Can Diplomacy Save an American Condemned to Death in Iran?

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Reuters

Iranian-American Amir Mirzai Hekmati, who was sentenced to death in Iran on charges of spying for the CIA, stands with U.S. soldiers in an undisclosed location, in this undated image taken from a video that was made available on Jan. 9, 2012

The bad news for Amir Mirzai Hekmati, the 28-year-old American sentenced to death in Tehran on Monday for allegedly spying for the CIA, is that the state of relations between Iran and the U.S. makes Iran’s leaders indifferent, at best, to Washington’s condemnation of his conviction. Then again, Iran has not been in the habit of executing Americans accused of spying, even if it has held them for extended periods, trying to play their release as a card in the ongoing diplomatic poker game with Washington — think the three hikers, Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal; NPR journalist Roxanna Saberi; or U.S. academic Haleh Esfandiari.

Iran eventually freed all those Americans, but the atmosphere between the two countries is at its most toxic in many years amid a perilous escalation of the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed on Monday, has underscored its defiance of Western demands by beginning to enrich uranium inside its hardened underground facility at Fordo, near Qum. Enrichment at Fordo remains under the scrutiny of IAEA inspectors and is not producing bomb-grade materiel or diverting enriched uranium to any covert-weapons program. But it does violate the U.N. Security Council demand for Iran to suspend enrichment (which Tehran has ignored for the past five years), and the fact that it is taking place within a facility designed to withstand air strikes raises alarms among those advocating military action to stop Iran’s program.

Iran’s defiance and saber rattling has escalated in recent months, in response to the covert war being waged against its nuclear program by foreign intelligence services — which has included deadly bomb attacks on Revolutionary Guards missile facilities, the assassination of scientists, drone flights in Iranian airspace and cyberattacks — as well as Washington’s efforts to impose sanctions designed to cripple Iran’s economy. So poisoned is the atmosphere between Washington and Tehran right now that many question whether the two sides are able to avoid confrontation, with both facing domestic political imperatives to get tougher, and the Iranians seeing U.S. actions as a prelude to military action aimed at forcing them out of power.

That’s hardly a conducive environment to broker the release of Hekmati, and the fact that he has been shown on Iranian TV allegedly “confessing” to being a CIA agent won’t make it any easier for the divided leadership in Tehran to spare him — last week’s humanitarian action by the U.S. Navy to free Iranian fishermen from their pirate captives notwithstanding. He has 20 days to appeal the verdict; if that fails, he could be pardoned by Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. No question, though, that the 28-year-old former Marine is now a card in Khamenei’s hand.

Despite the ratcheting up of tensions, the game may yet turn toward negotiations. Key players are demanding that much: U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will visit Beijing this week, hoping to press China to comply with unilateral Western sanctions. He is likely to be sharply rebuffed. Beijing will comply only with those limited sanctions that have been imposed by the U.N. Security Council, officials say, and Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai on Monday told reporters, “This issue cannot be solved by sanctions alone … We also hope to see significant progress on the negotiation track.”

The European Union had once taken on the role of mediating between Iran and the U.S., but the fact that it has lined up behind Washington’s sanctions has diminished its prospects for brokering a deal. Instead, that role appears to be falling to Turkey, which has rejected the U.S.’s sanctions approach and demanded that its companies be exempt from the American measures that would punish third-country corporations doing business with Tehran. Turkey imports one-third of its oil supply from Iran, and its trade relationship with Tehran has expanded despite Western sanctions, to the point where it’s now worth some $15 billion a year. Albeit a NATO member state in good standing, Turkey has become increasingly independent of — and occasionally at odds with — U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Yet even while it maintains open channels with Tehran, it is sharply at odds with Iran over the civil conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Ankara also outraged Tehran by agreeing to station a NATO early-warning antimissile radar near its border with Iran. Still, Turkey has emerged as the most likely broker of any deal, looking set to host a new round of talks between Iran and the U.S. and its European allies, plus Russia and China.

Turkey had brokered what is considered a breakthrough confidence-building deal in the spring of 2010, involving an exchange of Iran’s enriched uranium for fuel plates necessary to power a Tehran medical-research reactor. But the Obama Administration scuppered that deal by ignoring it, insisting that Tehran was playing for time, and pressed ahead with new sanctions — leaving Turkish leaders outraged and more opposed than ever to the U.S.’s Iran policy.

Still, Washington needs Turkey, because its Iran strategy lacks a pathway to achieve its stated goal of a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was in Tehran last week, and this week will host top U.S. Iran negotiator Undersecretary of State William Burns. Clearly, Ankara is the key player in the efforts to defuse the standoff, although there’s unlikely to be any short-term resolution to the issues at the heart of the conflict. Instead, the diplomatic process will likely once again focus on confidence-building mechanisms. And that, of course, could eventually prove helpful to those pleading the case of Amir Mirzai Hekmati. Whether it will prove sufficient, however, will depend not on Turkey or any other mediator but on just how inclined each side is to back away from confrontation.

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