Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff

INU - On Wednesday, the New York Times published a report on the situation of Western nationals imprisoned in Iran. The headline pointed to “new signs of a deal” for those individuals, in the form of Iranian officials “dropping hints” about their willingness to release British and American hostages in exchange for the release of sanctions violators imprisoned in the United States and/or the payment of more than 500 million dollars as a de facto ransom that would technically reimburse Iran for a number of British tanks that were ordered by the government of the Shah but were not delivered after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The United Kingdom is said to be weighing the possibility of making this “debt repayment,” which would have previously been disallowed by economic sanctions that were in place prior to the nuclear agreement that went into effect in January 2016. The implementation of that nuclear deal corresponded with a previous debt repayment, this one by the United States, which evidently helped to secure the release of four American citizens then being held in the Islamic Republic. The US also released seven Iranian nationals from prison and dropped charged against 14 others as part of this prisoner swap.

Direct link between the cash payment and the prisoner exchange was not formally acknowledged by either side of the exchange, and the same trend appears to persist amidst consideration of an exchange between Iran and Britain. But the New York Times report indicates that a spokesperson for the Iranian judiciary “seemed to draw a connection” between the prospective debt repayment and the potential for conditional release of the Iranian-British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is currently serving a five year sentence on the basis of accusations that she had contributed to journalistic efforts to encourage the “soft overthrow” of Iran’s theocratic regime.

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of the 38-year-old mother and charity worker, has reportedly acknowledged this connection as well. In the first place, RT quoted him as saying that Nazanin has “long been an explicit bargaining chip” for the Iranian government. Additionally, the Financial Times indicated that he had advised the UK’s Foreign Office that repayment of the outstanding debt could provide Iran with further incentive to uphold its own international commitments.

The Financial Times also reported in some detail on the above-mentioned remarks by Iranian judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei. “The question now is whether this person is subject to [conditional] release or not,” Mohsen-Ejei said in reference to Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was initially imprisoned in April 2016. Under Iranian law, certain individuals are eligible for conditional release after they have served one-third of their sentence, a benchmark that the dual national will surpass in December. It is possible that by highlighting this provision, the judiciary is setting a sort of deadline for the British government to commit to a ransom payment or other concession aimed at securing her release.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has announced that he plans to visit Zaghari-Ratcliffe in prison by the end of the year. The overlap between this schedule and her potential eligibility for conditional release is apparently feeding expectations that the prisoner may return to the UK alongside Johnson.
There is no such expectation regarding the case of the four US citizens and two permanent residents known to be held captive in Iran. As the New York Times pointed out in its report, the administration of US President Donald Trump has been extremely critical of his predecessor’s alleged ransom payment for the hostages released at the start of 2016. Additionally, Trump has overseen a substantial increase in pressure on the Islamic Republic, including a number of new sanctions on missile activities and support of terrorism.

Accordingly, the White House has shown little interest in directly communicating with the Iranian regime over the situation of the current American hostages, although Trump and other officials have issued statements calling for their unconditional release. The Times indicated that State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert had reiterated this demand on Tuesday but also that she had given no response when asked about the possibility of dialogue with Tehran.

Although many critics of the Iranian regime are pleased with the more aggressive turn in US foreign policy, not everyone is satisfied with the prospect that this creates for Americans in the Islamic Republic. Hua Qu, the wife of imprisoned Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang spoke out on his case this week and specifically urged Trump to open up dialogue with Iranian leaders. In an interview with NBC News, Qu revealed that her husband has attempted suicide since being sentenced to 10 years in prison on the basis of accusations that he passed documents to the State Department.

Qu also noted that her husband has “multiple diseases,” thus highlighting the poor conditions and often deliberately enforced lack of medical care in Iranian prison facilities. The New York Times also pointed to this trend and suggested that imprisoned Western nationals were facing increasingly dire circumstances, even as Iranian authorities were angling to negotiate their release.

In fact, these two trends may go hand-in-hand, with prison authorities withholding medical care to whatever extent they feel they can do so without imminent risk to the life of the prisoner. The Times noted that the 82-year-old Iranian-American dual citizen Baquer Namazi has lost six teeth from malnutrition during his time in prison and has been barred from receiving implants for which he has already been fitted. At the same time, he has received a pacemaker for his heart while in condition, and the Times suggested that this was indicative of his value as a bargaining chip for Iranian authorities.

The Iranian judiciary’s reference to possible conditional release for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe may have also served as a veiled reference to the threat that ongoing imprisonment poses to her health. In addition to being eligible for release on parole, Iranian prisoners may also be granted release on medical grounds, and the latest reports of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s condition suggest that her very life may be in danger following a series of incidents related to her physical and mental health.

The prisoner was transferred to a hospital earlier this month after discovering lumps in her breasts, although earlier complaints of stabbing pains had been ignored. At around the same time, her husband indicated that she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Now, RT reports that Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as panic attacks, insomnia, severe depression, and uncontrollable mood swings.

Despite all this, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is reportedly still pursuing additional charges against her, which could extend her sentence by 16 years. She has been scheduled to face trial on December 10. Her conviction would likely have an adverse impact on her prospects for conditional release, but it remains to be seen whether British dialogue with the Iranian government or a British commitment to paying de facto ransom would have any impact on the potential for her conviction and re-sentencing.

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