Despite Prisoner Swap Agreements, Iran Continues Mistreatment of Foreign Nationals

The Voice of America article notes that there are between 2.5 and three million Afghan nationals living in Iran and that approximately 950,000 of them are considered refugees. These and other ethnic minorities are routinely denied civil and political rights that are extended to Iran’s Persian Shiite majority population. In absence of citizenship or residency status, many Afghans are incapable of obtaining jobs in Iran, a situation that Iranian officials and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have exploited to push ethnic Afghanis into volunteering to fight as part of Shiite militias in defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

While this indirect conscription has been presented as a way for Afghanis to receive residency status and work visas, many have died in the effort. Meanwhile, despite the transfer of about 200 prisoners, some 5,000 Afghanis remain in Iranian jails. The prisoner exchange has perhaps temporarily silenced the issue of their mistreatment, but Voice of America emphasizes that the issue is not settled and also that Iran can be expected to use the situation of Afghani expatriates as a “bargaining asset” when seeking infrastructure and trade agreements with Afghanistan.

The Voice of America report can thus be seen as giving an international dimension to an issue that has been a persistent part of foreign policy dialogue within the United States. That is, it suggests that Tehran is keen to use imprisoned foreign nationals as a source of leverage with regional countries as well as with Western nations that the Iranian leadership accuses of trying to “infiltrate” the Islamic Republic.

The focal point of that issue in the US has recently been the so-called ransom payment that the Obama administration made in January, with the physical delivery of 400 million dollars and the subsequent transfer of 1.3 billion. These sums were explained as the settlement of a debt that predates the founding of the Islamic Republic, but the White House later acknowledged that the money was used as leverage to make sure that Tehran followed through on its promise to release four imprisoned Americans as part of a prisoner exchange.

The Washington Free Beacon reported on Monday that the latest information on this monetary exchange suggests that the Obama administration made an effort to conceal it while also involving a several different wings of the government’s executive branch, including the Departments of State, Treasury, and Energy. The Free Beacon also criticized the administration for reportedly stonewalling congressional efforts to investigate the matter, even as those efforts have steadily intensified with the incremental leaking of information.

The particular concern among many of those investigating the issue is that the supposed ransom payment will set a dangerous precedent, essentially encouraging Iran to regard hostage-taking as potentially lucrative, at a time when the Iranian leadership already appears keen to ramp up anti-Western aggression and push back against expectations of improved international relations. This trend has manifested with the arrests of dual nationals even after the January prisoner exchange. At least three Americans are currently in custody in Iran, and the charges against them are vague or undisclosed.

But the crackdown on Western affiliations has also affected persons who are only citizens of the Islamic Republic. A number of journalists and other professionals have been arrested on unsubstantiated accusations of being part of “infiltration networks.” One of the latest of these, according to IranWire, is journalist Sadra Mohaghegh. He was seized from his home on Monday after being accused of working with “anti-Iranian” media outlets based outside the country.

IranWire notes that his case is reminiscent of those against Ehsan Mazandarani and others who were arrested en masse in November. A separate report notes that Mazandarani, whose trial and sentencing were delayed after he was hospitalized for the effects of a hunger strike, has threatened to resume that hunger strike unless Iranian authorities present actual evidence of his and others’ supposed affiliation with infiltration networks.