Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff

INU  On Thursday, the Voice of America published an editorial on the situation of dual nationals being held hostage in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The article came just days after there had been a number of other reports on some of these individuals, including a New York Times piece alleging that deals for their release might be in the works as Iran angles for a 500 million dollar debt repayment from the United Kingdom and the release of a number of Iranians serving prison terms in the United Sates, mostly for sanctions violations.
The apparent Iranian effort to use Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Xiyue Wang, and other Western citizens as leverage in these issues lends credence to many of

the criticisms that have been expressed by opponents of the Islamic Republic, among them the current leadership of the US. The Voice of America piece quoted the White House as saying, “Iran has used detentions and hostage taking as a tool of state policy.”

Regardless of the ends that the Iranian regime hopes to achieve through this hostage-taking, it is clear that the trend is continuing at a steady or even escalating pace. Voice of America also noted that both the US State Department and the United Nations rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran have called attention to the targeting of dual nationals in their latest reports on the regime’s human rights record.

At least four American citizens and two permanent residents are currently detained in the Islamic Republic, on the basis of what Asma Jahangir, the UN special rapporteur called “easy” and “far-fetched” charges of espionage. Four of these individuals have been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Additionally, Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British dual citizen, has been sentenced to five years after authorities accused her of training journalists for the “soft overthrow” of the clerical regime. She is scheduled to face a new trial on December 10 as hardliners strive to use a charge of “propaganda” to expand her sentence by as much as 16 years.

Little to no real evidence has been presented to corroborate the charges in any of these cases and Jahangir also noted that the relevant trials have taken place in absence of dual process, suggesting that the motive for the prosecution was “not justice, but revenge”. The campaign of vengeance has also taken place in the court of public opinion, with Iranian state media presenting substantial propaganda about Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Wang, and others.

Several-minute features on those two prisoners were broadcast in November, just before the Times and other outlets began reporting that Iranian authorities were considering the possibility of parole for Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The coincidence of that judiciary statement and the propaganda broadcasts led many to conclude that the Iranians were raising the profile of the British national’s case in order to put greater pressure on the British government.

If that is the case, it stands to reason that Iranian state media was not satisfied with the British response, because a follow-up to the previous week’s propaganda broadcast was aired on the first day of December. It reiterated the claim that she had been at the head of a training program for journalists, run by her employer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

That organization has repeatedly rejected the claim and has affirmed the purpose of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s trip to Iran in the spring of 2016 was not professional, but a personal visit to her family, accompanied by her two-year-old daughter. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is a charity that is separate from the Reuters news service, and none of its charitable projects are located in Iran. The accusations against Zaghari-Ratcliffe evidently stem not from her employment at the time of her visit to Iran, but rather from her previous employment with the BBC World Service Trust. Although this, too, is a charitable organization, the Iranians have linked Zaghari-Ratcliffe, through it, to BBC Persian, which is banned by the regime.

According to Agence France Presse, the new propaganda broadcast about the imprisoned Briton elaborated upon its accusations by specifically asserting that financing for the Thomson Reuters project in Iran was provided by the United States Agency for International Development and, by extension, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. It provided no credible evidence for this or for the very existence of a Thomson Reuters project within the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, the previous state media feature had presented as evidence a pay stub from Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s employment with the BBC World Service Trust, even though that aspect of her employment history had never been disputed.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe has generally been able to speak to her once a week by phone from Britain, and he has continued to keep Western media updated about her condition. Recently, he described her as being “on the verge of a nervous breakdown” after she was scheduled to face her new trial on the 10th. It is not clear whether she has been made aware of the public dissemination of information about her case via Iranian state media.

Psychological strain aside, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s physical condition is said to be deteriorating as well. In November she was finally transferred to a hospital upon finding lumps in her breast, but only after her complaints of stabbing pains in that area had been ignored at length. The denial of access to medical care is a well-known pressure tactic in Iranian prisons, and its use is reportedly ongoing among other imprisoned dual nationals.

Another AFP report highlighted the case of Xiyue Wang while featuring quotations from his wife, who has urged the US government to “open dialogue” with Iranian leaders for the sake of securing his release. Hua Qu told reporters that her latest contact with Wang revealed that he could barely stand up as a result of prison conditions exacerbating or causing arthritis, rashes, back pain, and diarrhea. “He doesn't have any treatment other than painkillers, which he takes for everything he's got,” Qu said.

Although the AFP report points to the urgency of the demands for dual nationals to be freed from their detention in Iran, it also contributes to the perception that their situation is being made more urgent as a deliberate matter of policy by the Iranian regime. While visiting family in Beijing, Hu reportedly sought help from the Chinese government, only to be informed that “the Iranians wanted to deal only with the US government,” because they were intent on exchanging US nationals for imprisoned Iranians.

At the start of 2016, coinciding with the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, the US released seven prisoners and dropped charges against 14 others in exchange for four Americans who were then being held prisoner in Iran, also on apparently trumped-up charges of espionage. The prisoner swap also coincided with a “debt repayment” in the form of 800 million dollars’ worth of foreign capital flown directly into Iran. It is presumably no mere coincidence that less than two years after that exchange, the Iranian government is reportedly pushing simultaneously for the release of more prisoners from the US and also for the repayment of a decades-old British debt as conditions for the release of Western nationals.

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