Detention of journalists in Iran a bellwether of internal politics

Reporters may have been caught between factions battling over Iran’s relations with the US

August 16, 2014 6:00AM ET

With all of the headline-making turmoil in the Middle East, it’s understandable that the detention of three journalists in Iran has received relatively little attention. Since July 22, when plainclothes security officers took Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American correspondent for The Washington Post, and his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a correspondent for The National, an Abu Dhabi–based newspaper, from their home in Tehran, reaction from Western media and press freedom watchers has been supportive of the couple but relatively subdued. (Another Iranian-American journalist, a photographer, was also detained but has not yet been identified by authorities.) The Post and other outlets have tried to keep up momentum of coverage, but compare that with the global outcry that ensued when Egyptian authorities convicted three Al Jazeera correspondents in June for supposedly fabricating news of mayhem in the streets of Cairo.

The Al Jazeera Three rightly became a cause célèbre, with journalists all over the world waging a social media campaign on their behalf. But the case of Rezaian and Salehi is also worthy of the world’s attention and our profession’s outrage. Both are serious and responsible professionals, well known among the community of Iran correspondents and specialists. Rezaian in particular, having grown up in California as the son of an American mother and Iranian father and witnessed the demonization of his paternal country after the Iranian revolution in 1979, made it his professional mission to show Americans a more nuanced picture of Iran. The couple’s arrest is a sign of not just how difficult it has become to report on this strategically vital country but also of how little room there may be for negotiating a détente between Iran and the West.

Under the surface

At lunch in Tehran in May, when I saw them on my most recent visit to Iran, Rezaian and Salehi were still basking in the glow of a relatively new marriage, excited that she recently received permanent legal U.S. residency and looking forward to someday moving back to California. Because for all their dedication to covering Iran, they were very concerned about both the future of the country and the risks they ran as journalists. “People forget where they are,” he told me, recounting an anecdote about a European diplomat who was supposedly expelled from the country after a less than discreet relationship with an Iranian woman. For all the optimism ushered in by the end of the confrontational presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the election of the more moderate Hassan Rouhani last year, he said, “under the surface nothing’s really changed.”

Even in the best of times, Iran is a difficult beat for foreign journalists and those working for Western media, especially Americans. The Iranian government is slow to grant journalist visas, largely reserving them for major events that the government wishes to showcase, such as annual celebrations of the anniversary of the revolution in early February. Resident press passes have to be approved annually, and currently there isn’t a single nonhyphenated U.S. national living in Iran with a press card. Journalists who work for Western media, such as Rezaian, typically are citizens of Iran and a second country. As dual nationals, they are more easily prosecuted (or persecuted) under Iranian law.

With some reason, Iranian officials like to point out that Iran is far more open to American journalists than the U.S. is to Iranian journalists. The U.S. doesn’t allow Iranian journalists to visit and work in the U.S., except those who accompany Iran’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations in New York.

As long as Rezaian and Salehi remain in jail, it’s a signal that at least one very powerful part of the Iranian government wants to take away the welcome mat.

But it’s also true that in times of turmoil, factions within the Iranian government have applied pressure on foreign journalists not only to try to control international coverage of events in the country but also to use them as cards to be played in their games with foreign governments. This was most notably the case with the arrest of Maziar Bahari, a Canadian and Iranian citizen and a correspondent for Newsweek who was picked up after demonstrations contesting the re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009. Bahari has attributed his release 118 days later to a goodwill gesture by the Ahmadinejad government toward the Obama administration after Washington signaled a willingness to change the tone of its relationship to Tehran — which had soured after President George W. Bush’s mention of Iran as part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.

The situation for Rezaian and Salehi, however, may be much more complicated. Rather than becoming pawns in Iran’s chess game with the U.S., the two appear to have gotten caught in the middle of political factions divided over how best to handle Iran’s relations with the U.S. Their arrest warrant appears to have been signed by the country’s judiciary, while the governmental entity normally responsible for monitoring journalists — which is under control of the presidency — has denied having a role in their arrest.

That distinction is significant. Although Rouhani was elected president in 2013 on a platform to normalize relations with the West and, in particular, win a reprieve from sanctions by compromising on the scale of Iran’s nuclear development program, formidable power centers in the country — the judiciary, clerics in charge of the main mosques and prayer venues and the Revolutionary Guard — have been waging a back-channel war to undermine those negotiations. Though Rouhani is close to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate say over relations with the West and the nuclear program, the hard-liners form a pillar of the regime’s support. Khamenei has appeared to allow the factions to battle among themselves rather than risk tarnishing his personal authority in the dispute.

A more visible calculus

But now this battle is breaking into the open. Since the spring, clerics and conservative newspaper editorials have denounced a supposed relaxing and decaying of the country’s moral fiber — particularly regarding compliance with Islamic dress codes for women. Since women in Iran are as wary as ever of the morality police (and of leaving home without headscarves), the culture war is widely seen as an attempt not so much to keep women from showing their hair as to embarrass the Rouhani administration.

The arrest of two international journalists seems calculated for the same effect. The Rouhani government has made a particular effort to woo European and particularly American tourists to Iran, and the Western media have been responding in kind with story after story casting Iran as a hot tourism destination, with its wealth of off-the-beaten-path heritage sites and history of thousands of years of civilization. As long as Rezaian and Salehi remain in jail, it’s a signal that at least one very powerful part of the Iranian government wants to take away the welcome mat. And the longer Rezaian and Salehi stay in jail, the more it would appear that the supreme leader has sided with those who arrested them.

Andrew Lee Butters is an American journalist who writes about the Middle East for TIME Magazine and other publications. 


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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