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Surge in anti-American hostility in Iran is setback for jailed US reporter

Harsh comments by Ayatollah Khamenei have reined in hopes of better cooperation in the wake of the nuclear deal, and new details about the allegations against Jason Rezaian have been made public in recent days.

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    Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivers a speech during a meeting with the officials and organizers of the Hajj pilgrimage in Tehran Monday.
    Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP
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The key to unlocking decades of mutual US-Iran hostility – and to ending the 15-month imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian – was once widely believed to be the historic nuclear deal agreed to last July.

But instead of a new era of budding US-Iran cooperation, a retrenchment is under way in Tehran that favors hard-line suspicions of the West, and especially the United States.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has set the tone, referring since September to America as the “Great Satan” that used the nuclear negotiations only to “penetrate” and damage Iran, “open the way for imposition” of its influence, and “change” the calculations of Iranian officials.

Mr. Khamenei has explicitly forbidden any further negotiations with the US, and has accused President Barack Obama of lying about not wanting to overthrow the Islamic Republic. In a letter that conditionally accepted the nuclear deal Wednesday, he pointedly told President Hassan Rouhani that the US “has shown nothing but hostility” toward Iran and will always do so.

Those moves undermine Mr. Rouhani’s stated aim to reengage with the US and the West, and reportedly include the arrest of another US-Iranian dual citizen last week. 

Negotiators from both the US and Iran had indicated to each other that the nuclear deal could herald a broader though limited cooperation on thorny regional issues like the self-declared Islamic State and the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. And in September, Rouhani said it was “an impossibility” to think that US-Iran animosity would continue “until the end of the world.”

But Khamenei’s comments have halted any forward dynamic for now, underscoring the challenge of moving beyond the entrenched distrust of the US that has been a pillar of Iran's revolution for decades. The warnings about US “infiltration” appear to have also affected the case of Mr. Rezaian. A torrent of new details about the espionage allegations against him has been made public in recent days.

“Ayatollah Khamenei wants to ensure that the nuclear deal doesn’t disturb the existing balance of power in Iran,” says Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“The accord, which is certainly a political victory for President Rouhani, will have to be counterbalanced with more support for his rivals from the pinnacle of power,” says Mr. Vaez. He notes that major decisions in Iran – like the 1988 cease-fire with Iraq and the 2003 nuclear deal with Britain, France, and Germany that temporarily halted Iran’s nascent enrichment program – are “always followed by difficult readjustments.”

Conservatives have 'upper hand for now'

Iran has laid out a red carpet for Western investors hoping to tap into an emerging market bonanza when sanctions begin to ease early next year. Other modest steps – such as allowing a handful of American citizens into academic programs – point to progress for Rouhani’s oft-repeated desire to open Iran more to the outside.

Expectations were high that clinching a deal “would automatically enhance Mr. Rouhani’s position to expand social and political freedoms in Iran and resolve other issues in the US-Iran relationship,” says Farzan Sabet, managing editor of the IranPolitik website and Nuclear Security Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford.

But those expectations did not take into account that the rare consensus among moderates and conservatives for a nuclear deal was to lift sanctions only, says Mr. Sabet, and does not extend to Rouhani’s broader agenda.

“So has there been post-deal backsliding in Iran toward old patterns?” asks Sabet. “Rouhani may still genuinely want to deliver on expanding freedoms or improving ties with the United States. But his conservative opponents have the upper hand for now.”

Indeed, Khamenei warned about the risk of cultural and political intrusion a month ago, and said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “should prevent the infiltration powerfully.”

Rezaian called high-level operative

With such an apparent green light, hard-line lawmakers in recent days have unleashed a barrage of detailed allegations against Rezaian, a dual US-Iranian citizen who is now the longest-held foreign journalist in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The allegations portray Rezaian as a high-level US operative whose network had penetrated power circles.

The spy charges are categorically denied as “absurd” by Rezaian’s family and by the Washington Post. But the new details – apparently drawn from a report and “confessions” by the IRGC intelligence branch, which arrested Rezaian on July 22 last year – coupled with a recent video produced by the IRGC that lists alleged crimes, have significantly raised the profile of the case.

That comes amid news that another, unnamed dual citizen was arrested last week – if true, raising to four the number of Iranian-Americans known to be in Iranian custody. The IranWire website reported that “a dozen plainclothes agents raided the family home” of the visiting businessman and took him to Evin Prison.

“The leader loathes too much change too fast. That is why he is putting the brakes on all fronts,” says analyst Vaez. “The security establishment will now have to find proof for paranoia. In this witch-hunt, innocence is only an afterthought.”

Tarring Rouhani with Rezaian

The fresh claims against Rezaian were laid out by Javad Karimi-Ghodousi and other anti-Rouhani members of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, in interviews published by the Fars News Agency, which is linked to the IRGC.

The Post correspondent is alleged to have operated an “American intelligence station” in Tehran, is familiar with “modern espionage techniques,” and was so close to Rouhani’s inner circle that he boasted to his US handlers that he knew the brand and flavor of the president’s chewing gum, claimed Mr. Karimi-Ghodousi.

The IRGC report, according to the Iranian lawmakers, paints Rezaian as a “very important figure to the Americans” who had personally convinced Mr. Obama of his “capabilities.” He is an “officer of the soft war” against Iran and worked for a US Senate group that believed that the regime would “fall in 48 months” if US-Iran ties could be reestablished. 

Karimi-Ghadousi alleged that Rezaian was tasked “by Zionists” with fomenting ethnic unrest in villages, paid $3,000 for every second of his videos, and had a “strong network in the body of the Islamic Republic” so pervasive that his team “were present in the most private meetings of the president.”

The IRGC’s weekly magazine Sobh-e Sadegh wrote on Oct. 12 that: “The path to correct such trends is to arrest the domestic contacts that let Rezaian and future spies access confidential places.”

During his visit to New York in September for the UN General Assembly, Rouhani had suggested that Rezaian could be set free as part of a prisoner swap for Iranians incarcerated in the US, mostly on sanctions-related charges.

“The hard-liners have issued a warning [to Rouhani]: More espionage cases could be revealed, implicating some of Iran’s most powerful people,” writes journalist Reza HaghighatNejad in IranWire.

By repeating the IRGC claims, adds Mr. HaghighatNejad, Fars News is “presenting Rezaian as a symbol of US hostility, while at the same time reminding Rouhani that hard-liners have a few more battles to fight, and ammunition with which to do it.”

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