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A murky message

Iran's release of two Americans is most welcome but underscores the need to learn to talk to Tehran.

September 05, 2007

The good news: Iran has released two of the four Iranian Americans it has been detaining on trumped-up charges.

Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington who had been held in solitary confinement at Tehran's notorious Evin prison, was permitted to leave the country over the weekend, and on Tuesday came word that Parnaz Azima, a correspondent for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda who had been out on bail but unable to leave Iran, was handed her passport and told she was free to depart. An Iranian judge also said that a third "soft hostage," Kian Tajbakhsh, a New York-based academic and consultant for the Soros Foundation, will be released soon. The fate of California businessman Ali Shakeri, who like Tajbakhsh is still reportedly being held in solitary confinement, is unknown. Tehran should release them immediately.

The bad news: Nobody in Washington seems truly to know why they were released.

Esfandiari was allowed to post bail shortly after Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, replied to a letter from her boss, former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group. It is worth noting that Hamilton wrote a respectful letter asking for Esfandiari's release and pledging to work for peace between the U.S. and Iran. Did the supreme leader simply intervene in a damaging spat within the deeply factionalized Iranian government and side with those who felt that the American prisoners were becoming a public relations liability? Or should the releases be seen as an attempt to appease the Bush administration, which has become increasingly angry at Iran for allegedly supplying weapons and fighters to anti-American insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as for intransigence over its nuclear program?

Demanding to know why the Americans have been released now may seem churlish. But in fact it's every bit as essential as probing Iran's nuclear plans. After 27 years of severed relations, U.S. understanding of Iran appears to be shallower than ever, even as Iranian politics remain a black box. With tensions rising between the two adversaries, that's a dangerous disconnect. U.S. and Iranian officials are slated to meet for a third round of talks about Iraq. Now is the time to broaden the agenda and begin a real conversation.

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