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Iran: Motive In Release Of Iranian-Americans Remains Unclear

PRAGUE, September 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The decision-making process within the Iranian government is obscure and officials do not officially inform the public about the reasons behind their decisions.   The arrest of the four Iranian-Americans, their detention, and now the release of two of them is a good example of the murkiness of politics in Iran.
Authorities have not said what led them to suddenly release Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Institute.  Esfandiari was charged with serious security crimes, including being involved in what authorities have described as a U.S. plot aimed at destabilizing the Iranian regime.  Officials have only said that the investigation into her case was completed and suggested she would have to return to Iran for the trial.  Azima has also been told that her case remains open and that there will be a court session at an unspecified date.  But there is doubt as to whether there will be an actual trial in their cases or in those of the other Iranian-Americans who have been charged by Tehran.

Bill Samii, an Iran analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis and former RFE/RL regional analyst, believes that the Iranian government realized it got "maximum value" out of the detentions and came to the conclusion that there is no benefit in keeping them.  "The message has been sent to other Iranians that if you cooperate with the U.S. in any kind of activity that could be labeled as anti regime then you face imprisonment at the very least. So they sent a message with Tajbakhsh, with Esfandiari, with Azima, and now the government has realized that if [it] actually has open trials it will look pretty ridiculous for the regime so they just release these individuals, send them home and you can be pretty certain that these people after they've been imprisoned in Iran, if they leave the country, I think they'd be pretty reluctant to go back to Iran."

Esfandiari was released on a bail of about $300,000. Authorities have told Azima that her mother's house -- which was put up as bail for her -- would not be returned. She is facing charges of spreading propaganda against the government.

Samii says Tehran uses the heavy bails as a pressure tool.

"Most of them when they pay these very high bails to get out of jail, they have to mortgage family members' homes, so that's always something that the Iranian government can hold over their heads, basically threatening that if you come back we will arrest you again and you'll lose the bail. Your family member, your mother, or whoever, will lose his or her home."

Analysts believe the arrest of Iranian-Americans is part of a broader crackdown on students, rights activists, and all dissenting voices. The crackdown comes at a time when Tehran is under increasing U.S. pressure over its nuclear program and it's role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Faraj Sarkuhi, an exiled Iranian journalist, believes that by making the arrests Iran is sending a strong message to its critics.  "One of its goals is to send a message and tell critics to remain silent, if not they could meet the same fate as those who have been arrested. But this message is usually not effective because at least in the past 20 years we've seen that there have been many arrests, many forced [confessions], but despite that Iranian freedom fighters have continued their work inside Iran."

Sarkuhi credits human-rights groups, academics, and others for the release of the Iranian-Americans and also extensive media coverage that brought attention to their plight.

"[They] use all possible methods in their factional disputes or fight against those who oppose them without considering its results. In [the case of Iranian-Americans] nothing new was added to the case of the Islamic republic. Even without the arrest of Haleh Esfandiari and the others the Islamic Republic of Iran was known as being an establishment that violates human rights, arrest critics and opposition members, and executes people."

Some observers have said that by agreeing to allow citizens with dual citizenship to leave the country, Tehran was signaling a willingness not to worsen relations with Washington further.

Analyst Samii, however, says it is not clear why Tehran would make such a move at this point.

"As I speculate, I wonder if the tensions of the Iranian-Americans are somehow connected with the detentions of Iranian military personnel in Iraq. So perhaps there are some sort of negotiations taking place or even if it's not negotiations, a hope on the Iranian side that if we release these people maybe the Americans will release our soldiers who are being held in Iraq."

The United States has welcomed Iran's decision to permit Esfandiari and Azima to leave the country. U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said on September 5 that Iran should also release the other Iranian-Americans who are jailed in Iran.   They include Tajbakhsh, a consultant with the Open Society Institute, and peace activist Ali Shakeri.

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