Dual-National Released on Bail Amidst 18-Year Sentence, but Implications Are Unclear

The case against Shahini, who had returned to Iran to visit his mother after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, was reportedly based on such things as his social media posts and an interview that he gave to a foreign-based media outlet. These and other supposedly subversive statements and activities were regarded by the Iranian judiciary as forming the picture of someone who likely to be cooperating with “hostile governments” or otherwise undermining national security.

Naturally, his case has been widely regarded as a prominent example of the danger that dual nationals face in Iran purely on the basis of their affiliations with Western entities. His sentence was longer than that of other recent arrestees of this sort, and the reasons for the exceptional punishment were never articulated by the judiciary or other Iranian officials who have commented publicly on his case. However, by some accounts, one such arrestee has actually been given a capital sentence, although this is in dispute.

Iran News Update previously reported that the judiciary had announced a death sentence in an anonymous case whose description seemed to match that of Karam Vafadari, a Tehran gallery owner who holds American citizenship and has been accused, along with his wife, of displaying and selling “obscene” materials. The Center for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, among other commentators, has accused Western media of ignoring this case, but some Western outlets seem to have either failed to make the connection to the judiciary’s announcement or have disregarded it as unsubstantiated.

The AP is among these, and its report on Shahini’s bail release names Vafadari as one of the dual nationals currently in detention, but also declares that he has not yet been tried or sentenced. In this sense, the AP is more optimistic than various commentators on the Iranian human rights situation. Still, the report does not seem to overstate the importance of Shahini’s release, insofar as it acknowledges that the conditions of that release are still unknown.

For instance, it is not clear whether Shahini will have the opportunity to leave the country now that he has arranged to pay his bail of 62,000 dollars. If he must remain in Iran, he will be subject to re-arrest at any time – a fate that has certainly befalling other political prisoners who had previously been released, including not only those who had made bail but also those who had been granted early release on the basis of life-threatening medical conditions.

In the broadest sense, Shahini himself falls into this category. That is to say, his release came only after a weeks-long hunger strike, which began on February 15 whereupon Shahini attested that he would be willing to continue the protest until the point of death. Similar hunger strikes have occasionally won successes in recent months, although generally not until the prisoners in  question suffered severe health consequences, and even then not until they had garnered demonstrated sympathy or even large-scale protests among the national populace.

As with Shahini’s dubious bail-release, the resolutions to these cases are rarely, if ever, definitive. For instance, in the well-known case of Arash Sadeghi, the more than two-month hunger strike was only aimed at securing the release of his wife, who had been ordered to begin a sentence on the basis of fictional writing found in a personal notebook. Even after public protests and social media campaigns necessitated a response from the judiciary, Sadeghi’s wife was only granted conditional release pending the review of her case.

In other instances, hunger strikes have been brought to an end through deception. The brothers Mehdi and Hossein Rajabian, who are serving sentences on the basis of their running an online music streaming platform, have re-started hunger strikes that were ended after authorities falsely promised that their demands would be addressed. It is too early to say whether or not Shahini’s release is another example of this sort of deception, aimed at both ending his hunger strike and changing the media narrative about his case before he is returned to prison.

Whatever the case, there are a great many political prisoners who remain incarcerated in the Islamic Republic, whose cases may or may not be subject to the same sorts of internal and external pressures as was Shahini’s. Among them is the British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, for whom Monday marked one year since the day she was arrested and separated from her two-year-old daughter, who has been barred from returning to her father in Britain.

Certainly, there is a great deal of advocacy on Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s behalf, but none of that advocacy is coming directly from the British government. The Telegraph reports that this was the subject of an Amnesty International statement and a rally on Sunday, neither of which was the first instance of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family and supporters criticizing the government for inaction or accusing it of prioritizing potential economic relations with Iran ahead of the lives of dual nationals.

The Telegraph notes that British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has continually refused to meet with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe. By contrast, US President Donald Trump was quick to meet with the family of Robert Levinson, who has been missing in Iran since 2007. This reportedly inspired a great deal of confidence in the Trump administration’s willingness to directly confront the issue of Iranian hostage-taking. This is in keeping with a generally confrontational tone toward Iran, and it is certainly possible that the offer of bail for Shahini is an instance of the Iranian regime scaling back its own confrontations out of fear of escalating consequences.