Two of the detainees – a young couple who had been traveling across Asia as part of a journey that was intended to take them from Australia to Britain – were identified by name on Thursday. The other woman remains nameless but is known to be an academic who was lecturing at an Australian university before traveling to Iran and being detained theirs on unknown charges.
Many have speculated that the charges in the latter case relate to spying because it is also known that the woman was sentenced to a 10-year prison term. This is equal to that which was handed down for most of the American citizens and permanent residents who have been detained in recent on espionage charges. Among them are two Iranian-Americans and one Chinese-American who remain in prison to the present day. A Lebanese-born American permanent resident was also initially sentenced to 10 years as well was released in June after intercession by the Iran-backed Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah.
After his release, Zakka raised alarm in international media about the conditions facing the other imprisoned dual nationals, including the Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang, with whom he reportedly shared a cell. These warnings almost certainly have bearing on the situation currently faced by the three Australian detainees, two of whom also hold British passports. Since April 2016, Tehran has been holding an Iranian-British charity worker named Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but the two more recently arrested women are believed to be the only British nationals to be detained in recent years who do not also hold citizenship in the Islamic Republic.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in the country at the time of her arrest in order to visit with her Iranian family, accompanied by her then-two-year-old daughter Gabriella. Although accused of playing a leading role in an “infiltration network” and detained on similar charges as the Americans who had preceded her to Evin Prison, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to only have their prison time: five years. However, some reports in recent months have suggested that authorities were threatening to extend that sentence by levying new charges against her while she was still serving the initial sentence.
This is somewhat common practice in instances of political imprisonment, and it was recently reported that two Iranian women’s rights activists, Atena Daemi and Golrokh Ibrahimi Iraee were facing more than two years of additional jail time after being convicted of “spreading propaganda” and “insulting the supreme leader” from behind bars. Daemi is presently five years into a seven-year sentence, while Iraee was released after serving three and a half of her six years. The former may now be forced to serve a full nine years, while the latter could be returned to prison despite not having been accused of any crime since her release.
Such hardline practices reflect what many have described as a worsening crackdown on perceived threats to Iran’s theocratic system. And this crackdown has potentially serious implications for a wide range of groups, including dual and foreign nationals, journalists, and activists. Within this last category, female activists may be subject to particular repression, owing to the regime’s institutional sexism as well as the substantial backlash to laws and government practices stemming from it.
These factors came into sharper focus this week after international media began reporting on the death of Sahar Kodayari, or the “Blue Girl,” a 29-year-old woman who was caught and arrested after attempting to defy the ban on female attendance at men’s sporting events. Following at least two delays in the processing of her case and a visit to the courthouse where she overheard that she was expected to serve between six months and two years in prison, the young woman, whose bipolar disorder was reportedly ignored by law enforcement and prosecutors, set herself on fire and died a week later in hospital.
The news of her death and the circumstances leading up to it have prompted an outpouring of sympathy and outrage among Iranian activists and social media users. Some of this has focused narrowly on the injustice of the stadium ban while some has worked to shine a light on broader issues of the mistreatment of women at the hands of the judiciary and other authorities.
In 2018 there was an outbreak of a nationwide uprising that saw residents of every major city and town in Iran chanting slogans that seemed to endorse the goal of establishing an altogether new government. On Thursday, The Hill published an editorial by women’s rights advocate Maria Ryan reflecting on this uprising and her own experience visiting the Albania compound belonging to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK), which was credited with a leading role in organizing and facilitating the mass protests.
Ryan’s article emphasized the fact that female activists were very prominent among the leaders of this movement. This, she noted, “is not a coincidence,” since “the sharp edge of the mullahs’ repression has targeted many of them with repressive, misogynistic laws and execution.” But the backlash against that repression arguably goes a long way toward explaining why the regime’s restrictions on women have intensified in recent years, with additional morality patrols enforcing “proper” veiling while other authorities mandate stricter gender segregation throughout public life.
A very similar paranoia no doubt underlies the regime’s latest actions against the perceived threat of foreign “infiltration” at a time of escalating tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West. Indeed, regime authorities were quick to blame foreign adversaries for the mass uprising in 2018, even as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei begrudgingly acknowledged the role of the PMOI (MEK). This impulse to conflate domestic unrest with foreign pressure has surely fueled the unsubstantiated accusations of spying levied against Americans, Britons, and now Australians. And although the newly identified Australian couple – Jolie King and Mark Firkin – have not been publicly made subject to such a charge yet, there is good reason to suspect that they will be.
