At least five people in the latter category of prisoner are currently being held in Iran. Meanwhile, the country remains in the midst of a domestic crackdown which has led to the arrest and imprisonment of a wide range of individuals, including activists, journalists, and persons with only Iranian citizenship who are nonetheless perceived as maintaining pro-Western sentiments or connections to foreign nationals.
The crackdown became particularly visible last November, about three months ahead of the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which has contributed to hardliner paranoia about Western cultural and economic “infiltration.” At that time, several Iranian journalists were arrested en masse.
On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that one of these journalists, Isa Saharkhiz had finally received a sentence from the Iranian judiciary, after his trial was delayed following his being hospitalized as a result of long hunger strikes during which he was denied medical treatment. Three other journalists, plus a foreign-based journalist’s brother, were sentenced to sentences ranging from five to 10 years in April. Those cases are currently awaiting appeal.
Presently, Saharkhiz is facing the shortest sentence out of the group of five, having been sentenced to three years – two for insulting Iranian authorities and one for spreading propaganda. As with the other four convicts, there is no indication of any cause for the initial arrests other than journalism that was arguably unfavorable to the regime.
The justifications for arrests of certain dual nationals have reportedly been even flimsier. Among those currently in custody is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been accused of being “one of the leaders” of a vaguely defined infiltration network aimed at the “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic. The accusation seems to stem from her British citizenship and the fact that Zaghari-Ratcliffe works for a Western-based charity, the Thomson Reuters Foundation. And as her British husband Richard Ratcliffe has pointed out in advocating for her release, the foundation does not even do work in Iran. The only apparent purpose for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s travel to Iran was to visit with her parents, accompanied by her two year-old daughter, who is now stranded in Iran while her mother awaits trial.
Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, meaning that dual citizens who are arrested in the country do not have access to consular assistance. Nonetheless, international advocacy has been known to effectively put pressure on Iranian authorities in prior instances in which foreign nationals were subject to apparent wrongful imprisonment. With that in mind, some British politicians have taken action on Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, and a petition has received signatures from tens of thousands of British citizens.
In the wake of this attention, there are reports that indicate British Prime Minister Theresa May has personally taken up the issue. The BBC indicated on Tuesday that according to British officials, May “raised concerns” about Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case in a telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The officials added that May had also broached the subject of other cases involving dual nationals and had “stressed the importance of resolving these cases as we worked to strengthen our diplomatic relationship.”
However, if this was indeed a major topic of conversation between May and Rouhani, it appears that Iranian authorities have essentially ignored it. Reuters quoted a top Iranian official as saying that the telephone conversation involved the British government’s expression of interest in expanded economic relations and regional cooperation. Iran and Western powers have remained at odds over issues like the Syrian Civil War, although the international community has made concerted efforts to include Iran in the dialogue. Meanwhile, Tehran has complained about the slow pace of its own economic recovery in the wake of last summer’s nuclear agreement, but the Iranians have taken few recognizable steps toward improving conditions for foreign investors.
Tehran’s public dissatisfaction with the deal, combined with its apparent failure to take steps to strengthen it, has contributed to critical commentary in the West describing that deal as a failure or as abandonment of important leverage over the Iranians. This criticism was reiterated on Tuesday in the form of an editorial by first US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, published in the Philidephia Inquirer. In it he said that the nuclear agreement had resulted in “no progress” since its conclusion one year ago.
Ridge explained: “In return for modest, reversible concessions on the nuclear issue alone, the blood-drenched ayatollahs received sanctions relief from the United States and Europe to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, which has served, above all else, to further finance the Iranian regime’s illicit, inhumane, and destabilizing activities. If the regime decides to abandon the deal, it will emerge stronger than ever before, laughing in the face of the West’s foolish compliance.”
If it turns out that the Iranian account of Mrs. May’s conversation with Mr. Rouhani is more accurate than the account given to British media, it will be easy for opponents of recent Western foreign policy to argue that that conversation is further evidence of the same “foolish compliance.” That is to say, the British government and other Western powers face criticism for actively pursuing expanded trade relations and regional compromise at a time when Iran is arguably holding Western nationals hostage and also continuing its recent trend of arbitrary imprisonment and human rights violations against its own people.
Meanwhile, other reports suggest that the supposed Western neglect of these circumstances may still reach greater levels. For instance, on Tuesday Reuters reported that an Iranian activist who has been living as a refugee in Britain since 2009 was arrested during a trip to Italy, based on a warrant issued by Iranian authorities. Mehdi Khosravi stands accused of “spreading corruption,” a vaguely defined crime in Iranian jurisprudence, which could carry the death penalty. Khosravi’s advocates have emphasized, some of them in letters directly to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, that this is exactly the fate that can be expected of the arrestee if he is extradited to Iran.
Italy was among the first countries to arrange state visits and visits from trade delegations in the wake of implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, which lifted sanctions related to the Iranian nuclear program and theoretically opened up the Iranian market for various forms of formerly banned trade. The rush to invest in Iran, as well as the general Western focus on the nuclear agreement, has prompted a number of human rights organizations to accuse Western governments of giving diminished attention to Iran’s human rights abuses.
Naturally, those Western entities who are aggressively pursuing expanded trade ties are doing so on the assumption that Tehran will not cancel the nuclear deal, as Tom Ridge warns it might. But there is a growing body of evidence that that warning is well justified. On Tuesday, The Algemeiner reported that Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, issued a statement insisting that despite the agreement with the West, Iran’s nuclear work is still ongoing and is in fact on the verge of dramatic expansion
This is in keeping with an order by Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani, directing Salehi to prepare a plan for such an expansion in nuclear enrichment. Larijani also recently declared that there was “no way left” for Iran other than to respond in kind to perceived American aggression in the wake of the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, by most accounts Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been putting more and more distance between himself and the agreement, suggesting that he might be on course to withdraw an endorsement that was only begrudgingly offered in the first place.