Dorothy Parvaz, an Al Jazeera reporter, was arrested several weeks ago while trying to enter Syria to cover the unrest there. Al Jazeera mounted a major publicity campaign to win her freedom–a practice that has worked in several detentions in the past. Syria only acknowledged that they were holding her several days ago. In a surprising move, Ms. Parvaz has apparently been deported to Iran.
The maneuver is not completely nonsensical. She holds American, Canadian, and Iranian passports, and apparently attempted to enter Syria using the Iranian passport (probably to reduce suspicions). Syrian authorities are claiming the passport was expired. Iran actually requested that Syria release her–not an uncommon practice when one’s passport holders are detained in questionable circumstances, but rather unexpected given Syria and Iran’s close relationship and the universal condemnation of Al Jazeera among the region’s autocrats. I had considered writing about that oddity, but thought it was a mere formality that would have no consequences.
The Syrians probably see this as their best available move. Releasing Parvaz into Syria would break the country’s careful suppression of media coverage of the ongoing crackdown. Releasing her to the United States was likely impossible, as the two states do not have positive relations, and releasing her to the US or Canada would risk her story immediately going to the airwaves of Al Jazeera and Western media outlets. Because it is very likely that Parvaz has been kept in very poor conditions (though she would be spared the worst treatment as a Westerner), the publication of her story could put pressure on Western governments to take stronger measures against Syria. Parvaz’s Iranian passport provided a way out–she could be “released” into the care of the Iranians, thus redirecting AJ’s gaze while still keeping her out of the spotlight.
It is likely that the Syrians and Iranians agreed that Parvaz would be detained for a few weeks, making her story come out at a more opportune time for the al-Asad clan. This will be an indicator that the current crackdown is not complete–there will be more cities shelled and more late-night visits from the intelligence service.
What is less clear is what is going on at the Iranian end. The current crisis between President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei risks a return to the old days of an Iran with “two governments and ten thousand leaders.” Ahmadinejad’s recent public appearances suggest he has grudgingly submitted–but not surrendered–to Khamenei. Though Parvaz may be facing charges for misusing her passport, she was personally escorted to the airport by the Iranian consul–hardly typical fare in an extradition. This suggests the work of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is headed by Ali Akbar Salehi, an Ahmadinejad ally.
It is thus possible that Ahmadinejad, in an act of revenge for his defeat, is bringing Parvaz to Iran to create a challenge for the now more prominent Khamenei. That he would choose relations with Syria as his locus of revenge may give insight on the root of the crisis. Ahmadinejad had tried to fire his Intelligence Minister, Heydar Moslehi, but Khamenei quickly restored his position, prompting Ahmadinejad’s disappearance from the public view. This dispute had itself reportedly been caused by an attempt to fire a more junior intelligence official, which Moslehi resisted. We must wonder, given the heavy involvement of Iran’s intelligence with Syria, if there is a major dispute within the regime on the proper direction to take on the ongoing crisis there. Iranian intelligence is doing something in Syria of which Ahmadinejad and his allies disapprove. Given the lack of information coming from Syria, we can do no more than speculate. However, there have been many reports of weapons being smuggled from Lebanon into Syria to aid the opposition. It is possible that Iranian intelligence is using its ties with (Lebanese) Hezbollah to become involved in Syria–an action that is risky whether it is for or against the government. Only time will tell what is really afoot.
Prediction: It is possible that Parvaz will be quickly released by the Iranians in a “gesture of good will.” It is more likely that Parvaz will be held for a few weeks and then released in a “gesture of good will.” Syria’s crackdown will continue for at least a few more weeks.