Haleh Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, and in December of last year she traveled to Iran to visit her ailing mother. In a statement on its website, the Wilson Center explains that in late December, "on her way to the airport to catch a flight back to Washington, the taxi in which Dr. Esfandiari was riding was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men. They took away her baggage and handbag, including her Iranian and American passports." Her visit to a passport office four days later instigated six weeks of interrogations. Last Monday, just over a week ago, she was arrested and taken to the notorious Evin prison, where she stands accused of being a Mossad agent, a U.S. spy, and of trying to foment revolution inside Iran -- the same charges that were leveled at the American embassy staff in 1979 when it was taken hostage.
One might think that at this heady moment of entente with the Iranian regime, when American officials are expected to meet with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq, members of the media and political classes would have their diplomatic seismographs particularly attuned to the signals emanating from Iran. Yet that appears to not be the case: the Esfandiari abduction has been downplayed, and almost as appalling as the scant attention the story has received is the tepidness of the comments from those who have broached the matter.
The Washington Post's editorial page, which can usually be relied upon for relatively sound judgment on foreign affairs, wrote on Friday that "Arresting an Iranian American scholar is no way to win the world's respect," and concluded its mushy, insipid statement by boldly reemphasizing that Esfandiari's imprisonment is causing the world to "lose respect for Iran." One might start by noting that the question of the world's respect for Iran was settled almost 30 years ago, when the regime held the staff of the U.S. embassy hostage for fifteen months. I'm not sure what's more troubling: that among the editorialists of the Post there are apparently reserves of "respect" remaining for Iran, or that the same editorialists appear to believe that losing the world's "respect" (whatever that entails) is actually a source of apprehension for the mullahs. Indeed, isn't the ideology of the Iranian Revolution founded quite explicitly on disrespect for the West? Hasn't the entire question of "respect" been long settled, given that for thirty years Death to America! has been a central organizing principle of the regime?
Several politicians have also weighed in, and they haven't done any better. In a statement sure to send an ominous chill across the Iranian political establishment, Barak Obama announced that "If the Iranian government has any desire to engage the world in dialogue, it can demonstrate that desire by releasing this champion of dialogue from detention." Haleh Esfandiari's senators, Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, asked Iran to make a "gesture of goodwill" to the American people by releasing their latest hostage. Respect, dialogue, gestures of goodwill. I'll bring my acoustic guitar and some big fluffy pillows and we can do a sing-along for Ahmadinejad.
I probably shouldn't be so flippant. Aside from the fact that Esfandiari's detention brings the number of American citizens being held by Iran to three, there is a deeper problem, and that is the apparent inability of American elites to grasp why the regime continues to take hostages. The Washington Post and LA Times editorials, not to mention many of the politicians who have spoken on the matter, seem to take Ahmadinejad seriously when he claims to desire the world's respect and express their befuddlement when the mullahs do something audacious and cruel that will undermine Iran's ability to cultivate that respect -- like imprisoning a well-known, well-connected scholar.
So, let us ask: Why does Iran abduct British sailors and marines, supply weaponry to insurgents in Iraq, imprison American scholars, and take so much delight in repeatedly doing things that frighten and bewilder the western world? The answer is to be found in the Iranian conception of the significance of its revolution and its relationship to the West, especially to America. In the eyes of the revolutionaries, the overthrow of the American-backed shah in 1979 was a supreme victory, proof not only of the revolution's divine ordination but of America's weakness and the ease with which the great power could be disgraced (at least through its allies). Having succeeded in expelling the shah, the radicals believed that the United States should be next. And it was: the assault on the U.S. embassy in Tehran happened only nine months after Ayatollah Khomeini's arrival in Iran.
And the hostage-takers and the government that sponsored them never paid a serious price for the ensuing fifteen-month humiliation of the United States. Iran has also never paid for its various assassinations and bombings in Europe, the murder of hundreds of American marines and French soldiers in Lebanon in 1983, the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, its lavish funding of Hezbollah and destabilization of Lebanon, the abduction of the British sailors, its nuclear program, and so on. In other words, the Iranian regime, since the first day of its existence, has seen its every provocation go unanswered -- which has perfectly reinforced its conviction that the West, and America in particular, is a brittle facade, economically powerful and technologically sophisticated but weak-willed, indecisive, risk-averse, and easily intimidated.
And so all the fretting about "respect" and "dialogue" amount to more than just comforting creations of the western imagination and impositions of a hoped-for reality. For the Iranian regime they are yet another layer of evidence vindicating a set of beliefs about America's inability to stand up for its interests -- or even for its citizens. Meanwhile, inquiry into the more plausible sources of Iran's actions, such as the regime's ideological contempt for America and its need to demonstrate revolutionary strength and western weakness, continues to be avoided. In 1981, after the American embassy hostages had finally been released, Iran's chief negotiator said, "We rubbed dirt in the nose of the world's greatest superpower." His comrades are no doubt saying the same thing today about their newest hostage, Haleh Esfandiari.