On Thursday, the Assyrian International News Agency reported upon legal appeals that had been filed in the cases of four Iranian Christians who were arrested for their participation in the same at-home worship services, as part of a larger movement to facilitate the expression of Christian faith in a country where converting from Islam is considered illegal and potentially punishable by death.
Three of the four individuals in question, Assyrian pastor Victor Bet Tamraz and Christian converts Hadi Asgari and Amin Afshar Naderi, were charged with “acting against national security by forming home churches”, “attending seminars abroad”, and “proselytizing Zionist Christianity.” Naderi was also charged with “insulting the sacred and received the stiffest sentence: 15 years. The other two were sentenced to 10 years in prison, while Tamraz’s wife was given five years for “acting against national security by organizing home churches, attending Christian seminars abroad and training Christian leaders in Iran for the purpose of espionage.”
All four co-defendants maintain that they were not engaged in missionary work, much less espionage, and that there is no evidence to support the charges against them. The legal challenges to their convictions strive to portray them as examples of the escalating persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews issued a report on Thursday that highlighted these and other cases of Christian imprisonment, and argued that it was indicative of clear upward trend.
The IFCJ report also asserted that in addition to being denied by Iranian authorities themselves, this rise in persecution has not been adequately covered by the international media. Such criticisms are perhaps made more serious by the fact that the persecution is by no means limited to Christians. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty issued its own report on Thursday to highlight the large-scale imprisonment and other forms of legal and social pressure confronting the Sufi Muslim minority, particularly the movement known as the Gonabadi dervishes.
The report placed particular emphasis on the case of Mostafa Abdi, a 33-year-old journalist who served as editor of the largest news outlet with a focus on the dervish community. He has been sentenced to 26 years in prison, plus two years of internal exile and a ban on journalistic or political activities, on the basis of his work. Additionally, eight of his colleagues have been handed sentences of between five and 12 years, in a sign not only of the clerical regime’s crackdown on religious minorities but also its efforts to control the domestic flow of information and suppress public awareness of its human rights abuses.
One expert who was quoted for the RFE/RL article described the numerous, lengthy prison sentences as an “ultimatum” to the rest of the community. Upwards of 200 Gonabadi dervishes are in prison in Iran today, while others contend with institutionalized discrimination that is apparently aimed at compelling them to disavow their Sufi sect and convert to more mainstream Shiite Islam.
RFE/RL also quoted the wife of a staff member at Abdi’s outlet, Majzooban, as saying that Iranian authorities are “cracking down on the dervishes harder because they fear their unity.” And indeed, government anxiety over both religious and political dissent is no doubt elevated in the midst of widespread anti-government protests, which began in earnest in late December as demonstrations in Mashhad regarding the nation’s economic crisis proliferated throughout the country and gave rise to chants of “death to the dictator [Supreme Leader Khamenei]” and “death to [President] Rouhani.” Although the nationwide uprising was suppressed by mid-January, scattered protests continue to emerge to this day, in apparent emulation of the movement.
By some accounts, the ongoing unrest has left Iranian authorities desperate for scapegoats on which to blame both the protests and the socio-economic conditions that has helped to motivate them. This was the position presented by Richard Schmierer of the Middle East Policy Council in a recent television interview with CNBC. Schierer called attention to Rouhani’s appearance before the Iranian parliament on Tuesday, where he answered questions regarding his administration’s mismanagement of the economic situation.
The Iranian president sought to blame an “American conspiracy” for the country’s skyrocketing rates of inflation and unemployment, but the sharp, downward economic trend predates the re-imposition of sanctions related to US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Schmierer highlighted this fact as well, and suggested that the regime’s failure to acknowledge or address that fact would continue contributing to domestic unrest as the Iranian people rejected official explanations for a crisis that was noticeably exacerbated by the waste of unfrozen assets on foreign conflicts and militarization.
Nevertheless, Rouhani and numerous other Iranian officials are evidently committed to the project of portraying the Islamic Republic as under threat from foreign “enemies” and “infiltrators.” The narrative of infiltration has always been popular among Rouhani’s hardline political adversaries, especially in the wake of nuclear negotiations that were perceived as downgrading the tensions that had been maintained between Iran and the US ever since the 1979 hostage crisis. It is a narrative that has helped to justify numerous arrests of dual nationals and persons with connections to the West – a trend that is certainly ongoing to this day.
The Minister of Intelligence in Rouhani’s government recently declared that security forces have arrested dozens of individuals who had supposedly been spying for foreign powers. Although Mahmoud Alavi was vague about the identity or allegiance of these arrestees, he stated that many of them were dual nationals, then went on to urge ordinary Iranians to report to the government about any knowledge they have obtained regarding people with citizenship or permanent resident status in foreign countries.
While such official statements suggest that the persecution of pro-Western voices is on pace toward further escalation, other reports underscore the severe pressure that is still being faced by those who have already been imprisoned – or arguably taken hostage – on the basis of their dual national identity. The New York Times published an article on Wednesday that pointed to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe specifically as an example of the pressures faced by other Western nationals in the Islamic Republic.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was recently denied an extension to her furlough after being granted a rare three-day visit to her four-year-old daughter Gabriella, who was prevented from leaving the country to rejoin her father Richard Ratcliffe in England after Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested more than two years ago. The abrupt end of that furlough reportedly prompted her to declare that returning to prison was even more difficult than remaining there. The ordeal also resulted in her being hospitalized for the latest in a series of recurring panic attacks, evidently related to the psychological torture that she has received as a political detainee in one of Iran’s most notorious facilities, Evin Prison.
Although Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an Iranian-born resident of the United Kingdom, several of her fellow political prisoners maintain American citizenship, including the businessman Siamak Namazi and the Stanford graduate student Xiyue Wang. Collectively, their false imprisonment and mistreatment is indicative of simultaneous increases in Iran’s domestic repression and its belligerent attitude toward traditional Western adversaries.
Of course, that belligerence is nothing new – a fact that was underscored on Thursday by a Washington Post article that detailed some of the revelations found in recently-unsealed transcripts of the US military’s interrogation of Qais al-Khazali, the leader of an Iraqi terrorist group known as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, who collaborated extensively with Iran and Hezbollah in order to kill Americans during the US occupation of Iraq.
The Washington Post goes on to emphasize the influential role that Khazali now promises to play in Iraqi politics, having been elected to that country’s parliament. His relationship with Iran is ongoing and the article concludes by saying, “He is a key player in the Iranian scheme to subjugate Syria, threaten Israel and thwart the United States,” and thus a logical priority for any Western strategy aimed at reducing Iran’s regional influence.
The American commitment ot that strategy was underscored earlier in the week when Secretary of Defense James Mattis declared that Iran had once again been put “on notice” over its destabilizing activities. Furthermore, Al Monitor reported on Thursday that the most recent preparedness exercises by the Pentagon have specifically increased their emphasis on emerging Iranian and Iran-backed threats, as a reflection of the rising levels of belligerence emanating from the Islamic Republic at a time when it is facing arguably unprecedented pressure both from the US and from its own people.