Early this month, Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison on charges that have not been publicly clarified. She had been arrested in April when just about to return home after visiting family in Iran along with her then 22-month-old daughter Gabriella, whose passport was confiscated. Last week, Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer each received 10-year sentences for cooperating with the US, although the nature of this alleged cooperation was not made clear outside of the secretive, closed-door trial. And on Tuesday it was announced that yet another dual-national, Robin Shahini, had been sentenced to 18 years in prison after a similarly secretive trial on charges of collaboration.
Furthermore, the Washington Examiner reported on Wednesday that a permanent resident of the United States, the information technology expert Nizar Zakka, had informed the international press that Iranian authorities are demanding four million dollars for his release. Zakka was arrested after having been invited by government officials to an IT conference in Iran, where he delivered a speech on the role of women in that sector. He has reportedly been told that authorities considered sentencing him to death before resolving to hold him for 10 years or until the US pays for his release.
Previously, figures associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had indicated that they expected to receive “many billions of dollars” in ransom for the various imprisoned dual nationals. The Examiner indicates that officials had initially named two billion dollars as the price for Zakka’s release, before dramatically lowering that figure in September. But whatever the specific dollar amount may be, the State Department declares that it is resolved to not pay it.
The Examiner quoted State Department spokesperson John Kirby as telling reporters on Tuesday that the US does not pay ransom and has no intention of changing that policy going forward. However, this statement conflicts with many lawmakers’ perceptions of a January incident in which the initial 400 million dollar installment of a debt resettlement was paid by the US to Iran, in the form of a delivery of foreign currency, at the exact time that three American prisoners were being flown out of Iran as part of a prisoner swap.
The swap also saw the release of seven Iranians imprisoned in the US, as well as the dropping of charges against 14 others. But the corresponding debt resettlement was criticized for being, in effect, a ransom payment and thus a violation of the government’s longstanding policy of not paying for hostages. The White House has acknowledged that the 400 million dollars was used as “leverage” to make sure that the prisoners were released, although it also insists that the two issues were negotiated separately.
This is little comfort to critics of the Obama administration, who believe that the Iranians viewed the payment as a ransom and thus were emboldened in the taking of additional American hostages. The Namazi and Shahini cases, among others, lend credence to that claim, especially in light of the quotations indicating that at least some Iranian officials specifically expect to be paid for those prisoners.
On Tuesday, Iran News Update discussed these arrests and convictions in the context of recent reports highlighting Iran’s changing foreign policy. That policy apparently acknowledges the need for the Islamic Republic to court a significant degree of foreign investment, but also reflects the regime’s persistent desire to hold political and cultural influence at bay, in order to safeguard the hardline Islamic identity and dictatorial rule of the revolutionary government.
Many other reports have pointed out that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is an increasingly powerful player in the establishment and enforcement of such policies, and that this and other hardline organizations stand to benefit the most from a tightly managed embrace of foreign investment. The nature of that management was outlined once again by an Agence-France Presse report on recent IRGC comments about cooperation with foreign oil firms.
In keeping with the aforementioned reports by independent analysts and Western media outlets, those comments did indeed acknowledge that cooperation with such foreign firms is necessary, but also that the IRGC wishes to strictly limit the power and influence of those firms. “It is a disgrace to be under the hands of foreigners when we have so many educated young people,” said Brigadier General Ebadollah Abdollahi, the head of the IRGC-owned industrial conglomerate Khatam al-Anbia.
Abdollahi also downplayed the gap in technology and know-how between Iran and the West, saying, “There may be problems along the way, but we can definitely carry out these tasks.” Iran’s Oil Ministry seems to have expressed agreement with Abdollahi, giving Khatam al-Anbia and other firms with close links to hardline officials the first opportunities to bid on major oil development projects.
Foreign firms will surely be allowed in behind these, but even the latest templates for Iranian oil contracts indicate that foreign firms are expected to take a subordinate role. Although Abdollahi says that “no one is against foreigners coming,” it seems clear that hardline entities like the IRGC would like to limit contact between Iran and the West to the greatest extent possible while also taking advantage of Western investment capital.
This dual aims are reflected in the fact that Iran is taking some measures to attract foreign investment while apparently avoiding others. Numerous officials including the Supreme Leader have criticized the US for keeping in place banking restrictions that make it difficult for international financial institutions to do business with both the US and Iran. But at the same time, those officials have refused to bring the country in line with the universal standards set out by those restrictions, for instance by providing evidence of safeguards against domestic money laundering.
On the other hand, some factors limiting Iran’s attractiveness to the international banking system can be addressed without making serious changes to other Iranian policies, such as its policies of laundering money to foreign terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. In those cases, Iranian authorities have begun to assure the international media of forthcoming improvements. On Wednesday, CNBC quoted one such official as saying that the Iranian central bank is working on establishing a unified currency regime, thus ending the complicated situation in which foreign financiers must contend with one exchange rate set by the central bank and another set on the open market.
It is perhaps significant that these sorts of changes promise to make it easier for foreign nationals to interact with Iran remotely, through its own financial institutions, but do not address the broader concerns about the safety of persons who travel to Iran on business. Their safety remains very much in doubt – perhaps increasingly so – as the Iranians continue to not only defend the persecution of dual nationals but also to publicly voice their desire to use those arrestees as bargaining chips.