“Negotiations with the United States open gates to their economic, cultural, political and security influence,” the leading cleric said, according to Reuters. “Even during the nuclear negotiations they tried to harm our national interests.” Khamenei also made vague reference to the US having taken advantage of “a few chances” for such influence during the eighteen month long nuclear negotiations.
Western critics of the negotiations, along with Iranian dissidents, have lamented that the US made serious concessions to the Iranian regime during those talks, ultimately allowing Iran to block foreign access to its military sites and severely delay access to other sites, while still retaining a large portion of its functional nuclear infrastructure. But dissidents affiliated with the National Council of Resistance of Iran have also repeatedly emphasized that any limits whatsoever to Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons is regarded by regime officials as a damaging concession. Khamenei’s latest remarks appear to lend credence to this.
An outright ban on future negotiations with the US also promises to damage apparent Western optimism about broad-based rapprochement. These hopes had already been complicated by Khamenei’s previous, slightly more measured statements, as well as by similarly aggressive commentary from President Hassan Rouhani, who has nonetheless used some public statements to suggest moderate improvements in relations between the two countries.
Last week, Rouhani appeared to straddle both sides of his inconsistent statements about the West when he suggested that the US might be able to negotiate for the release of three Americans held prisoner in Iran, but insisted that the US first release 19 Iranian citizens imprisoned in the US for sanctions violations. Although such an offer arguably favors Iran from the very outset, Khamenei’s superior authority means that these negotiations are no longer a possibility in light of the supreme leader’s edict.
This intensification of Iran’s pushback against foreign influence comes as one of the American citizens imprisoned in Iran approaches a milestone, as pointed out on Wednesday by USA Today. Friday will mark 444 days since the arrest of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, at which point he will match the length of time that American hostages were held captive in Tehran’s American embassy during the 1979 hostage crisis that ended diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Rezaian had already long surpassed the previous record for the length of time any Western journalist had spent in jail in the Islamic Republic. But arrests of the country’s domestic journalists are commonplace, and Iran routinely lands on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of worst jailers of reporters. The targeting of Rezaian has been variously interpreted by international observers as a means of securing leverage over the US, as a means of compensating for the perceived Iranian concessions on its nuclear program, and as part of a broad-ranging crackdown on the media at a time when there is much talk of improved relations with the West.
Whatever the motivations behind the arrest, Khamenei’s remarks have presumably closed off any negotiations that were already ongoing about Rezaian, for whom the Obama administration repeatedly claimed to be attempting to secure release, along with former US Marine Amir Hekmati and Christian Pastor Saeed Abedini.
Many rights groups and news analysts now expect that Rezaian will be convicted, although Iranian law specifies that his verdict and sentence should have been handed down weeks ago, after the last session of his closed-door trial. He reportedly faces 10 to 20 years in prison on espionage charges. Abedini is serving an eight year sentence for practicing his faith and Hekmati is serving 12, also for spying.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said this week that it is increasingly clear that Rezaian will be convicted solely on the basis of a forced confession, which may have been obtained under threat of torture, and certainly under the stresses of relentless interrogations and months-long periods of solitary confinement. The case against Rezaian has never been publicly articulated and his defense attorney alleged that the case file cited no evidence against him.
Nonetheless, somewhat more specific allegations were levied against the American-Iranian journalist this week, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps saying that he had worked on behalf of the US government to establish an extensive spy network with the goal of toppling the clerical regime. His family and colleagues have rejected the notion that he could have been a spy, and they have observed that the Iranian judiciary has apparently chosen to criminalize his mere conversations with acquaintances about Iranian affairs.
It is highly possible that some of these acquaintances are considered enemies of the Iranian regime on the basis of similarly vague accusations. There is no indication that Rezaian sought or obtained sensitive information, but the Iranian regime is known to convict political prisoners on the basis of guilt-by-association, for instance executing Gholamreza Khosravi last year on charges stemming only from his having donated money to a satellite television network affiliated with the opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
If Rezaian has indeed been targeted on the basis of his association with Westerners and Iranian dissidents deemed dangerous by the regime, he is likely to be followed by others. This is especially true in light of advancements in Iranian cyber-espionage capabilities, which were highlighted once again in SC Magazine on Wednesday.
Earlier reports have emphasized the fact that a surge of phishing attacks originating in Iran have been specifically directed against human rights activists and the friends and colleagues of persons recently arrested in the country. SC Magazine now elaborates by saying that a security study has uncovered an elaborate network of fake LinkedIn profiles aimed at making connections among these groups in order to ultimately facilitate the delivery of malware, which could be used to identify all of the targets’ contacts and then expand the cyberattack to them.
All of this suggests that far from simply cutting off negotiations with the West, Iran is actively striving to identify persons with contacts among the West, so that they can be targeted for political imprisonment on the basis of those connections, and subsequently prosecuted on any of the regime’s vague political offenses, such as “propaganda against the system” and “spreading corruption on Earth.”