Iran Using Trials, ‘Confessions’ to Step Up Confrontation With the West

By Patrick Goodenough | August 10, 2009 | 6:19 AM EDT

( – Iran ratcheted up its row with the West over the weekend by putting on trial a French citizen as well as Iranian employees at the French and British embassies, all of whom publicly admitted to wrongful conduct during the protests that followed the disputed June election.
The “confessions” were made at the opening in Tehran of a trial, the second this month, of more than 100 defendants accused of playing a part in the protests. An indictment read out by a Revolutionary Court prosecutor accused Western governments, led by Britain, of a plot to overthrow the Islamic republic, through “public diplomacy” and “covert action.”
Western countries had used “radio and television networks to coordinate their public diplomacy against Iran,” it said, according to the official news agency IRNA. In particular, the indictment accused the BBC Persian-language service of inciting unrest by giving the impression that vote-rigging had taken place, and charged that the Voice of America tried to tarnish President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s image and give the impression that the Iranian system was undemocratic.
Western governments were accused of trying to trigger unrest by supporting and funding the opposition, causing rifts between citizens and the Islamic establishment, and training non-governmental organizations (NGOs), journalists and human rights activists to mar Iran’s international image.
Ahmadinejad’s contested re-election sparked the biggest protest demonstrations Iran has seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and were met by a violent crackdown that left at least 20 opposition supporters dead. Hundreds were detained.
Earlier actions taken by the regime against people linked to European Union missions drew strong denunciations from the E.U. and warnings of a withdrawal of envoys, although the step was not carried out.
By putting the three on trial, the government signaled Saturday that it does not plan to allow the controversy to ebb away.
Clotilde Reiss, a French citizen and teacher at Isfahan University, confessed to collecting information about and pictures of the post-election protests, and sending some, unsolicited, to the French Embassy.
Accused of harming Iran’s national security, Reiss, who has been detained since arrested while trying to leave Iran on July 1, told the court she realized she had made a mistake.
“I apologize to the court and the people of Iran, and I hope they will forgive me,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted her as saying.
Nazak Afshar, an Iranian working as a secretary in the cultural section of the French Embassy, admitted having taken part in two or three protests in “coordination with embassy officials,” and expressed remorse.
In her comments she claimed that the embassy had permitted protestors injured during the clashes to take shelter in the cultural section building. She also mentioned that the embassy’s cultural attache was “known to be an intelligence officer.”
Hossein Rassam, an Iranian employed at the British Embassy as a political analyst, was accused of holding “multiple meetings” with political activists and NGOs, gathering information during protest and attending meetings at the headquarters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate ostensibly defeated by Ahmadinejad.
The indictment charged that the British Embassy sought to fill the vacuum left by the absence of U.S. and Israeli intelligence.
Rassam told the court his position at the British mission required him to gather information on the political situation. He also expressed “regret” and asked to be pardoned.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in a statement called the charges “unjustified,” and said the actions against Rassam, Reiss and Afshar “only brings further discredit on the Iranian regime.”
Miliband said he had spoken to his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner and the government of Sweden, the current E.U. president. “We have reaffirmed our solidarity in the face of this latest Iranian provocation.”
Kouchner, speaking on French television, demanded that Reiss be freed, saying she was “not guilty of anything.”
The Swedish government, speaking for the E.U., demanded that the three be freed, and warned, without elaborating, that “actions against one E.U. country – citizen or embassy staff – is considered an action against all of E.U., and will be treated accordingly.”
‘Show trial’
While Britain was targeted in particular in the indictment, allegations were also made against the United States.
The prosecutor accused the U.S. – which has no diplomatic ties with or mission in Iran – of trying to influence the situation in Iran through its consulate in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, located across the Persian Gulf from Iran.
The consulate’s mission includes reporting on political and economic developments in the northern UAE as well as in Iran.
“The Iranian affairs office in Dubai has held educational workshops and sent groups of people from various background to America in the past two years in order to lay the necessary foundation for communicating with the country’s elite and various social classes,” the reformist news agency Rooz, quoted the indictment as saying.
In a CNN interview broadcast Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about criticism that the administration had been slow to condemn the election and support the protesters because of the desire to engage.
Clinton responded that the U.S. had not wanted to step in “too soon, too hard,” and give the leadership the opportunity to use the U.S. to unify the country against the protestors.
“Behind the scenes … we were doing a lot to really empower the protesters, without getting in the way.”
Clinton described the court cases going on in Iran as “a show trial, there’s no doubt about it.”
Among the other defendants put on trial at the weekend were “members of a monarchist group and members of a terrorist group who were accused of planning to carry out bombings,” Iranian state media reported.
Mousavi himself has not been charged, but a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said at the weekend that he and two other opposition figures – fellow defeated presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi and former president Mohammad Khatami – should be put on trial.
“What is the role of Khatami, Mousavi and Karroubi in this coup?” Brig.-Gen. Yadollah Javani wrote in the Corps’ weekly journal, IRNA reported.
“If [they] are main suspects behind the soft revolution in Iran, which they are, we expect the judiciary ... to go after them, put them on trial and punish them,” he said.
A similar call came from another senior commander, armed forces deputy chief of staff Brig.-Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, who said putting the main leaders of the unrest on trial would be an effective way of deterring future threats, Fars news agency reported Sunday.
The trial which opened on Saturday was the second relating to the protests; the first began one week earlier, on August 1. Both trials are set to continue.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow