By Edward Carney
It was revealed on Monday that Michael White, a US Navy veteran who was romantically involved with an Iranian woman, had been sentenced by an Iranian court to an unspecified prison term. It is the latest in a long series of cases that demonstrate what has been described by the United Nations and other human rights defenders as an escalating pattern of crackdowns on dual and foreign nationals in Iran.
White was arrested in June of last year after traveling to visit his girlfriend, but news of his detention was not publicly disclosed until January. Little information about his case or his condition has been revealed since then, although his family has reportedly learned via eye-witnesses that he was beaten in detention and that his health has been in decline. According to the prisoner’s mother, he had previously been treated for cancer, which had gone into remission prior to his trip but might be at increased risk of returning under the harsh conditions of Iran’s prison system.
The denial of access to medical treatment is commonplace in Iranian detention facilities, and that practice is utilized in particular to exert pressure on political prisoners, sometimes even putting them at risk of death. White’s status as an American citizen made it quite likely that he was a member of this category of prisoner, although Iranian authorities seemingly made some efforts to dispute that notion prior to the announcement of his sentencing.
At the end of February, Iranian state media stated that White had been detained in connection with a “private complaint” and not on allegation of national security crimes. But Monday’s announcement of his sentencing revealed that this report had been either mistaken or deliberately misleading. Although judiciary officials provided no specific details, they indicated that the relevant charges were “security-related,” signifying that he could be facing multiple years in an Iranian prison, or even the possibility of execution.
Despite a decrease in the past year related to reforms to the nation’s drug laws, Iran maintains the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world. It would, of course, be a great political risk to pass or implement such a sentence against a foreign national, and the American citizens and permanent residents who are currently known to be detained in Iran are serving sentences of 10 or 12 years. There are four such individuals, but a fifth, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, may in fact have been executed secretly or otherwise died in custody some time over the past 12 years.
The official position of the US government is reportedly that Levinson, who disappeared from Kish Island in 2017 while on an assignment as a private investigator, is dead. His family continues to dispute this, while the Iranian government insists that it has no knowledge of his whereabouts. However, Levinson’s family and other advocates have made concerted efforts to locate him and potentially purchase his release in the years since 2013, which is the last time there was ostensible proof of life for the now 71-year-old.
A number of the recovery efforts were detailed in an article by Newsweek on Sunday. By reporting that the latest such effort was stymied by the White House’s refusal to grant permission for an exchange of money in Iran, the article arguably lent credence to the Levinson family’s claim that the US government is not doing enough to secure Robert’s release and has not made the plight of American hostages a sufficient priority. This attitude was echoed to greater or lesser extent by advocates for three of the other known prisoners on Thursday. Babak Namazi – son to Baquer and brother to Siamak – testified along with Omar Zakka, the son of Nizar Zakka, at a panel discussion before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“I am counting on President Trump to stay good to his word that Americans will not languish in Iran when he is president,” Namazi said according to the New York Times. “I implore the president to spare no effort to bring my family and the other American hostages home from Iran.”
Meanwhile, Robert Levinson’s son suggested that the Iranian government would only respond to pressure on this issue, and four American lawmakers responded afterward by introducing legislation that would streamline the exertion of this pressure. The proposed bill would give the president greater authority to impose sanctions on hostage-takers, give higher status to an envoy on hostage affairs, and create an interagency group to expand on the work of that office.
It remains to be seen whether this proposed bill will pass into law and if it does, whether it will have the intended effect of curtailing the Iranian regime’s hostage-taking of US nationals. But even if newfound pressures prove successful to Washington, it may leave a larger phenomenon to be addressed, since Iran’s escalating crackdown on supposed foreign influence has not limited itself to targeting the US.
On March 4 it was revealed that authorities had arrested a university professor who holds positions in both Iran and Belgian. In this case also, the person in question, whose name has not been made known publicly, is being held on unspecified national security charges. As well as being indicative of the regime’s paranoia over Western citizenship or permanent residency, the case also points to the simultaneous crackdown on academics and experts in certain fields that are not directly related to politics.
In January and February of last year, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps arrested nine environmentalists and accused them of using their work for the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation as a cover for spying on the IRGC missile program. Rights groups such as Amnesty International have roundly condemned the arrests for being contrived and politically motivated, and indeed no evidence has been cited in support of the allegations other than forced confessions that were elicited from one or more of the defendants and later retracted.
Amnesty has specifically warned that four of the conservation activists could be facing the death penalty because they have been charged with “spreading corruption on Earth.” This warning, along with the allegations of torture, is supported by the fact that one of the nine individuals in this case did not survive long enough to make it to trial. Two weeks after his arrest, Kavous Seyed-Emami was found dead in his cell and was declared to have committed suicide, although prison authorities obstructed all efforts to complete an independent autopsy.
As well as being a founder of the PHWF and a member of the targeted group, Seyed-Emami also held foreign residency status as a result of his employment by a Canadian university.
To whatever extent the eight remaining defendants are suffering consequences for their association with a Western dual-national, their case underscores the far-reaching effects of the Iranian regime’s animosity toward its declared “enemies”.
They are far from being the only native Iranians to suffer such consequences, as Tehran has made a clear habit of taking an extremely broad view of what constitutes a foreign-based threat.
In one of the latest examples of the regime’s crackdown on Western “infiltration” of Iran’s culture, society, and economics, it was reported that a young couple had been arrested for a video-recorded marriage proposal that took place in a shopping mall. A spokesperson for the police in Markazi Province told Iranian state media that the couple are charged with “outraging public decency” through a public display of romantic love that is grounded in “degenerate Western culture.”
Such commentary reflects an ongoing effort by government and law enforcement to reassert the hardline identity of the Iranian Regime, despite contrary pressures from the young and generally well-educated population. That effort has been evident, for instance, in expanded enforcement of the country’s mandatory hijab laws, and in its prosecution of women who have defied the laws to protest against them.
One of the “Girls of Revolution Street” who removed their hijabs and held them over their heads in public over the past year has been sentenced to 20 years in prison, and last week it was reported that Nasrin Sotoudeh, the renowned human rights lawyer who defended some of those women, had been convicted of colluding against national security.
On Monday, the Iranian Regime News Agency reported that Sotoudeh had been sentenced to seven years in prison, in addition to the five years she had received in absentia prior to her latest arrest. But according to her husband, the true figure is much higher and much more indicative of Tehran’s desperation to stamp out progressive or “pro-Western” trends in Iranian society. Communicating via Facebook despite its ban in Iran, Reza Khandan said that Sotoudeh’s total sentence amounts to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for “colluding against the system,” “insulting the supreme leader,” and other verdicts that may not yet be known.