Journalists' Arrests Show Split in Iran ; U.S. Writer among Those Held by Judiciary in Battle for Power with President

By Erdbrink, Thomas | International New York Times, August 9, 2014 | Go to article overview

Journalists' Arrests Show Split in Iran ; U.S. Writer among Those Held by Judiciary in Battle for Power with President


Erdbrink, Thomas, International New York Times


The arrest of Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post highlights the split between Iran's president and the state institutions that hold the real power.

Jason Rezaian knew he was being watched. A man on a motorcycle had been following him and his wife for weeks, his colleagues said. The tail was so blatant that Mr. Rezaian, The Washington Post's correspondent in Tehran, had even managed to take a picture of the license plate.

Like many foreign journalists accredited by the Iranian authorities, Mr. Rezaian had grown painfully accustomed to being under constant suspicion. Opponents of Iran's leaders accuse correspondents of soft-pedaling to avoid being expelled, while conservatives inside Iran often call them spies. Some hard-liners even say they should be executed.

"It's like walking a tightrope," Mr. Rezaian, 38, said in June. "When you fall down, it is over."

Then on July 22, plainclothes men waving an arrest warrant signed by Iran's judiciary forced their way into Mr. Rezaian's apartment, taking him and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a journalist for a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, to an unknown location.

Aside from one phone call from Ms. Salehi telling her parents that she was at "a party," they have not been heard from since.

Their arrest and that of another colleague, a photographer who is a dual American-Iranian citizen like Mr. Rezaian, have sent a shudder through the press corps at a time of crucial international talks over Iran's nuclear program. But they also point to a deep division between Iran's president and the largely unelected state institutions that hold the real power in this nation.

"This is an embarrassment for the president," said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a journalist close to Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani.

Iran often presents a united front to outsiders, but since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it has been sharply divided among different groups competing for influence. Mr. Rouhani was elected in 2013 after promising more domestic freedoms and better relations with the outside world -- including with the nation's archenemy, the United States -- but he has found limited room to maneuver, checked by an alliance of hard-line clerics and commanders that has steadfastly opposed his agenda.

While Mr. Rouhani has suggested reining in the morality police, who often arrest women not covering their hair completely, his opponents have organized demonstrations demanding a crackdown on those not properly veiled. As he has called for greater personal rights, the city of Tehran, controlled by a former Revolutionary Guards commander, has started segregating men and women in municipal offices.

On the international front, Mr. Rouhani's calls for normalizing relations with Western countries have been countered by weekly shouts of "Death to America" during Friday Prayer, and this past week lawmakers proposed a plan requiring the government to buy weapons and send them to the West Bank to arm the Palestinians. Last month, after Mr. Rouhani floated the possibility of cooperating with the United States to stem the chaos in Iraq, where militants have seized cities and towns, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, quickly told the Americans to back off, warning them not to intervene.

Now the arrests of the journalists have added to the push and pull between the two nations.

"Those who arrested them are acting like bulls in a china shop," said one official with inside knowledge of the case but who was not authorized to speak publicly. …

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