By Edward Carney
At the start of this week, the Islamic Republic of Iran hosted the new British Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt, and media reports indicated that the plight of Iranian dual nationals was a major point of interest during discussions with Iranian officials. But while The Independent declared that Hunt had arrived in Tehran “with a clear message” about the unacceptability of using innocent Westerners as political bargaining chips and tools of anti-Western propaganda, Reuters noted that no such message was conveyed by media inside Iran, where crackdowns on free speech and the independent press have been escalating alongside the repression of dual nationals.
In advance of his trip, the UK Foreign Minister said that he would use the occasion to emphasize Iran’s terrible human rights record and to demand the immediate release of such persons as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian charity worker who was arrested in April 2016 and accused of being a major figure in a vaguely-described “infiltration network” seeking the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The accusations were apparently based primarily on the young mother’s former affiliation with the British Broadcasting Corporation, although she was employed only by its charitable arm and had no involvement in the news reporting that has long been banned inside the Islamic Republic.
But if Hunt did exert pressure on his Iranian counterpart or on other Iranian officials over this case and related human rights issues, the country’s state media simply declined to report upon those aspects of the conversation. In recent months, Tehran has frequently boasted about the trajectory of its relations with European nations, suggesting that they are siding with the Islamic Republic against the US in the wake of American withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. As such, this agreement and associated trade relations reportedly formed the crux of Iranian state media’s reporting on Hunt’s visit.
The Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as saying, “The Europeans should accelerate their efforts to save the deal...We are ready for all scenarios, including a return to pre-deal era.”
Even when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was in full force among all negotiating parties, the Iranians were in the habit of urging greater efforts by Western trading partners to confer economic benefits on Iranian businesses, in line with associated relief from economic sanctions. However, Tehran made full re-integration into the Iranian market difficult, in part by refusing to come into compliance with the anti-money laundering standards of the Financial Action Task Force. And now that the US has fully re-imposed the sanctions it suspended under the JCPOA, international transactions with Iranian partners are even more complicated and impractical.
Nevertheless, the European Union and most of its member states continue to stand firmly behind the JCPOA, even in the face of challenging issues like Tehran’s hostage-taking of Western nationals. For his part, the UK Foreign Minister said in a statement preceding his visit to Tehran, “The Iran nuclear deal remains a vital component of stability in the Middle East by eliminating the threat of a nuclearised Iran. It needs 100 percent compliance though to survive.”
Such commentary seems intended to portray the UK as a friend, rather than an enemy of the Islamic Republic, though it is frequently given the latter label in public statements by Iranian officials. In its commentary upon Hunt’s visit, The Independent raised questions about the prospects of European officials convincing their Iranian counterparts that their intentions are pure, much less successfully inspiring the release of hostages being held on politically motivated charges in Iranian prisons. In light of the Iranian leadership’s penchant for conspiracy theories, the article observes, “any westerner is bound to be treated as a potential, if not an actual, spy.”
To this it might be added that many of the same individuals are prone to being singled out for harsh treatment while in detention. This appears to be the situation facing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has alleged repeated instances of psychological torture by prison officials. Among other tactics, those officials reportedly barred her from contact with her British husband and attempted to convince her that he was conspiring to take away their child and leave Nazanin in her Iranian prison. At the time of her arrest, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was accompanied by her two-year-old daughter Gabriella, whom Iranian authorities barred from leaving the country and placed in the care of her Iranian grandparents.
Although the prisoner has been granted occasional furlough to visit her daughter during the past two years, these temporary releases have been abruptly and arbitrarily truncated, thus precipitating additional psychological strain, the details of which have been conveyed to Western media by her husband in the wake of phone calls between the couple.
Of course, the relatives of imprisoned dual nationals are often those individuals’ greatest advocates upon Western soil, as well as being a crucial source of information about instances of prisoner abuse and extrajudicial punishment in the Iranian penal system. Prominent among those advocates in the United States is Babak Namazi, who is the brother of one wrongly imprisoned American citizen and the son of another.
The latter relationship returned to the spotlight just a few days before Jeremy Hunt spoke out about the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case. NBC News quoted Babak as saying of the 82-year-old Baquer Namazi, “I can't imagine how much more my father can really withstand… I fear the worst.” Babak accordingly met with senior officials at the White House and the State Department last week to urge renewed efforts to secure his father’s release.
In October 2016, Baquer Namazi and his son Siamak were both sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “collaborating with a hostile state.” Neither the exact nature of the charges nor the evidence against them were presented to the public, and the trials have been internationally condemned. Such secrecy is characteristic of politically motivated cases in the Islamic Republic, including the case against Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
As NBC News reports, Baquer Namazi’s health has steadily deteriorated since he began serving his sentence. The situation is exacerbated not only by his advanced age but also by the notoriously harsh and unhygienic conditions of facilities like Evin Prison, where both of the Namazis are being held. Baquer has reportedly been released a number of times over the past nine months, but in keeping with familiar tactics employed by Iranian authorities against political prisoners, these medical furloughs have also been cut short, with the effect of prolonging the elderly prisoner’s life but not allowing him to recover.
As NBC noted, Iranian officials have tentatively expressed interest in releasing one or more dual nationals as part of a prisoner exchange. And despite Iranian state media’s silence on the topic, it is not unlikely that Tehran communicated this sentiment to the UK Foreign Minister during his visit on Monday. But for critics of the Islamic Republic, such statements only serve to underscore the Iranian regime’s habit of hostage taking and its tendency to view Western nationals either as ideological threats or as political bargaining chips.
Interestingly, right around the time of Jeremy Hunt’s departure from the UK, local events served to demonstrate the British government’s very different attitude toward foreign nationals, and specifically toward those who originate from the Islamic Republic. According to the Associated Press, dozens of Iranian refugees arrived on the British coast over the past week alone. Far from casting suspicion on the arrivals, the British Home Office publicly announced that they would be “processed in line with immigration rules,” and as such they may be granted asylum in the wake of their apparent flight from the theocratic dictatorship in their home country.
In contrast to the various recent arrests of dual nationals in Iran, there is arguably some justification for Western nations to take a reflexively suspicious approach to dealing with visitors from Iran. In March, Iranian operatives were arrested plotting a terrorist attack on members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran who are presently living in Albania. In June, two other operatives and a high-ranking Iranian diplomat were arrested for attempting to bomb the rally organized in France by the PMOI’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. And in October, yet another arrest was made, this time in Denmark, relating to a foiled plot to assassinate Iranian opposition activists.
These plots have led to economic sanctions, and to public calls for more of the same, on the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and its affiliates. But there is no indication that they have led to a change in the approach to dealing with Iranian nationals, either in the UK or elsewhere. For that matter, the UK Foreign Minister’s visit to Tehran indicates that there has not even been a substantial change in the diplomatic posture of European nations toward the Islamic Republic.
There is, however, pressure for change on this latter point, coming from various sources inside the European Union. On Monday, Agence France Presse reported that a letter had been published bearing the signature of 150 Members of the European Parliament, which insisted upon a more assertive response to Iranian terror threats and human rights abuses against dual nationals as well as the Iranian public. “Any expansion of political and economic relations with Iran must be conditional [on] clear progress” in these areas, said Gérard Deprez, the chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran intergroup, in commenting on his fellow signatories’ position.
It remains to be seen whether this letter or associated pressures succeed in generating an overall change in European policies regarding Iran. But the letter coincided with a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, and as Reuters reported on Monday, the participants affirmed support for French sanctions that had been imposed on the Islamic Republic following the June terror attack, thereby setting the stage for those measures to be extended across the whole of the European Union.