On April 13, Roxana Saberi, a 31-year-old Iranian-American journalist, appeared before a closed hearing of a revolutionary court to answer charges of spying for the United States — potentially capital charges. Iranian officials brushed off Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's request for Saberi to be released. Iranian justice was quick. On April 18, the court found Saberi guilty and sentenced her to eight years. Her case calls to mind that of Farzad Bazoft, a Western journalist executed by Saddam Hussein in 1990. It is worthwhile to reflect on the two cases, and to ask how the West might avoid repeating with Iran today the mistakes it made with Hussein almost two decades ago.
The charges against Saberi are spurious; she was a target of convenience, arrested to make a diplomatic statement. Since 2003, Saberi has worked as a freelance journalist, reporting for the BBC, Fox, and NPR.
Most Western journalists working in the Islamic Republic self-censor to maintain access. The Ministries of Information, Foreign Affairs, and Culture and Islamic Guidance monitor foreign reports and blacklist any journalist who files reports not to the liking of Iranian authorities. Visas to Iran are a rare commodity, even for non-journalists, and the visas of critical reporters are not renewed and sometimes revoked.
Some Iranian Americans, like Saberi, get around the visa controls by traveling on Iranian passports. This carries risks, however. "She entered the country as an Iranian citizen and holds Iranian residency, passport and national identity card. Even if she has another citizenship, it will not affect the way we will proceed with her case," her prosecutor, Hassan Haddad, said.
U.S. officials have expressed displeasure with the arrest, but there is every reason to believe the Iranians do not take them seriously. Addressing Washington, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an April 15 campaign rally in the southern Iranian city of Kerman, "You today are in a position of weakness and you can't achieve anything."
Saberi's fate is in the air. Robert Mackey, a blogger for the New York Times, speculated that Iranian authorities view Saberi as a hostage, a bargaining chip to win the release of alleged Qods Force operatives seized by U.S. forces in Iraq. This is plausible. But for Obama, such bargaining would be a dangerous game to play.
First, it is not wise to equate an innocent American journalist with Iranian special-force operatives working to kill American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. And while some proponents of engagement argue that, however odious, prisoner swaps work, experience suggests otherwise. Between 1984 and 1992, terrorists — most linked to Hezbollah — kidnapped 24 Americans. They killed several, most famously former CIA station chief William Francis Buckley (no relation to the founder of National Review) and U.S. Marine colonel William R. Higgins, who had been snatched while on a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. Most of the captives were left to languish, however. And when Reagan tried to trade arms for hostages, the lull in kidnappings lasted only until his administration supplied the last shipment of military spare parts; then the terrorists seized three more Americans.
There is a more dangerous scenario. Throughout the 1980s, foreign-policy "realists" in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, as well as a bipartisan array of congressmen and senators, sought to engage Saddam Hussein, calling the Iraqi president a moderate and a bulwark against Islamism. A Western consensus that Saddam was dangerous developed only in 1990, two years after the Iraqi leader had ordered the chemical-weapons bombardment of Halabja and other Iraqi Kurdish towns and villages The incident that convinced Western officials was the Iraqi regime's execution of journalist Farzad Bazoft; this led U.S. News & World Report to run a portrait of Hussein on its cover with the caption "The Most Dangerous Man in the World."
The similarities between Bazoft and Saberi are uncomfortable. Bazoft also was 31 years old. Though a naturalized British citizen, he was of Iranian heritage. Ambitious and adventurous, he too established himself as a freelancer, working in Iraq for the Observer, the Sunday edition of the Guardian.
Iraqi security arrested Bazoft in September 1989 as he investigated reports of an explosion at an Iraqi military facility south of Baghdad. As Iranian authorities did with Saberi, Iraqi officials held Bazoft for several months before trial. On March 10, 1990, after a trial also closed to outside observers, the Iraqi court found Bazoft guilty of espionage. On March 15, Iraqi authorities led Bazoft to the gallows and hanged him.
In language similar to that of the Iranian authorities today, Iraqi authorities said they were refusing to compromise because — as the Iraqi ambassador to France put it — Western officials had used "threatening terms and blackmail," and were insufficiently respectful of Saddam Hussein. On March 26, 1990, the Arab League expressed "its complete solidarity with Iraq in the defense of its sovereignty and national security." While the U.S. Foreign Office ordered its ambassador home for consultations, British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd declined to send the Iraqi ambassador home or sever relations. In 2003, after U.S. and British troops occupied Iraq, the Observer investigated the Bazoft case. It tracked down Bazoft's interrogator, who acknowledged that Bazoft was no spy, and said the execution took place on Saddam's orders.
Saberi no longer faces the gallows, but it is not uncommon for detainees to die of unnatural causes in Iranian custody. Just ask the family of photographer Zahra Kazemi, who was raped and beaten to death after her arrest in 2003.
Once, the world bent over backward not to recognize Saddam Hussein for what he was; today, many foreign-policy and intellectual elites try to explain away Iranian actions.
Just as the Arab League rallied around Iraq and against the West between Bazoft's execution and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait four months later, today the Organization of the Islamic Conference and other international bodies rally around Iran. International organizations are fickle,and seldom adhere to their founding principles.
It is not possible to erase the noxiousness of rogue states with rhetorical flourish. In 1990, it took the death of a 31-year-old journalist to wake up the West. Let's hope we needn't make the same sacrifice today.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.