I suppose I should know better than to respond to op-eds by editors at Commentary, but this piece in the LA Times just can’t be passed over. Gabriel Schoenfeld, the author, alleges that a 2002 investigative piece by the Times, which showed that the CIA had been recruiting Iranian emigrés as sources in LA, led to the recent arrests of four Americans in Iran. Let’s ignore the fact that a proposed chain of causality with a five year gap in it is suspect, and dig into Schoenfeld’s argument:
[T]he 2002 leak fed an existing fear. Iranian intelligence undoubtedly suspected that the CIA was doing the kind of thing reported on by The Times. But suspicion is one thing; certainty and concrete details are another. A story offering details of how Iranian emigres were being recruited by the CIA to gather sensitive intelligence could not but have the effect of placing a class of visitors — a class already regarded with great wariness — under the most intense scrutiny. And Iran, needless to say, is not a country with a Bill of Rights, under which one is presumed innocent until proved guilty.
So the argument here is that the fact that the CIA was recruiting in LA Iranian immigrant communities led Iran to be suspicious of Americans visiting relatives in Iran, and this suspicion led to the recent arrests. A reasonable assertion, especially considering as the CIA program explicitly targeted emigrés with relatives in Iran. Reasonable, that is, until one considers that, of the four Americans arrested, two (Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh) worked at think tanks in Washington, one (Parnaz Azima) worked for Radio Free Europe in Prague, and one (Ali Shakeri) is an Irvine-based businessman. Shakeri is the only one of these four even remotely near Los Angeles. If the Iranians were massively concerned about CIA operations in LA, arresting three people not based in LA along with one near the city seems like an odd move.
However, this still leaves the possibility that the Iranians assumed, from the revelation of the LA program, that similar programs were underway in other areas, such as Prague or Washington. Given as seven percent of the Iranian-American population, or 19,726 people lives in D.C., this seems a plausible belief. But it ignores the fact that 50,000 foreign travelers, including from the US, visit Iran every year. In 1997 and 1998, a single tour company brought in close to 600 Americans. Given the popularity of US-Iran travel, Schoenfeld, if his argument is to hold, should be able to show that the LA Times‘ disclosure of the CIA program led to these particular people to be arrested, rather than the plethora of other visitors, many of whom go to Iran to visit relatives.
I suspect he is unable to do this, as the reason the four were chosen is obvious. Shakeri is an active proponent of democracy in Iran. Tajbaksh works for the Open Society Institute, which promotes democracy and the rule of law. Esfandiari has been a critic of the Iranian government’s treatment of women. And Azima works for Radio Free Europe, a propaganda operation of the US government which promotes democracy. All four are outspoken proponents of liberalization in Iran and have worked toward that goal. That’s why they were arrested – not because of some five-year-old LA Times article.