By Edward Carney
Last week, it was revealed that a US Navy veteran named Michael White had been arrested by Iranian authorities in July. This made him the fourth known American citizen to be held prisoner in the Islamic Republic. In addition, one permanent resident is also serving prison time and yet another US citizen has been missing since 2007 and is believed by his family to also be a prisoner of the Iranian government.
The possible years-long detention of Robert Levinson is indicative of the fact that Iran’s targeting of American visitors is a longstanding issue, but the news about Michael White has raised additional concerns about whether Tehran’s animosity toward Western travelers and dual nationals may be accelerating.
IranWire gave additional credence to that notion on Saturday when it reported that Iranian state media had resumed the production and broadcast of a “documentary” series peddling conspiracy theories about an “infiltration network” that is linked to Western intelligence agencies and committed to facilitating the “soft overthrow” of Iran’s theocratic regime.
In actuality, the regime’s description of this network is so broad as to potentially implicate anyone who expresses dissent or espouses more progressive social attitudes than those of regime authorities. Accordingly, IranWire observes that the television series, “Out of Sight”, is transparently selective about the information that it reveals to the audience.
The most recent episode of the now nine-part series yielded international backlash over its inclusion of footage from the arrest of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe at Tehran’s Imam Khomenei airport. The charity coordinator for the Thomson Reuters Foundation was detained in April 2016 as she was about to leave, along with her two-year-old daughter, from a trip to visit family members. The “Out of Sight” broadcast and other Iranian propaganda portrays her as a spy on the basis of her past affiliation with the BBC, which Tehran blames for fostering dissident attitudes through its Persian service and the training of local journalists.
However, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s professional role at the BBC and at the Thomson Reuters foundation was unrelated to journalism, training, or media production.
Furthermore, as IranWire notes, the authorities’ public claims about espionage and “infiltration” appear to mask the more genuine motives that have been acknowledged in somewhat less public forums. “Some Iranian officials openly connect her continued detention to an unrelated financial claim against the UK,” the article states. “In other words, they’ve openly admitted to holding her as collateral.”
This is in line with an accusation that has been leveled against the Islamic Republic by family members and advocates for many of the foreign citizens and dual nationals that have been taken prisoner in recent years. And in most of those cases, the regime’s charges of espionage are as implausible and unsubstantiated as in the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, or even more so. The Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang, for instance, was handed a 10-year sentence after authorities took issue with him accessing documents from a public library, even though his research had been approved through official channels and the documents in question were unrelated to modern Iranian politics and society.
Pleading his case from her home in the United States, Wang’s wife has described him as a “hostage”, thereby adopting the language already appended to other prisoners including those who have previously been released as part of agreements between the Iranian government and their countries of origin. In January 2016, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and three other individuals were released just ahead of the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
In exchange, the US released seven Iranian nationals who had been convicted of sanctions violations, as well as dropping charges against 14 others. Additionally, the White House arranged the repayment of a decades-old debt, releasing a portion of it to Iran in cash on the day of the swap, in what critics of the Obama administration described as a “ransom payment”.
Last week, Rezaian testified in US federal court as part of the lawsuit he has filed against the Iranian government. Seeking compensatory damages for long-term effects on both his physical and his psychological health, Rezaian described the torture that he experienced in Evin Prison, where he spent a month and a half in solitary confinement, during which time he was released from his cell only for daily interrogation sessions.
These details have helped to focus attention on the hardships that are almost certainly being faced by all Western nationals now in Iranian custody, especially in the aftermath of the regime’s apparent renewal of its commitment to confronting and stoking resentment against “infiltration networks”.
Michael White’s mother, having only recently learned of his fate, is also seeking to increase public awareness and issued a statement to that effect on Friday. In it, she explained that her son recovered from cancer prior to his latest trip to Iran, but that it has since returned, raising concerns that he could die in prison. These concerns are amplified by the long history of Iranian authorities denying medical treatment to prisoners, especially political prisoners.
Although White’s military background and apparent lack of Iranian heritage might imply that the charges against him could be legitimate, this notion is perhaps undercut by his mother’s account, which notes that he has traveled to Iran repeatedly and without incident in recent years to visit his Iranian girlfriend. In confirming his arrest, Iranian authorities gave no indication of what, if any, charges they had filed against him, or what evidence they had drawn upon to justify the arrest.
In any event, the legitimacy of the regime’s case against White will have little to no bearing on the risk posed to him by the conditions of Iranian prisons, or by the potentially escalating impulse to put pressure on Western hostages. The effects of that pressure are evident in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who may have contracted breast cancer subsequent to her detention.
This has yet to be confirmed, as she has repeatedly been denied transfer to a hospital where she can received specialized medical care. Regardless of whether the lumps in her breast are cancerous, the prisoner is reportedly in need of specialized care because of neurological problems she has developed over the past two years.
Even prison doctors have acknowledged the need for Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other political prisoners to receive medical transfers, but their appeals have fallen on deaf ears. In an effort to bring more public attention to the situation, Zaghari-Ratcliffe and at least one other prisoner – the renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh – reportedly began a hunger strike on Monday. The previously-announced protest action is expected to last for at least three days, although it may be extended if the women feel that their demands are not being listened to.
The regime’s response so far has been hostile, with Zaghari-Ratcliffe being barred from her weekly phone calls to her husband in the United Kingdom. The Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that similar punitive measures were extended to other inmates at the women’s ward of Evin Prison, who are now permitted only 10 minute calls three times per week, as opposed to 20 minute calls. Additionally, the timing of those calls is now set exclusively by the authorities. These blanket restrictions are likely intended to promote resentment among the broader prison population, thereby putting more pressure on Zaghari-Ratcliffe to cancel the protest.
But the CHRI report indicates that so far, the punishment had only generated more sympathy and additional acts of solidarity before the hunger strike even began. Sotoudeh and another political prisoner, the Baha’i educator Azita Rafizadeh, have indicated that they will forgo phone calls entirely until Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s rights are reinstated and the broader restrictions are removed. This is expected to generate a sympathetic response, since all three of the protesting inmates are mothers to young children.
On the other hand, this same fact may enhance the effectiveness of telephone restrictions as a pressure tactic, especially if the short-term public response is not enough to force the authorities’ hand.
The emerging battle of wills between mistreated inmates and prison authorities could have significant implications beyond the long-term well-being of those prisoners who are seeking outside medical attention. For example, Sky News reported on Monday that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps approached Zaghari-Ratcliffe last month and suggested that she could be released if she agreed to return to the UK and act as a spy for the Islamic Republic. At a press conference following one of their last phone calls, her husband Richard Ratcliffe explained that she refused the offer but was terrified of the potential consequences.
Such tactics are very likely to be used against other European and American nationals who come into contact with Iran’s hardline authorities. And this is especially concerning at a time when there seems to be a greatly increased risk of Iranian terrorism against Western targets. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times made reference to some of the recent threats in the context of a report on the prosecution of Majid Ghorbani and Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostdar on espionage charges.
From 2017 to 2018, the pair had monitored Jewish groups and affiliates of the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
The report notes that the men appeared to be assembling “target packages” for Iranian operatives, thereby setting the stage for plots like those that were thwarted in Albania last March and at the Paris rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran on June 30.
Whether or not the Islamic Republic succeeds in turning prisoners into assets for further bombing or assassination plans, the exposure of these plans points to the same growing animosity that is on display in ongoing arrests and prosecutions, as well as the resumption of propaganda broadcasts targeting Western nationals.