• 27 October 2009
  • Posted By Matt Sugrue
  • Events in Iran, Human Rights in Iran

A Policy of Imprisonment

The detention of Iranian Americans by the government in Tehran serves the purpose of those hardliners who want to avoid diplomatic engagement with the United States. This is the argument Karim Sadjadpour takes in his recent Foreign Policy article. Sadjadpour argues that the imprisonment of his friend Kian Tajbakhsh is not about Tajbakhsh’s supposed role in the post-election protests; as the Iranian government views it, “da’va sar-e een neest…that’s not what this fight is about.”

Tajbakhsh was not the opposition mastermind that the government alleges. As the protests against the June election were reaching their height, Tajbakhsh maintained a low profile. He even continued to “meet with his minder” from the Ministry of Intelligence, like he had been doing since his four month imprisonment in 2007. Sadjadpour contends that the Iranian government is using Tajbakhsh as a means to an end. The leadership wants to strengthen its negotiating position in relation to the United States.

Sadjadpour points out that,    

While neighboring Dubai and Turkey have managed to build thriving economies by trading in goods and services, Iran, even 30 years after the revolution, remains in the business of trading in human beings.

In an attempt to answer the question why this is still the case and what is to be done, Sadjadpour looks to both the left and the right. Continuing to engage with Iran can only boost the ability of the United States to help people imprisoned by the Iranian government. At the same time, hardliners in Iran work to sabotage engagement with the United States as a way to distract people from the country’s real problems. Imprisoning Iranian Americans, like Tajbakhsh, is one of the methods hardliners use to wag the dog.

Perhaps it is time that the Iranian government begins to worry more about the economic well being of its citizens, and less about its relative standing in the world. Indeed, in all likelihood Iran’s standing in the world would increase if the government stopped oppressing its own people and looked to their needs.

Even Niccolo Machiavelli, the ultimate advisor on power politics, recognized that rulers should avoid being hated: “the prince must consider…how to avoid those things which will make him hated or contemptible; and as often as he shall have succeeded he will have fulfilled his part, and he need not fear any danger in other reproaches…And one of the most efficacious remedies that a prince can have against conspiracies is not to be hated and despised by the people.” A government that resorts to fear and repression as methods of retaining control also begins the process of undermining its own authority in the eyes of the people.

It is time that Iran’s leaders begin to act like a government that has an interest in the welfare of the Iranian people, and begin to act less like men with guns. In a fitting conclusion, Sadjadpour allows Tajbakhsh to have the last word on the state of the Iranian government,

Iranians might ponder Barack Obama’s challenge to Iran to articulate ‘not what it is against, but what future it wants to build.’ Each Iranian will wonder how much thought our rulers or our fellow countrymen have given to this critical question and why answers to it are so vague and so few.

Posted By Matt Sugrue

    8 Responses to “A Policy of Imprisonment”

  1. Pirouz says:

    The Turkish comparison is tired and misleading. Look at Turkey’s substantially higher public debt. Also, consider the economic war waged against Iran by the US for the past 30 years. Take this into consideration, and you may well reach a very different conclusion.

    I feel for Karim. I honestly do. His pal is in prison. Certain Iranian authorities condemn Tajbakshs for his Soros connection. In 1970, Angela Davis went through a similar show trial right here in the US, for her anti-establisment stance and communist connections. Bobby Seale and Abbie Hoffman encountered very similar experiences.

    Matt, I highly encourage you review the American anti-establishment movement and mass demonstrations of the late 1960’s, early 70s. It will provide you with some bearing and objectivity for what is now taking place in Iran.

  2. Someone says:

    @ Pirouz:

    I’ve been following your comments for a while now and it seems to me that you bring up the history of U.S. repression of dissidents in order to justify Iran’s current repression.

    You seem to imply that if it’s okay for the U.S. government to use violence and imprisonment to suppress opposition then it’s okay for the Iranian government. But why use the one to justify the other when you can take a principled stand for human rights and oppose both?

    By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you if you’re familiar with the American-Iranian Council. I don’t know too much about them but they’ve been advocating engagement with Iran while at the same time staying more or less silent on human rights abuses in Iran. I think they may be more of your cup of tea than the NIAC. Here’s their website: http://www.american-iranian.org/

    Not that I don’t appreciate hearing your opposing views here. I believe the AIC is also doing important work advocating engagement and just thought you might like to know about them.

