Obama to engage in talks with Iran, but it also forced his praise for their humanitarian gesture.
10- And the last lesson; Iran, regardless of its obsessive and narcissistic President, does act logically under certain conditions. Yes, they want to be in charge, yet they can and will compromise on some major issues. The language of threat and force has never worked with Iranians it is apparent and yes, Amadinejad's government has fostered bad PR for the Iranians through the reckless actions of the Iranian government damaging the image of their country. But remember, there is a presence of wise men among Iranian authorities that made the release of Roxana Saberi possible. They know that the more the U.S. engages itself with one of the most vibrant societies in the Middle East, the more the wise voices of Iran will be heard.
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