Despite White House Expectations, Iran Seems Even More Committed to Hostage-Taking

On Wednesday, it was reported that yet another person with Western citizenship, specifically an Iranian-British dual national, had been detained in the Islamic Republic amidst escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf. The BBC identified the arrestee, Kameel Ahmady, as a social anthropologist who has done research on such topics and female genital mutilation and the persistent practice of child marriage in Iran. This background raises the possibility that he has been targeted on the basis of perceived ideological challenges to the theocratic regime, but it is equally likely that his dual citizenship alone was sufficient motivation for security services to arrest him.

Institutions such as the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have a long history of targeting persons for arrest on that basis, and there was at least one British national already in prison at the time of Wednesday’s news, as well as half a dozen Americans. One of the US citizens returned to international headlines last week as various Western media outlets marked the three-year anniversary of his initial arrest.

Having been in Iran for the purpose of academic research at the time, Xiyue Wang stands alongside Ahmady both in the category of detained foreign national and detained scholar. However, his research is far more difficult to construe as politically sensitive, given that it focused on Persian society and governance in the 19th and early 20th centuries, long before the advent of the Islamic Republic or even the Shah’s regime which preceded it.

Among last week’s retrospectives on Wang’s case, some highlighted the harsh conditions he has reportedly suffered within the Iranian prison system. The latest information from fellow prisoners and from Wang’s own conversations with his wife indicate that he has been held in a cramped cell alongside as many as 25 other prisoners. The crowded and unsanitary conditions have contributed to the deterioration of his health, and this has reportedly been exacerbated by psychological torture related to the false allegations against him and his separation from his now six-year-old son.

Last month, Tehran abruptly released one American permanent resident who had been sentenced shortly before Wang, to an equivalent sentence. Some accounts of Nizar Zakka’s return to his native Lebanon suggested that the move was an instance of outreach by Iranian officials, potentially paving the way for negotiations and a prisoner swap involving the other American prisoners. But other accounts emphasized the role that the Iran-backed, Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah had played in securing his release on account of the good will that it might have engendered among Zakka’s supporters inside Lebanon.

In any event, Zakka’s freedom yielded additional details about Wang’s case in advance of last week’s coverage, since the two men had apparently shared a cell. Zakka expressed serious concern for Wang’s well-being and joined in the chorus of advocates calling for more concerted efforts by the US government to encourage Iran to vacate a plainly unjustified sentence. This, too, was a feature of many of the reports and editorials concerning Wang’s arrest on the occasion of its three-year anniversary.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Wang’s wife Hua Qu made reference to President Donald Trump’s efforts to influence the case of American rapper A$AP Rocky, who had been detained in Sweden after a public fight. “I believe the ordeal of my husband and other unjust detention cases deserve the same level of attention,” she said, echoing a sentiment that has been expressed by the families and friends of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, and other Western citizens and permanent residents who have been undergoing long ordeals in the Iranian prison system.

Concerns about a relative lack of government advocacy have plagued not only American prisoners but also persons with links to other Western nations, including the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been held as a political prisoner and apparent hostage of the Iranian government for roughly four months longer than Xiyue Wang. At the time of her arrest, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was attempting to leave the Islamic Republic with her two-year-old daughter after visiting her Iranian parents. She was then accused of filling a leading role in a vaguely-defined “infiltration network” working toward the “soft overthrow” of the theocratic system. But evidence, apart from her British citizenship, was presented to substantiate the allegation or even the claimed existence of the spy network.

Nevertheless, her case became more complicated in 2017 when then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson delivered careless public remarks on her case and seemed to accept the Iranian regime’s claim that she had been “training journalists” at the time of her arrest. In fact, although Zaghari-Ratcliffe was once employed by the BBC, it was only as part of its charitable wing and her responsibilities never involved training or collaboration of any kind with the organization’s reporters. Tehran was quick to seize upon Johnson’s gaffe as support for their narrative about the prisoner, and the regime reacted with outrage when London later offered formal diplomatic protection to Zaghari-Ratcliffe, possibly in an effort to compensate for the past misstep.