  3. Pirouz says:


    Thanks for responding. Unfortunately, there are some that misinterpret my comments comparing the historical anti-establish movement of the US with the current situation in Iran, as some form of justification for human rights anywhere in the Middle East, including Iran. That’s simply not the case. What I seek to provide is, like I stated in the previous post, a sense of bearing and objectivity for what is happening today inside Iran. If you’ve lived through both struggles (including revolutionary Iran), I personally find that you cannot but be struck by certain similarities. Steadiness and caution are my suggestions in observing these events as they unfold. Widen your focus to include all of Iran; not simply a vocal section of the protest. Most importantly, remain objective.

    Back in 1970, the anti-establishment movement of the US envisioned the end of American conservatism such as the Republican party (through revolution, if necessary). Obviously, that had no chance of happening. Likewise, it is equally unrealistic to believe that there might be in the foreseeable future an Islamic Republic of Iran without something like the Abadgaran, or an Iran without the Islamic Republic for that matter.

    Regarding the NIAC, my attachment to the organization stems primarily from my respect for Trita Parsi and his writings, particularly his early efforts. He’s an impressive young man, and we look to him for leadership.

    If for some reason the NIAC doesn’t appreciate my views and insights, please let me know and I’ll cease contributing to niacINsight. Trita has my email address.

  4. Alireza says:

    A question for Pirouz: when was the last time the U.S. government killed dozens of demonstrators involved in political protests? When was the last time the U.S. government executed many thousands of its own citizens for belong to political organizations, as the IRI has done?

  5. Someone says:

    @ Pirouz:

    I agree that there will always (at least in the foreseeable future) be a conservative constituency in Iran. It’s not my reading of the green movement that they wish to eliminate that constituency. I believe they just want to open up political space for a more liberal constituency which has been shut out of the peaceful political process.

    They’re also demanding rights that would benefit all Iranians regardless of their political views such as the right to free expression and other rights that are supposed to be granted by the constitution.

    During the civil rights movement in the U.S., no one could have imagined the kind of progress that would occur in the American South in the following decades. In spite of that, brave Americans risked and at times sacrificed their lives against all odds to help bring about racial equality.

    I believe it’s admirable whenever and wherever people stand up for their rights and I don’t think you have to loose your objectivity to hold a strong hope that Iranians too will succeed in claiming their rights.

    @ Alireza

    I don’t believe there has been that level of repression in the U.S. in recent history. However, look up Waco and Kent State. Most governments have the blood of their own people on their hands and the freest country in the world is no exception.

  6. Alireza says:

    To Someone:

    I am aware of Waco and Kent State. And I agree with you that most governments in the world, including the U.S., have the blood of their own people on their hands. However, the scale of IRI killing of Iranians far exceeds many Wacos and Kent States. Moreover, it far exceeds the number of Iranians killed by the Shah’s dictatorial regime.

  7. Pirouz says:

    Making historical comparisons, there are never identical cases. And debating the severity of a dozen protestors killed over a half dozen is really pointless, wouldn’t you agree?

    I can, however, point out a few items in the IRI’s favor right now. Although there have been noises made to imprison and prosecute the two main opposition leaders, this hasn’t (yet) happened. During the period of American history I draw a comparison to, one of the leading opposition figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, did undergo a period of imprisonment. Also, we’re not seeing in Iran whole neighborhoods of major cities being put to the torch, like there were in America in 1968. In Iran today, there hasn’t even been a successful strike in support of the demonstrators, that I know of. This lack of active labor and business support for the demonstrators could actually indirectly support the WPO poll data, which provides 91% support for the IRI government, 80% support for the election results and 55% claiming they voted for Ahmadinejad. (To my knowledge, the WPO poll is the only hard data we currently have to draw upon.)

    Unlike 1988, there appears to be a moderating force in effect this time around in Iran. There have been arrests, but many have also made eventual bail. Even in the case of student dissent, there appears to be a fair amount of effort being made to actually engage the students. From what I’m seeing (albeit thousands of miles away from the scene), there appears to be a much greater level of official engagement than that which was shown at US universities during the years 1965-1972. Anyway, that’s my personal experience I’m drawing upon.

  8. Alireza says:

    Pirouz, what’s pointless (and dishonest to boot) is your assertion that the number of Iranians executed by the IRI amounts to “a dozen”. Between 1981 and 1985 alone, it killed over 12,000 Iranians (the vast majority executed for belong to opposition organizations). It killed thousands more in 1979-1980 and again in 1988. How does that even remotely compare in terms of death toll to the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. I would love to hear a straight, non-evasive response on you regarding the fact that the IRI is a prolific killer of its own citizens.

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Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
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Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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