Tehran Faces More Domestic and International Pressure Over Wrongful Arrests

The Islamic Republic of Iran does not recognize dual nationality and it uses this position to deny consular assistance to those Iranian expatriates who obtain foreign citizenship or permanent resident status and then are arrested while visiting their country of origin. Presently, there are more than a dozen Western citizens in detention in Iran, the vast majority of them being dual nationals like Mr. Djalali.

Among those cases, there have been varying levels of attempted intervention by the adoptive home countries of the arrestees. The Swedish government’s effort to extend citizenship to an individual with lesser status is arguably among the most serious responses, but this is perhaps to be expected on the basis of the seriousness of the pending sentence. Other prisoners like the American graduate student Xiyue Wang and the Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi are presently serving 10-year sentences on similarly vague charges of espionage.

The same charge is in place for Siamak’s father Baquer Namazi, but representatives of that family have repeatedly insisted that the judiciary’s insistence on upholding the sentence is a de facto death sentence for the elder Namazi. Last week, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour conducted a joint interview with fellow Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari and Babak Namazi, the brother of Siamak and son of Baquer who has been advocating for the two men from the United States. The segment detailed the latest deterioration in Baquer’s health condition, which led to him being returned to hospital after experiencing an erratic heartbeat and precipitous drop in blood pressure – the same symptoms that had led to him being hospitalized just weeks earlier.

Namazi’s latest hospitalization is the fifth, and it comes after Iran’s own medical examiner recommended that he be granted at least three month’s medical leave to reduce the risk of him losing his life in prison. Reports of the previous hospitalization evokes statements from the US government welcoming the prisoner’s temporary release but cautioning that it was not enough and that Namazi should be released permanently and without condition, along with all other wrongfully detained US nationals.

Western Pressure Increasing

On Friday, Voice of America reported on the latest such statement from US Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, which declared that “the United States government holds Iran fully accountable” for Namazi’s condition and ultimately for whether he survives his ongoing ordeal. Meanwhile, the CNN interview communicated a mixed message about such statements, suggesting that they express a type of support that Iranian activists eagerly wish to see, but also that they threaten to complicate the situation for political prisoners by putting the Iranian government at risk of “losing face” if they appear to capitulate to foreign demands.

However, there is little reason to believe that relative silence on these cases is more productive. Advocates for the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe were notably critical of the British government for its refusal to publicly condemn her arrest and subsequent sentence to five years in prison on vaguely defined national security charges that have never been publicly substantiated. This silence was finally broken in December, leading to in-person discussions of the woman’s case after British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson travelled to Iran.

his in turn led to some signs of progress, with certain Iranian officials suggesting that the woman might be released. Those statements were later contradicted by other hardline officials, however.

Despite the absence of a resolution in any of these cases so far, the initial response to public statements over Zaghari-Ratcliffe may suggest that the Iranian regime is sensitive to international pressure on these issues. That same sensitivity is arguably on display in the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s response to its Swedish counterpart’s explicit demand that Djalali’s execution not be carried out. Tehran declared that it “could not accept the foreign nationality” of that prisoner, and criticized the Swedish effort as “questionable and unfriendly”.

Of course, that criticism has little chance of garnering sympathy from the international community. It remains to be seen how the Islamic Republic will respond over the long term, especially if this sort of pressure from foreign governments and international human rights groups continues to focus foreign attention on relevant Iranian human rights abuses.

The rejection of British overtures in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has predictably led to further pressure from those groups who were credited with compelling the UK to break its silence. Last week, the prisoner’s advocates took the matter to the United Nations, presenting a submission to the international body’s special rapporteur on torture which described the prisoner’s systematic mistreatment as an example of torture.

According to IW, the submission also made reference to the plight of dual nationals in general. Already significant because of the dozen other Westerners being held hostage in the Islamic Republic, this reference was perhaps made more timely by its proximity to the report of a crackdown on environmentalists, which added at least one US citizen to the ranks of these hostages. The CHRI reported last week that the arrested individuals continued to be denied access to legal representation weeks after their arrests, even as the judiciary proceeded in building public narratives about their supposed espionage, citing no actual evidence but specifically pointing to the dual national status of some of them.