From what has been disclosed so far, the couple was arrested during the Iranian leg of their world travels for operating a drone without a permit. They had been documenting their entire trip up to that point, often using their drone-mounted camera to do so, and had uploaded photos and stories to Instagram and YouTube accounts with 20,000 followers each. Ironically, a mission statement for their journey professed that they were interested in bringing positive attention to places along their route which usually received poor publicity in Western media.
The unlicensed drone usage does not necessarily presage a charge of spying, but on Thursday, a story about the couple in The Guardian suggested that that was exactly how hardline Iranian authorities were inclined to see the incident. More to the point, the article concluded that this impulse was intensified by the regime being “squeezed by sanctions and paranoid about the motives of outsiders.” It then went on to express doubts about the prospect of Iran treating the couple fairly or negotiating in good faith at a time when Australia seemed to be aligning itself with an American strategy of exerting constant pressure on the Islamic Republic.
Evidence for this alignment can arguably be seen in Australia’s status as the second of only three countries to formally sign onto a US-led coalition aimed at protecting international shipping against Iranian threats in Middle Eastern waters. The plan for this coalition emerged from accusations that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and/or its regional proxies had attacked six tankers in May and June, as well as shooting down an American surveillance drone over international waters.
The Guardian also pointed specifically to the case of Negar Ghodskani, an Iranian woman who was accused of evading US sanctions to illegally export-controlled technology to Iran. Australian police arrested her in 2017 on the basis of an American request and later extradited her to face charges in the US. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif publicly called attention to this case while Ghodskani was still in Australia, initially implying that she might be traded for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Although Zarif quickly walked back the tacit offer, it underscored the broader tendency of the Islamic Republic to use detained foreign nationals as a form of leverage in their quest for prisoner swaps or other concessions from Western governments. In fact, that trend was apparently raised by Iranian authorities themselves at some point during the 10 weeks that King and Firkin have been detained. One source familiar with the case told international media that the British-Australian woman had been expressly informed that she was being held for the sake of a prisoner swap.
Of course, this raises the possibility that authorities might expand upon the existing charge in an effort to put more pressure on the British and Australian governments. If the Iranian judiciary did decide to pursue espionage charges against King and/or Firkin, their unlicensed operation of a drone would by no means be the flimsiest pretext that Tehran has used to do so. Xiyue Wang’s 10-year sentence stems from his having accessed public library materials related to a period of Iranian history long preceding the 1979 revolution. And the arrest and conviction of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe appeared to stem solely from her past professional association with the British Broadcasting Corporation, although she had only worked for its charitable wing and had never been a journalist.
Another Guardian article stated on Wednesday that there had been “no progress” in British-Iranian dialogue concerning the existing detainees, even as more such individuals joined their ranks. In just a month preceding the disclosures concerning Jolie King and the other British-Australian detainee, Western media obtained reports about at least three other British passport holders detained in Iran.
On August 11, an Iranian-British social anthropologist named Kameel Ahmady was arrested and moved into isolation where he has reportedly been permitted only three telephone calls with his family. On August 18, an appeals court upheld a 10-year sentence for Aras Amiri, apparently on the basis of nothing other than her affiliation with the British Council. And on August 27, the Iranian-British dual national Anousheh Ashouri was sentenced to 12 years in prison on allegations that he had spied for Israel.
At least some of the recent cases were reportedly raised by British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Wednesday in a meeting with the Iranian ambassador to the United Kingdom. However, the actual purpose of that meeting was to protest the news that Iran had apparently unloaded two million barrels of oil at a Syrian port, in defiance of European Union sanctions on the dictator Bashar al-Assad. The oil had been carried by the Adrian Darya, a ship that was detained for six weeks in Gibraltar after being seized by British Royal Marines, then released on the basis of written assurances from Iran that the tanker’s contents would not go to Syria.
Though Raab’s objection to this incident provided an opportunity for dialogue over the cases of Ms. King, Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and others, the meeting ultimately underscores Iranian officials’ commitment to avoiding or reneging on negotiations with the West while countering economic pressure in whatever ways they can. Unless effectively confronted, this strategy threatens to have ongoing consequences for foreign nationals in Iran, as well as for their domestic colleagues and associates.