As the Washington Post noted on Tuesday, Iran’s recent announcement of 17 arrests allegedly of supposed CIA assets follows a familiar pattern. The Islamic Republic has repeatedly boasted of rooting out Western spies at times when tensions were escalating between the Iranian regime and its traditional adversaries. And with potential for more escalation in the days ahead, this could be a precursor to further crackdowns on dual nationals and persons with significant connections to Western nations.
Iran’s assertions about recent arrests have yet to be independently verified, and the identities of the 17 individuals are not publicly known at this time. However, the Ministry of Intelligence has made it clear that some of those persons – arrested and tried during a one-year period ending in March – are currently awaiting execution. This could increase the urgency of efforts to resolve the cases of several dual nationals currently serving prison sentences in the Islamic Republic, on charges of spying for the US or Britain.
For some of these individuals, the sense of urgency had already grown in the days preceding the Intelligence Ministry’s announcement. For instance, the British government issued a fresh appeal to Tehran earlier in July concerning the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was arrested at the conclusion of a visit to her Iranian family in April 2016 and was sentence to five years in prison on the accusation that she was a leading figure in an “infiltration network” pursuing the “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic.
The latest action on her case appears to stem from the Iranian government’s reaction to a hunger strike that she undertook along with her British husband Richard Ratcliffe, who simultaneously staged a protest outside the Iranian embassy in London. One of the goals of that hunger strike was to compel the Iranian judiciary to allow Nazanin access to medical treatment, which had been routinely denied despite several worsening health concerns. Immediately in the wake of the protest, there were signs that at least some of those concerns were being addressed via her transfer to the mental health ward of Imam Khomeini hospital, but the resulting relief among her advocates was short lived.
Soon after the transfer, it was reported that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had blocked Nazanin’s family and British consular officials from visiting her. This stoked fears that the new venue was being used as a setting for torture aimed at eliciting a false confession from the prisoner. Although sentenced to five years by the Revolutionary Court, neither Zaghari-Ratcliffe nor her family or employers ever admitted to any political activity or espionage in the Islamic Republic. The case against her appeared to be based almost entirely on her past affiliation with the British Broadcasting Corporation, even though this affiliation never involved work for the company’s news division, whose Persian service is banned inside Iran.
Despite the apparent lack of evidence against her, footage of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest was aired on Iranian state media as part of a series dedicated to praising the regime’s supposed disruption of infiltration networks. If the IRGC were able to secure a false confession, it would no doubt contribute to this narrative and appear on state television, as has been the case with many other confessions that were allegedly elicited via torture.
In mid-July, a spokesperson for then-Prime Minister Theresa May said of the British government, “We are extremely concerned about Nazanin’s welfare and call for her immediate release, and we urge Iran to allow family members to visit her and check on her care.” Now, it is reasonable to conclude that there is even more grounds of concern, given that the regime seemingly regards it as even more important to justify and propagate the narrative of aggressive foreign infiltration.
As well as providing such justification, a forced confession by Zaghari-Ratcliffe could also provide a basis for an extended sentence – something that would presumably be desirable to the regime as it searches for leverage to use in efforts at alleviating Western pressure and discouraging the enforcement of economic sanctions. It would not be the first time this prisoner had faced the threat of additional time in prison, and it would not be at all unprecedented for the judiciary to follow through on such a threat. Around the same time as Britain’s statement concerning Zaghari-Ratcliffe, it was reported that two other political prisoners, Golrokh Iraee and Atena Daemi, had each been sentenced to an additional three and a half years behind bars, as a result of their ongoing activism.
Such activism is frequently connected, without evidence, to foreign intelligence agencies and foreign-linked infiltration networks. As such, there is clear potential for more aggressive punishment of purely domestic political prisoners, as well as dual nationals, in the wake of state media claims concerning the prosecution of CIA assets.
Meanwhile, the ranks of political detainees continue to grow, with occasional implications for Western countries’ relations with the Islamic Republic. On July 16, the Iranian judiciary confirmed but did not explain the arrest of yet another dual national, a French-Iranian academic by the name of Fariba Adelkhah. She, too, was denied visits from consular staff, in keeping with Tehran’s refusal to acknowledge the principle of dual nationality.
“What’s happened worries me a lot,” said French President Emmanuel Macron in response to the arrest. “We were informed for several days and I had the opportunity to express not only my disagreement but my desire to have clarifications from President Rouhani.” However, there has been no subsequent indication that clarifications have been offered, apart from a vague accusation that the 60-year-old anthropologist was involved in spying.
On its own, this accusation is enough to warrant concern about torture, a denial of due process, and the potential for a long prison sentence or even capital punishment, especially in light of the regime’s recent boasting about death sentences for supposed CIA spies.