Iran Struggles to Control Public Narratives

The CHRI report also highlighted the arrest of Kaveh Madani, the deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, who was educated in the US and holds a professorship in the United Kingdom. It was initially reported that Madani’s arrest was more short-lived than that of the several environmental activists who remain in detention. But new information suggests that a video showing that he had returned to his office may have been staged in the presence of security officials who confiscated documents and returned him to detention. The possible concealment of Madani’s current status may be intended to deflect or delay potential criticism.

In any event, the account of his re-arrest was repeated by IranWire in another report last week. That report intimated that part of the motivation for the regime’s harassment of Madani might have been related to talks he had had with the German ambassador to Tehran. Germany has previously been the object of considerable spying efforts by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, primarily aiming at persons with links to Israel. The overall crackdown on environmentalists has been associated with similar objectives, insofar as the arrestees have been accused of communicating with Israeli intelligence. IranWire notes that in this case also, no evidence has been prevented to corroborate accusations of espionage, but Iranian officials have presented the public with elaborate narratives about the environmentalists’ supposed missions in Iran.

This construction of detailed but unsubstantiated narratives is a familiar tactic in the case of high-profile cases, especially involving the arrest of dual nationals. In the present case, the regime is applying that tactic not only to current defendants but also to one person who died in custody during the same crackdown. This individual, Kavous Seyed-Emami, is yet another dual national, specifically a citizen of Canada. In statements reminiscent of other suspicion prisoner deaths in the wake of mass protests at the start of this year, Iranian officials have declared that Seyed-Emami committed suicide after confessing to espionage, but both aspects of this narrative are being challenged both domestically and internationally.

On Monday, CHRI reported that Iranian state television had begun airing a smear campaign against the deceased environmentalist, in response to which two lawyers representing his family issued a statement highlighting the lack of credible evidence and announcing their intention to file a legal complaint against those responsible for the broadcast. Days earlier, Seyed-Emami’s son Ramin issued a statement of his own, noting that he had viewed the CCTV footage allegedly proving that his father committed suicide and that he found it to contain nothing conclusive.

Ramin accordingly called for an independent investigation into the death – something that has been repeatedly echoed by critics of the Islamic Republic not only with regard to this death but also with regard to the cases of at least twelve people who have allegedly been tortured to death since January.

IW also quoted Ramin as detailing how his mother had been detained and interrogated for three hours before being informed of her husband’s death. Afterward, she and other members of the family were threatened with prison if they spoke to the media. This is strongly indicative of the regime’s efforts to control public narratives about recent political repression. And that effort may also point to the regime’s concern over potential escalations in domestic and international pressure over its human rights abuses.

Another CHRI report called attention to the same trends on Friday when it highlighted the arrest of Mohammad Najafi, a lawyer who publicized the death of one arrested protester, Vahid Heydari, who was also dubiously identified as a suicide in official statements. Not only has Najafi been detained since January 15 and brought up on eight separate charges, but his own lawyer has also been threatened as part of a broader effort to silence criticism about the government’s response to recent mass protests.

Despite all this, groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran maintain that sporadic protests have continued to emerge throughout the country in the weeks since the suppression of the early January mass uprising. On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that a large group of demonstrators had clashed with security forces, leading to 300 arrests and the death of three police officers and two members of the Basij civilian militia. The gathering was reportedly motivated by fears that Sufi leader Nourali Tabandeh would be arbitrarily arrested as the regime continued rounding up activists and dissidents as part of its ongoing crackdown.

Much as that crackdown has proven ineffective at silencing domestic dissent, there is little expectation that the continued exertion of pressure on foreign nationals, as by rejecting Swedish outreach over Ahmadreza Djalali, will quell that outreach or silence the international condemnations of Tehran’s conduct toward such individuals.