Smart strategy

On a sunny day in Washington, DC, my imaginary American scholar, Hannah Esfandiari, was sittining in her Kalorama-located house, opening a letter she had just received from Tehran, Iran. It was a job offer from a prominent think-tank at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s policy-making machine.

Her main job was going to be establishing contacts with Americans dissidents, scholars and activists and inviting them to Tehran to speak for high-rank Iranian policy-makers, top officers of the Revolutionary Guards and the intelligence ministry.

But she could not take the job offer. Not because she was afraid of being charged with assisting a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ and perhaps being sent to Guantanamo Bay. But simply because, based on the U.S. Sanctions on Iran (Iranian Transactions Regulations), it would be illegal for her or any other American to sign any contract with, accept any funds from, or give any service to an Iranian citizen or organisation, wherever in the world. Violating that law could cost her up to 20 years of jail and $250,000 fine.

Now, let’s come back to the real world and consider a similar case about an Iranian citizen who was directing a prominent American think-tank.

Haleh Esfandiari’s job, as the director of the middle east programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (established by the U.S. Congress in 1981 and co-funded directly (PDF File) by the U.S. government), was to invite Iranian dissidents, scholars and activists them to Washington, D.C. to speak for and interact with high-rank American policymakers, top military and intelligence officers. (Absent from all media reports is that that she has served among the first group of fellows at the infamous National Endowment for Democracy with its well-known shady past and agenda.)

But when she last visited Tehran using her Iranian passport, she was detained, with acting against Iran’s national security and released on bail after a long investigation.

Since her arrest a few months ago, the American media, politicians and scholars (including ) made about the illegality of such detention and repeatedly called the charges against her bogus and appalling and insisted that Mrs. Esfandiari was totally innocent.
Quite hypocritical. Everyone is overlooking the other side of the story about the way the American government is treating its citizens who would give such a service (in fact much less significant) to Iran.

If Iran prosecutes its citizens after they started giving service to the policy-making machine of its biggest enemy, the U.S doesn’t even allow such service in the first place by making it illegal and somehow punishes its citizens even before they started such service. The delicate point here is that both countries try to protect their national security through such measures, but while the American method to do that is more severe, it never gets any bad publicity, because, on it surface, the legal framework it is using is sanctions against a ‘terrorist state,’ not sanctions to protect national security.

This smart strategy prevents the American government to look bad in public, while it achieves its goal of depriving the Iranian policymakers from interacting with American scholars and at the same time make Iran look bad when it does the same. (When was the last time you heard an American teaching in any private or public Iranian university?)

Perhaps it is time for Iran and other countries under American economic sanctions to strike back and begin using the legal frameworks of sanctions against the U.S. to address their legitimate security concerns.

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