The detention of an American reporter in Iran shows political factions may still be competing for power, according to United States analysts. Wall Street Journal reporter Gerald Seib could be in the hands of radical elements opposed to the officially sponsored presence of Western journalists in the country, these sources say. His case could be similar to that of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, which began when radical students seized the US Embassy apparently without government sanction.
``I'm surprised. I thought the political leadership there had consolidated its power,'' says an academic expert who requested his name not be used because he has ties with Iranian officials.
As of this writing it was not clear whether Mr. Seib was the victim of a bureaucratic mixup or had indeed been taken prisoner in a premeditated manner.
US officials were taking a low-key approach in responding to the detention and said they had only sketchy information about what happened. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Monday that the State Department had asked the Swiss government to investigate Seib's case. The US has no diplomatic relations with Iran and relies on the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to represent American interests in the country.
Wall Street Journal officials said they also did not know what happened to their employee, and that the paper was relying on the State Department to press for his release. ``It isn't even really clear who has him,'' says a Wall Street Journal spokesman.
Seib, a Cairo-based Middle East correspondent, was in Iran on a government-sponsored tour for foreign journalists. He was taken into custody early Saturday evening by several unidentified men. A Swiss diplomat detained with him was later released; the other Western reporters on the tour have all since left the country.
US analysts say the decision to allow in reporters in the first place could have been made only by very high officials. It is unlikely these officials would then turn around and order the arrest of one of their guests, say these experts, as they would be aware of the image of duplicity this would project to the West.
More likely the affair has been orchestrated by a group opposed to the presence of foreign journalists on Iranian soil. This could be some faction of the Revolutionary Guards or Iranian associates of Lebanese Hizbullah Shiite Muslim terrorists.
``I would assume there are even some elements within the foreign ministry that have different ideas from the establishment about how things should be run,'' says R.K. Ramazani, a professor of government at the University of Virginia.
There is also the possibility that whoever has Seib really believes he is a spy. Iran's official news agency reported Saturday night that a ``spy of the Zionist regime'' who was posing as a journalist had been arrested in Tehran.
``These are people with extraordinarily suspicious minds,'' says the academic who requested anonymity.