How's that working out?

Photographer: Rick Wilking/AFP/Getty Images

Italy Does Iran's Dirty Work by Arresting a Dissident

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
Read More.
a | A

Since the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama has expressed his wish for Iran to join the community of nations. Taken in the abstract, this is not objectionable. If Iran changes its behavior, Western countries should try to meet it half way, so the theory goes.

But when understood in the particular, it is dangerous statecraft. Consider the recent fate of Mehdi Khosravi, an Iranian opposition figure who received refugee status in 2009 from the U.K. On Saturday, Khosravi was arrested by Italian police in Lecco at the request of a court in Tehran.

If Iran was a normal nation, this would not be controversial. Countries fulfill extradition requests all the time. But Iran is more like Russia under Vladimir Putin, which also uses the extradition process to target its political opponents. Ask William Browder, the American investor whose lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in prison as he was investigating the theft of tax revenue. Last year, the Russians issued a "red notice" with Interpol for Browder's arrest.    

On Monday, a press attaché at the Italian embassy in Washington sent me a notice from the Lecco police district. It said the authorities had executed Khosravi's "international arrest warrant issued by the Tehran Court (Iran) for the crime of corruption for the purpose of extradition." An Italian court is expected to hear the case in the coming weeks.

The fact that it's gone this far is outrageous. Khosravi is not a well-known activist, but he was enough of a political opponent of the regime that the U.K. took him in after the 2009 purges that followed Iran's rigged presidential election. Today he works with a group headed by Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran's deposed Shah, that advocates for free and fair elections in Iran.

Khosravi's lawyer, Sahand Saber, told me there is nothing to the corruption charges. "Mehdi today writes articles and blogs about democracy and the need for a separation of powers in Iran," he said.

Saber said he believes the arrest may represent an effort on the part of some Italian government officials to curry favor with the Iranians after last summer's nuclear deal. "I think the Italian government wants to work economically with the regime," he said. "Maybe the Italian government has been asked to do this." The Italian embassy Monday offered no comment other than the press statement from the Lecco police district.

If Saber's theory is correct, it suggests another dark consequence of the Iran nuclear deal. When U.S. officials first sold the pact, they emphasized that only the sanctions against Iran's nuclear program would be lifted in exchange for Iranian concessions. If European countries are beginning to honor Iran's extradition requests, then this is another consequence of a diplomatic arrangement Obama insisted was a narrow nuclear one only a year ago.  

Patrick Clawson, the director of research for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me he hoped Khosravi's arrest was a "bureaucratic mix-up, and not an effort to curry favor with the Iranians." Clawson said the Iranians have placed the names of political opponents inside the Interpol system requesting judicial extradition for years. But Western governments have properly ignored these requests.

"Once a Western government has accepted someone as a refugee, they should not face arrest," Clawson said. "Unless this gentleman is being held by authorities for some crime he has committed outside Iran, it's outrageous to even arrest him." 

In one sense, this represents a kind of progress for Iran -- if we apply a soft bigotry of low expectations. For years, the regime would send operatives to Western countries to murder political dissidents, forgoing the appearance of a judicial process altogether. The most famous case was in 1992, when an Iranian hit team murdered three Iranian Kurdish leaders and their translator at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. At least now the regime is attempting to bring its political opponents home before executing them.

But the real lesson of the Khosravi affair is that Iran remains a threat to the community of nations that Obama had hoped it was ready to join.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net