ISTANBUL, TURKEY – Iran escalated its standoff with the West as it put a French academic on trial Saturday and confirmed that it had transferred to Tehran three Americans detained on the Iran-Iraq border.
The trial, which began last Saturday, is targeting the role of foreign powers. Alongside French national Clotilde Reiss in the courtroom were dozens of new defendants, among them reformist politicians and two local workers for the British and French embassies in Tehran. They stand accused of fomenting a "velvet revolution" in the aftermath of the controversial June 12 presidential elections in Iran.
“The focus is now on incriminating Western governments and companies,” says Mehrdad Boroujerdi, the director of Middle East Studies at Syracuse University in New York. “Bringing out the British Embassy worker is part of trying to substantiate their charges and show that this is all part of a Western conspiracy, with Facebook and Twitter playing roles."
The three Americans were arrested on July 31 while reportedly hiking in a natural resort in northeastern Iraq’s mountainous border area with Iran. After being held for some days in the border town of Marivan, a provincial administrative center, they were moved to Tehran, according to an ABC News story quoting a State Department official.
The transfer may suggest an escalation in their case. Iranian parliamentarian Hussein Sobhani-Nia told the Iranian state-run broadcaster that he would be convening a meeting tomorrow of the Majles commission on national security and foreign relations to discuss their fate.
“Certainly it’s going to signal that they’ll be holding them as a bargaining chip,” says Mr. Boroujerdi. “Even though they will eventually be released, Tehran will try to capitalize as much as possible and extract some concessions out of the United States."
He added that the treatment of Ms. Reiss would not be encouraging to Washington officials. Reiss was arrested on July 1 as she was leaving the country after teaching in Esfahan for five months. She has seen the French ambassador once for 10 minutes over the past five weeks of her detention, and spoken to him on the phone a further two times.
"Folks in Washington will not have been made comfortable by the way in which [she] was paraded before the court today,” says Mr. Boroujerdi.
Inside the wood-paneled court, haggard-looking defendants – some of whom have been kept for nearly two months – sat on leather-backed armchairs listening to the charges read out. One of them, Mohammad Reza Ali Zamani, was described as a member of an exiled monarchist group and recounted, according to a government-owned channel that broadcast only images of the defendants, how he was “taught to make bombs” and identify bases of the ideological Basiji militia for targeting. According to the commentary on Press TV, he admitted to receiving funding and training from Israel and the US in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan province.
Both the British and French governments condemned Iran for the decision to put them on trial. Commenting on the trial of its staff worker Hossein Rassam, who, according to Iran's IRNA news agency, told the court Saturday of a British role in financially bolstering activists, the British Foreign Office condemned the “so-called confessions of prisoners who have been denied their basic human rights” as “completely unacceptable.” Mr. Rassam was one of eight employees to be detained in the aftermath of the elections, and was released two weeks ago on bail.
Iran has been accused of detaining people to score political points in the recent past. It held 15 British sailors who allegedly straying into Iranian waters in 2007, and several Dubai-based Westerners in disputed territorial waters while on pleasure cruises.
Sympathizers and relatives protested outside the court before security forces violently dispersed them. Three family members of defendant Ali Tajer-Nia, a member of the reformist Mosharekat party, were arrested, according to eyewitnesses.
Iran has executed 115 people in the past two months according to Amnesty International in what the human rights group called an “alarming spike.”