Over the past week or so, the government in Tehran has been trying to milk the mysterious saga of Shahram Amiri for all it is worth.
Which would, on the face of it, appear to be good news for Amiri: it wouldn’t be easy for the authorities to proceed against him without contradicting the official Iranian version of events, which is that he was kidnapped by the Americans in June last year during a pilgrimage to Makkah, possibly with Saudi connivance.
The somewhat more plausible American explanation, albeit semi-official, is that the relatively low-level nuclear technician had been providing useful information to the CIA while he was in Iran, and that he defected voluntarily. He was to be provided with millions of dollars and a new identity in exchange for spilling the beans. But then he had a breakdown and grew increasingly concerned about the consequences his family might face back in Iran. Hence he decided to go back, and his handlers facilitated this by enabling him to turn up at the Iranian interests section of the Pakistani embassy in Washington.
Amiri insists that he escaped. That claim was initially aired in the last of the three videos of him posted on YouTube earlier this month. In the first, he claimed he was a prisoner in Tucson, Arizona. Shortly afterwards, in a more professional clip, he announced that he was merely pursuing further studies in the US, and that there was no cause for concern.
In a subsequent video, he repudiated the previous one as a cruel hoax and said he had escaped from his captors. Then he appeared at the embassy, and stuck to his story. There were allegations of psychological torture by the Americans. By the time he reached Tehran a week ago, these had been embellished with claims of physical coercion. America’s reputation in this sphere may lend credence to Amiri’s tale, but his story doesn’t quite add up. It is by no means inconceivable for him to have been drugged in Saudi Arabia and put on a plane to the US, as he insists, but had he seriously been a prisoner, it surely wouldn’t have been easy to acquire the Internet access necessary to post the initial video. Anonymous American sources have admitted that they arranged for the second clip, but would it really have been all that easy for Amiri to ‘escape’ in the wake of unsanctioned suspicious behaviour?
Chances are it’s simply a case of a defection gone wrong. There’s no evidence that Amiri received any indications that his family might be in serious trouble, but the possibility cannot be ruled out. It’s equally possible that the CIA had promised to get his wife and seven-year-old son out of Iran, but was unable to do so; or simply that pangs about his family’s fate eventually persuaded Amiri to change his mind.
America’s initial intentions are arguably more intriguing. There could, of course, be some justification for seeking information about the progress of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On the other hand, the fake evidence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that was cited as an excuse for launching aggression against that nation is still a vivid memory. And the recently redoubled sanctions against Iran are likelier to bolster President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s domestic support than to dissuade his regime from pursuing its nuclear goals.
In his characteristically crude manner, Ahmadinejad indicated this week that he remained open to the idea of talks with the US on the nuclear question. That may not mean much — it probably doesn’t — but there could surely be little harm in pursuing the diplomatic option even if the likelihood of success, in any meaningful sense, is minuscule. The Iranian president wasn’t completely off the mark when he noted that Washington was perturbed not so much by Iran’s nuclear potential as by its regional clout — which has, of course, been enhanced most noticeably by the changes wrought in Iraq.
There is the possibility, meanwhile, that Ahmadinejad may be clutching at straws amid serious ructions within Iran’s Islamist hierarchy, with not just the establishment’s supposedly liberal wing but also its diehard conservatives resisting his radicalism. However, neither of those wings publicly voiced any concerns about Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani being sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.
An international outcry provoked by protestations from the 43-year-old’s two children led Iran to concede that she wouldn’t be murdered by that peculiarly barbaric method — but that doesn’t exactly amount to a reprieve. The Guardian has reported that another 15 Iranians — 12 of them women — await the same fate for the same ‘crime’.
It seems beyond bizarre, of course, that sex between consenting adults who are not married to each other should, in the 21st century, be considered grounds for the ultimate punishment — whether they are actually ‘guilty’ or not may not be irrelevant but is surely immaterial.
Death by stoning pre-dates Islam — the Torah prescribes it for a number of ‘offences’, including filial disobedience — but it can hardly be a coincidence that it is nowadays unheard of outside the Muslim world, and even within that context it does not have official sanction in many states. For instance, when it came to light this week that a couple had been sentenced by this manner in an ostensibly Taliban-free zone by a rural jirga in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the authorities were quick to claim that the woman and man concerned were in safe hands and would suffer no consequences. It can only be hoped that this is indeed the case.
Iran’s ‘concession’ to Ashtiani, on the other hand, underlines the state’s role in instances of preposterous cruelty. The Islamic Republic undeniably has form in this respect, and the case for a drastic regime change can be made at least as easily as it could in the case of the Shah three decades ago. But that gives no grounds for presuming that a western onslaught would be anything other than disastrous. The change must — and, hopefully, will before long — come from within.