Tensions between the US and Iran are in danger of climbing to new highs after conservative forces in the Islamic republic, aided by the judiciary, this weekend sentenced a US student to 10 years in prison on charges of espionage. The US immediately called on Iran to release all American citizens detained on “fabricated” national security charges.
The details of the student’s crimes are simple. Xiyue Wang, a 37-year-old postgraduate researcher into governance in 19th and 20th century Muslim regions at Princeton, collected Iranian documents over 100 years old as part of his studies. This was considered enough to be accused of “infiltrating” Iran and passing confidential information to the US government and research institutions abroad. Wang, who also holds Chinese citizenship, joins over 70 “spies”, many imprisoned on fabricated national security-related charges, in Tehran’s prisons.
This sentencing is merely the latest in a series of incidents aimed at damaging President Hassan Rouhani. Conservatives, led by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and sections of the clergy, fume that the president has made too many concessions to the West, including in particular signing Tehran up to the nuclear deal exactly two years ago. To celebrate the anniversary, they arrested Rouhani’s brother as part of a corruption inquiry.
Although cases like Wang’s have occurred before, the timing of the sentencing of the student is a clear attempt to paint Rouhani as powerless in the face of domestic opposition; the control of the courts is held by the hard-liners, and Rouhani will be unable to take action in the face of international pleas for clemency.
The attacks from the establishment are no doubt hampering Rouhani’s ability to govern. Since his victory in the presidential election earlier this year, when he defeated hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Rouhani has struggled to push through major policies. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has criticised the president, giving a clear signal to his supporters that Rouhani is a fair target. They have not held back.
Nevertheless, Iran’s conservatives are playing a dangerous game by involving US hostages in what is primarily a domestic power struggle. The atmosphere towards Tehran in Washington is the most febrile for years; President Donald Trump is an avid supporter of Israel and outspoken critic of Iran, and has not held back from denigrating the nuclear deal signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, as “the worst deal ever made”. His Administration is equally anti-Iranian, with senior figures like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis both aligned against the Islamic republic.
The US is no longer the accommodating, patient international counterpart that it was under Obama. Trump has already added further sanctions against Iran after it continued its missile tests and has clearly stated that he believes it to be breaching the nuclear deal ‘in spirit’ if not legally. Its non-nuclear behaviour is causing deep concern in the White House and the State Department, which are both reportedly looking for ways to punish Iran’s transgressions. Trump has told Congress again that Iran is legally complicit with the agreement, giving himself more time to figure out how to dismantle the deal.
When uncertainty over how to deal with Iran is so high in Washington, Tehran’s hardliners are taking a significant risk in suddenly involving yet another US national in their internal dispute with Rouhani. While they may want to portray themselves as standing up to the ‘Great Satan’, in reality this will only lead to more economic sanctions and hardship for the Iranian people, whose support for the regime is already wearing thin. In the long term, this may not be such a good move.