Editor's Note: Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation. Reza H. Akbari is a research associate for the program.
By Geneive Abdo and Reza H. Akbari – Special to CNN
If there were any doubt that Iran has sentenced a young Iranian-American to death purely for political reasons, Amir Hekmati’s family has now provided convincing evidence of Iran’s true motives.
In an interview with the BBC Persian Service, the family said Hekmati, fearful he would find himself exactly in the situation he is in now, visited the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, D.C., before his trip. He provided detailed information about his background as a former U.S. marine and sought advice from officials at the Interests Section. He asked if they thought this would cause problems for him in Tehran, and they assured him it was safe to make the trip.
Not only did the Iranian officials in Washington mislead Hekmati, but it seems that they alerted the authorities in Tehran, transforming the young man into the latest political pawn in the running conflict between Iran and the United States.
This new information sheds light on both the depth of Iran’s fear of Western intervention and the lengths to which it is resolved to counter mounting pressure from the United States. It should also serve as a warning to many of the Republican Presidential hopefuls that, while it is easy to raise the rhetorical temperature for domestic political gains, taking on the regime in Tehran will be no simple matter.
Whether it is an isolated strike on its nuclear facilities or a larger attack, Iran would retaliate with all its might as would its proxies in the Middle East. Such a development would make the costly, bloody conflict now winding down in Iraq look like a training exercise.
The death sentence for an Iranian-American on charges of “collaborating with a hostile government [the United States], membership in the United States’ intelligence organizations, and attempting to accuse Iran of terrorism” is highly unusual, even for Iran. While Americans have been taken hostage, Iranian-Americans held for long periods in prison, no American in recent memory has received the death sentence.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, Iran maintains that its judiciary is independent from politics. But in fact, the Iranian judicial branch is politicized and the majority of the political cases tried in the Islamic courts are predetermined rulings handed down to the judge by higher officials.
The decisions behind sensitive political cases are often made within the upper echelons of the intelligence and security organizations. Trials and the events surrounding political cases are also used for propaganda purposes, which is true in the case of Hekamti. His confessions were broadcast on December 18 on Iran’s state-run television on a program entitled “confessions of an American Spy.”
According to a subsequent report published by Fars News, a semi-official news agency close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, the accused admitted to staying in the Bagram U.S. military air base in Afghanistan for two months prior to his trip to Iran. According to this report, Hekmati confessed to receiving intelligence training during his stay at the base. Now, it is known that this information, according to BBC Persian’s interview with his family, was provided to the Iranian government through their Interests Section in Washington DC.
Judge Abolghasem Salavati, the judge presiding over Hekamti’s trial, is infamous for handing out heavy prison terms and execution sentences to the majority of the accused in his court. He has presided over many sensitive political cases, such as the trials of the three American hikers, the prominent Iranian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, Zahra Bahrami, a Dutch-Iranian citizen who was executed for “drug trafficking,” and the Iranian politician and diplomat Ebrahim Yazdi. He was also the judge who presided over the numerous show trials following the disputed 2009 presidential election, handing out heavy prison sentences to hundreds of Iranian reformists and dissidents.
More proof of the judiciary’s lack of independence is the direct involvement of the Supreme Leader in choosing the head of the judicial branch. Sadegh Larijani, the head of the judicial branch, was handpicked by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2009. He is the brother of Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, with close ties to the military and intelligence agencies.
Given the political nature of the judiciary, and what appears to be a shift in how Iran is dealing with sanctions and other aggressive acts by the United States, it would not be surprising if Hekmati becomes another victim among those who have gotten caught in the crossfire of Tehran and Washington’s perennial cold war.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Geneive Abdo and Reza H. Akbari.