Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Human pawns, free at last

USA Wed Aug 22, 12:20 AM ET Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, 67, has been living in an Orwellian hell since her Tehran airport taxi was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men in December. They prevented her from flying home to the USA after visiting her ailing mother. In May, after months of interviews by Iranian intelligence, she was imprisoned and held virtually incommunicado. Until Tuesday. Suddenly, she was let out on $333,000 "bail," guaranteed by the deed to her mother's Tehran apartment. It's unclear whether Esfandiari will be allowed back to the USA or whether the charges will be dropped. Her case is part of a profoundly disturbing pattern. Iran has a history of using hostages for extreme psychological warfare. It inflicted trauma on the USA almost 30 years ago when young Revolutionary Guards seized 52 U.S. Embassy hostages and held them for 444 days. Now Iran is returning to this abusive tactic. In March, it held 15 British sailors and marines on trumped-up charges. It has charged three other Iranian-Americans for security-related offenses. Iranian TV has churned out chilling, coerced propaganda. Why the newfound capriciousness? Revolutionary Guard student leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are now in positions of power. The nation needs bargaining chips as it spars with the United States over Iran's illicit nuclear weapons program and influence in Iraq. Hard-liners are desperate to win internal factional power struggles. Whatever the underlying reasons, they reflect an erratic, insecure regime. Firm, steady, concerted pressure is the appropriate response, be it to the weapons program or the holding of human pawns. Beijing games China, meanwhile, has released a jailed activist — and allowed him to return to his home, wife and two children in the Boston area after five years in prison. The case of Yang Jianli (left, by Getty Images), 44, a Chinese citizen and legal U.S. resident, has some parallels to that of Esfandiari. The Harvard scholar and former Tiananmen Square protester was detained in 2002 while traveling around China, meeting activists and laid-off workers. He was held, mostly incommunicado, on charges of spying for Taiwan and entering China illegally. Although he was released in April, he wasn't allowed to leave the country until now. After being reunited with his family Saturday, Yang said he still believes that China is on the path to democracy, that the government is "sitting on a powder keg" and "the tighter the grip on power, the more difficulty they will have in holding on." That may, or may not, be true. As with Esfandiari, U.S. officials — including President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson — championed Yang's cause and pressed for his release. But what seems to have clinched the deal: China is eager to show a tolerant face to the outside world as the 2008 Beijing Olympics approach. Repressive regimes have always used human beings as pawns. During the Cold War, Eastern bloc countries singled out dissidents according to the state of the political chess game with the West. The fates of Esfandiari and Yang are proof that the game still goes on. Leverage on Iran is more limited. Fortunately for Yang — and perhaps for others — China's grandmasters are looking toward the Beijing Games. But the real test of whether China's tolerance is genuine will come only after the games are over.

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