Yet this has not stopped the prisoner’s British husband Richard Ratcliffe or her other advocates in the West from criticizing a supposed lack of direct government action in pursuit of her release. In June, the couple personally undertook a joint hunger strike to draw additional attention to her case, with Ratcliffe performing his protest in front of the Iranian embassy in London. Among other demands, the hunger strike was meant to compel authorities to provide Zaghari-Ratcliffe with access to medical treatment, following the emergence of tumors on her breast, among other physical and psychological health problems.

The denial of medical treatment is a familiar form of extrajudicial punishment and pressure in Iranian prisons, and it is particularly prevalent among the population of political prisoners. Thus, it is one aspect of the harsh condition that is likely to face Kameel Ahmady, now that he has apparently joined the ranks of persons being held by Tehran in order to set an example for the domestic activist community and/or put pressure on foreign entities with an interest in his well-being.

At roughly the same time that British media were reporting on Ahmady’s arrest, ITV News released a profile of a former resident of Tehran’s Evin Prison, thereby underscoring the difficult situation facing Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Ahmady, and others like them. “It's all about breaking you down and dismantling your identity and really treating you like an animal,” said Ana Diamond of her overall experience in that facility, where she spent seven months in solitary confinement for no apparent reason other than because authorities had seen pictures of her standing alongside politicians for whom she had volunteered while residing in Britain.

ITV specifically connected Diamond’s case to that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, after noting that the former prisoner is “sharing her story to try and help other foreign nationals detained in Iran who maintain their innocence.” She has reportedly met with Richard Ratcliffe to discuss strategies for encouraging his wife’s release, and the two hope to visit the United Nations later this year alongside other people who have been affected by the phenomenon of Iranian hostage-taking.

As the news of Ahmady’s arrest indicates, the number of people thus affected is still growing. But at the same time, questions have arisen about the willingness of relevant Western governments to listen to recommendations concerning their wrongfully imprisoned citizens. Zaghari-Ratcliffe herself raised this concern after finally receiving medical attention outside of Evin Prison in July. “Nazanin is happy that she was released from the hospital,” Richard Ratcliffe explained to the press after speaking to her by phone. “But she still suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. She also told me that she has been following British politics closely and now worries that the recent changes might mean that she will be forgotten.”

These changes naturally include British foreign policy’s newfound focus on Iran’s retaliatory seizure of a British-flagged vessel following the British seizure of a supertanker that was found to be carrying Iranian oil to Syrian in violation of European Union sanctions. But Zaghari-Ratcliffe may also have had in mind the prospective changes stemming from Boris Johnson’s election as the UK’s new Prime Minister. The specifics of those changes remain to be determined, but Johnson has variously been compared to Donald Trump and some expect that his government will align more closely with such White House strategies as “maximum pressure” on Tehran.

That strategy has arguably fueled criticism of the Trump administration’s supposed lack of progress toward freeing US citizens, since the president has professed a general unwillingness to offer any concessions to the Iranian regime until it fundamentally changes its behavior. But for whatever it is worth, the administration’s various recent statements suggest a high degree of confidence in “maximum pressure” as a means of compelling Tehran to set wrongfully detained Westerners free.

The arrest of Kameel Ahmady may undermine this claim, if it turns out that it was carried out as another act of retaliation against the pressure that the UK is exerting on Iran over last month’s seizure of the Stena Impero. And this would come as little surprise to most. After all, it was reported last week that maritime security firms had started replacing British security personnel on commercial ships out of fear that they could be targeted for kidnapping by Iranian naval forces, which have reportedly begun interfering with GPS systems in an effort to get such ships to stray into Iranian territorial waters.

Still, while actual arrests and fears of kidnapping may suggest that Iranian concessions are farther in the future than the Trump administration would like to admit, the media coverage of those incidents should alleviate concerns about Western hostages being forgotten in the midst of escalating tensions. In the worst case scenario, the ranks of those hostages will continue to grow, but this fact in itself will focus even greater international attention on the plight of those who have already been wrongfully detained in the Islamic Republic.