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The detention of Iranian Americans by the government in Tehran serves the purpose of those hardliners who want to avoid diplomatic engagement with the United States. This is the argument Karim Sadjadpour takes in his recent Foreign Policy article. Sadjadpour argues that the imprisonment of his friend Kian Tajbakhsh is not about Tajbakhsh’s supposed role in the post-election protests; as the Iranian government views it, “da’va sar-e een neest…that’s not what this fight is about.”
Tajbakhsh was not the opposition mastermind that the government alleges. As the protests against the June election were reaching their height, Tajbakhsh maintained a low profile. He even continued to “meet with his minder” from the Ministry of Intelligence, like he had been doing since his four month imprisonment in 2007. Sadjadpour contends that the Iranian government is using Tajbakhsh as a means to an end. The leadership wants to strengthen its negotiating position in relation to the United States.
Sadjadpour points out that,    

While neighboring Dubai and Turkey have managed to build thriving economies by trading in goods and services, Iran, even 30 years after the revolution, remains in the business of trading in human beings.

In an attempt to answer the question why this is still the case and what is to be done, Sadjadpour looks to both the left and the right. Continuing to engage with Iran can only boost the ability of the United States to help people imprisoned by the Iranian government. At the same time, hardliners in Iran work to sabotage engagement with the United States as a way to distract people from the country’s real problems. Imprisoning Iranian Americans, like Tajbakhsh, is one of the methods hardliners use to wag the dog.
Perhaps it is time that the Iranian government begins to worry more about the economic well being of its citizens, and less about its relative standing in the world. Indeed, in all likelihood Iran’s standing in the world would increase if the government stopped oppressing its own people and looked to their needs.
Even Niccolo Machiavelli, the ultimate advisor on power politics, recognized that rulers should avoid being hated: “the prince must consider…how to avoid those things which will make him hated or contemptible; and as often as he shall have succeeded he will have fulfilled his part, and he need not fear any danger in other reproaches…And one of the most efficacious remedies that a prince can have against conspiracies is not to be hated and despised by the people.” A government that resorts to fear and repression as methods of retaining control also begins the process of undermining its own authority in the eyes of the people.
It is time that Iran’s leaders begin to act like a government that has an interest in the welfare of the Iranian people, and begin to act less like men with guns. In a fitting conclusion, Sadjadpour allows Tajbakhsh to have the last word on the state of the Iranian government,

Iranians might ponder Barack Obama’s challenge to Iran to articulate ‘not what it is against, but what future it wants to build.’ Each Iranian will wonder how much thought our rulers or our fellow countrymen have given to this critical question and why answers to it are so vague and so few.

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