Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Iranian Regime Blinks, Frees French Accused

The Iranian government has capitulated in the face of intense diplomatic activity and released one of two high-profile French defendants on trial in Tehran for spying.

Nazak Afshar, a member of the French embassy staff in Iran was released from jail by Iranian authorities late Tuesday, following diplomatic efforts and pressure by the EU and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Afshar spoke by phone with the French President and with family members immediately on her release.

She is among scores imprisoned and accused in what has been widely dubbed a mass show trial. Her prosecution is set to continue despite the release. Another defendant, French teaching assistant Clotilde Reiss is still in custody.

The two women are charged with espionage and conspiracy in a Western plot to overthrow the government. France has dismissed the charges as baseless and a statement from Sarkozy's office called for all charges against both to be dropped and for Reiss also to be freed and returned to France.

Sarkozy thanked France's EU partners, and other countries, specifically Syria, as among those who provided support "in this first phase." The use of the term "first phase" indicates that French and EU authorities intend to maintain the pressure on Iran to drop all charges. The bullish tone is likely an indication that the international community feels it is likely to succeed.

In retrospect the scale of the mass trial and the decision to charge numbers of foreign or dual-citizenship defendants now looks like a serious miscalculation by the Iranian regime.

This concession to the French is a signal development showing the regime is being forced to backpedal to avoid further political fallout from the decision to mount the ambitious show trial of 110 defendants.

Sweden summoned the Iranian ambassador to advise that the European Union was prepared to take unspecified 'further steps' to secure the release of French and British nationals on trial. The Swedes, who currently hold the rotating Presidency of the EU said they considered the detentions were a move against the entire 27-member bloc.

“We called in the Iranian ambassador to the foreign ministry to reiterate and reinforce this message and tell him what kind of measures we expect from Iran. On this and other issues," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in an interview Tuesday with Swedish Radio. "I think Iran is aware that we are prepared to take steps beyond what we have already done."

From the Iranian government perspective the show trial had seemed to offer it advantages in a battle for legitimacy against political opponents.

It reinforced a propaganda line aimed at loyalists: that Western states, Britain in particular, played a key role in protests aiming for a "soft overthrow" of the Islamic regime. The hapless foreign embassy staff were incidental pawns in this narrative.

Including prominent Iranian politicians among the defendants and staging concurrent threats to prosecute leading opposition politicians was intended to intimidate an emerging coalition of political foes.

But the strategy was flawed by virtue of an excess of zeal.

Domestically the sight of a gaunt and disheveled former Vice President Mohammad Abtahi, confessing in a televised broadcast, jarred with broad swathes of Iranian political opinion. Any intimidatory effect was outweighed by the trial's appearance of being a Stalinist-era farce with unintended echoes of the regime of the deposed Shah.

A measure of the image problem is that even the State-run, PressTV website yesterday placed the word 'confessed' in italics when describing the released French woman's testimony.

But the international effects of the trial have proved to be its Achilles heel. The foreign nationals in the trial may indeed have been pawns in the eyes of the Iranian regime, but the EU could and has promoted them into a checkmate move. The inclusion of foreign embassy staff and nationals had crossed key diplomatic protocols in an indefensible manner. The EU has leveraged against that error and can compound it into damaging international isolation of the regime. Thus the backpedaling.

Repression of the type which the Iranian regime is attempting requires both brute force and political nous or savvy. The brutality has been on vivid display, but the savvy tellingly absent.

The regime continues to implement tactics which are short-term positive and long-term deeply damaging. The first example of such an error was the overarching scale of the killing and detention of peaceful protesters. A more tempered crackdown could have achieved the goal the regime sought. The second example is the scale of the now discredited trial.

These two key errors betray either incompetence, nervousness or both. They hint at a fundamentally shallow base of core regime support. Political errors like this cost support and embolden opponents. The mistakes compound the flight of capital. Money is mostly apolitical and calculatedly amoral. It will remain in a country which is a crude dictatorship, but will tend to flee a regime which can't manage the business of repression.

Despite it's street-thuggery resources and grip on the levers of law and administration, the shaky Iranian regime has two key strikes against it and seems to be floundering.

Three strikes you're out.

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