It's been quite the month for the Iranian regime. Following a mid-April round of talks over its nuclear program with the European Union's Foreign Policy chief, Catherine Ashton, the mullahs were basking in newly found credibility. The talks were "constructive and useful," Ashton said, adding that any agreement would respect "Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy."
Nobody doubts that the Iranians are shrewd negotiators. The diplomatic twists of the last few years prove that the regime has genuine expertise when it comes to using procedural wrangling as a delaying tactic. Amid the latest nuclear talks on May 23 in Baghdad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it best: "It looks as though [the Iranians] see the talks as another opportunity to delay and deceive. Iran is very good in playing this kind of chess game."
Away from the glare of the Baghdad parley, there is a different story percolating, one that hasn't received anywhere near the kind of attention given to the nuclear talks, but which offers another telling illustration of how Iran's leaders have become masters of deception.
The case concerns Youcef Nadarkhani, a 35 year-old pastor who abandoned Islam in order to embrace Christianity and who continues to face the prospect of execution. While Christians in general face growing persecution in Iran and other Muslim countries, special opprobrium is reserved for those who convert to the faith.
Nadarkhani, who is a member of the evangelical Church of Iran, was first arrested in 2006 on apostasy charges related to his promotion of Christianity among Muslims—a practice that is guaranteed in free societies, on the grounds that prospective converts can make up their own minds about whether to accept or reject the tenets of a different religion. Then, in 2009, he protested that his children were being forced to study the Quran at school. Both he and his wife were charged with apostasy and imprisoned. His wife was subsequently released, but Nadarkhani still languishes in a prison cell.
During his trial, the judge told Nadarkhani that a death sentence could be avoided if he repented by giving up his Christian beliefs. "Repent means to return," the pastor answered. "What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?" When the judge stated that Nadarkhani should return to Islam, "the religion of your ancestors," Nadarkhani gave the simple, devastating reply of a prisoner of conscience: "I cannot."
In late 2011, there was a burst of energy around Nadarkhani's case. Shocked by the execution announcement, western leaders urged the Iranians to respect his rights to freedom of worship. "Pastor Nadarkhani has done nothing more than maintain his devout faith, which is a universal right for all people," declared a White House statement.
Nadarkhani's brief sojourn in the spotlight probably secured a delay in his execution. However, that should not lead us to conclude that the Iranians panicked. They are far more methodical than that. There are mixed signals emerging over Nadarkhani's fate, and as with the nuclear showdown, those are exactly the signals they want to send.
On the positive side, Nadarkhani remains alive and in occasional contact with the outside world. Last week, a letter widely thought to have been written by Nadarkhani was released by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a rights organization that has campaigned tirelessly on the pastor's behalf. "From time to time I am informed about the news, which is spreading in the media, about my current situation…or campaigns and human rights activities which are going on against the charges which are applied to me," Nadarkhani stated. These words suggest that Nadarkhani's state of mind is positive, something that will come as a relief to his supporters and bolster the campaign for his release.
But on the negative side, at the beginning of May, the Iranians announced that Nadarkhani's lawyer, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, a man who was a critical source of news about the pastor's condition, had himself been sentenced to nine years in prison. The regime banned Dadkhah from teaching law or representing clients for a further 10 years.
Dadkhah was one of the founders of Iran's Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC)—a legal project presided over by the Nobel Prize-winning lawyer, Shirin Ebadi. In that capacity, Dadkhah has defended some of Iran's leading dissidents, including Ebrahim Yazdi, Iran's oldest political prisoner.
Prior to imprisoning Dadkhah, the Iranians demanded that he confess on television to a pile of fabricated charges, among them that foreign governments fund the DHRC. This kind of behavior is standard practice among totalitarian regimes; dictators from Stalin to Saddam Hussein favored public confessions as a means of defeating existing opponents and intimidating potential adversaries into silence.
With Dadkhah in jail, there is, sadly, another reason to doubt whether Nadarkhani and other prisoners of conscience will win their freedom. As with the nuclear program, the Iranian strategy for dealing with dissidents involves the display of tantalizing glimmers of light, only for darkness to come crashing down moments later. In the case of the nukes, the goal is to keep a nervous outside world from making the dramatic decision to allow a pre-emptive strike.
In the case of the prisoners, the goal is to sap their spirit. "All that we know who lie in goal/Is that the wall is strong/And that each day is like a year/A year whose days are long," wrote Oscar Wilde in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, sentiments no doubt experienced by Pastor Nadarkhani.
Precisely because of that, Nadarkhani is under few illusions about the true nature of his captors. One wonders what it will take to break the spell on the part of Catherine Ashton.