For Americans, it should be startling to see the word “detainee” suddenly appear in a different country, on a different continent, and referring not to alleged jihadi terrorists but to a group of Americans. After all, “detainee” is the word the Bush administration coined to deal with suspected terrorist captives who, they argued, should be subjected to extra-legal treatment as part of the Global War on Terrorism. Now, that terminology is, as critics long predicted might happen, being turned against American citizens. I am referring to the current detention of Americans in Iran.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government currently holds in custody Haleh Esfandiari, Kian Tajbakhsh, Parnaz Azima, and Ali Shakeri, Iranian-American scholars and activists accused of being spies and/or employees of the U.S. government intent on fomenting dissent and disruption within Iran. (A fifth American, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent engaged in business of an unknown nature in Iran, disappeared on March 8th.) The four are apparently behind bars at Tehran’s Evin prison, notorious for its special wing for political prisoners and, among human rights activists, for being the location of the lethal beating of a Canadian-Iranian journalist in 2003. Evin and other Iranian prisons are cited by Human Rights Watch for frequent torture and mistreatment of arrested Iranian dissidents.
The Iranian government has said that the detained are threats to “national security,” despite protests that they were visiting their families and/or engaged in purely peaceful work. The U.S. Government has been denied information on their treatment and the possible accusations against them.
The Bush administration is naturally incensed over the incarceration of these Americans. As well its officials should be. “It is absolutely incredible to us,” said State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey, “to think that there could be any possible doubt in the Iranians’ minds that these individuals are there simply to conduct normal, basic human interactions, including family visits.” President Bush himself has insisted that “their presence in Iran poses no threat.” The Associated Press reported that Bush was also “‘disturbed’ by the fact that Iran has still not provided any information about the welfare and whereabouts” of the missing Levinson and has condemned Iran for being “defiant as to the demands of the free world.”
President Bush is correct. These detentions represent a travesty of justice and a violation of the rules of conduct among nations. It is horrifying that these Americans, who are engaged in foreign affairs at non-governmental and scholarly levels, are held, seemingly without recourse to law and certainly without respect for international rights.
But there is another disturbing reality here which must be faced. In numerous ways, the U.S. has robbed itself of the right to proclaim the very principles by which these prisoners should be defended. Though President Bush and his spokespersons may not see it, their past policies have set a trap for the government — and for Americans generally. More than five years after setting up Guantanamo, and then implementing national security strategies based upon torture, secret prisons, and illegal detentions, the Bush administration has managed to obliterate the moral high ground they now seek to claim in relation to Iran.