September 18, 2020

UNGA 2020 Guide: Keeping the Spotlight on Detained Foreign & Dual Nationals in Iran

The gathering of world leaders for the annual UN General Assembly from September 22-29 will bring international issues to the forefront of the news cycle. Current issues involving U.S.-Iran tensions are sure to grab many headlines this year, even as the summit will be largely virtual.

Media coverage of Iran and the UN General Assembly should cast renewed spotlight on the Iranian government’s continued imprisonment of foreign and dual nationals on spurious charges. Currently, at least six American prisoners languish in Iranian prisons, along with citizens from Australia, the UK, and other countries. Among them are academics, environmentalists, and former UN officials. It is important that these cases be highlighted and that Iranian officials be held to account for these detentions. Below is background on those who have been detained and the factors surrounding their arrest and efforts to win their release:

The Detainees We Know of

  • Three Americans are publicly known to be detained in Iran: Siamak Namazi, imprisoned since October 2015, his father Baquer Namazi, detained since February 2016, and Morad Tahbaz, held since January 2018. Three other Americans are known to be held in Iran, but their families do not want their cases publicized.

  • Siamak Namazi is a business executive and humanitarian and graduate of Rutgers and Tufts and has been sentenced to 10-years imprisonment on baseless espionage charges. Baquer Namazi is an 84-year-old former UNICEF official. He suffers from serious illnesses and has been hospitalized 12 times while in detention. He is currently on medical furlough but is not allowed to leave the country.

  • Notably, Siamak Namazi was an advocate for improving U.S.-Iran relations, earning him the ire of hardliners in Iran opposed to U.S.-Iran diplomacy. His work in 2013 detailed the humanitarian impact of sanctions and called for their removal.

  • Siamak’s father Baquer was arrested after being lured back to Iran on the basis of seeing his son, in a seeming effort to increase pressure on him.

  • Morad Tahbaz, 64, is an environmental activist who was arrested with a group of other environmentalists in late 2017 on unsubstantiated charges of using wildlife cameras to spy on military sites. Tahbaz’s work was done in close coordination with Iran’s Department of the Environment and had the necessary permits.

  • The charges against him and the other environmentalists were dismissed by Iran’s intelligence ministry, but upheld by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intelligence agency and the judiciary.

  • Other foreign nationals unjustly detained in Iran include UK citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an aid worker detained in 2016 while visiting family with her young daughter, and Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian lecturer who was invited to Iran to give a talk but was arrested in September 2018 and has been held in solitary confinement.

  • None of these detainees were given a fair trial or legal due process. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, only Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been released on furlough, wearing an ankle bracelet to monitor her whereabouts.

  • In April, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement calling on Iran to immediately release foreign and dual nationals who were at risk of being infected by the virus in the country’s crowded and unsanitary prisons.

The Role of US Policy in Exacerbating the Problem

  • The arrests of foreign and dual nationals have been spearheaded by hardline political and security forces in Tehran, who oppose any improvement in U.S.-Iran relations.

  • This includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) intelligence agency and the Judiciary that are not legally accountable to Iran’s civil government but rather only to unelected institutions.

  • After the nuclear deal was struck in 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei warned of efforts to “infiltrate” the country and subvert the Islamic Republic from within. His declaration gave a greenlight to the IRGC and other security forces to round up many dual nationals on fabricated charges of “infiltration,” and arrest the economic and political opening the nuclear deal had set into motion.

  • These hardline elements have benefited extensively from the Trump administration’s abdication of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the return of a sanctions economy, which enables them to consolidate resources and crackdown on dissent and their moderate and reformist rivals.

  •  Imprisoning Americans is just one more way that these hardline elements seek to enshrine confrontation with the U.S. and guarantee their grip on power will not be undermined through diplomatic engagement.

  • The Obama Administration developed a playbook for bringing imprisoned dual nationals home, via consistent diplomacy and back-channel negotiations aimed at securing their release.  A combination of public accountability of Iran’s government and credible diplomacy is the formula to achieve results in changing Iran’s behavior.

Iran’s Longstanding Practice of Hostage Taking

  • Iran has a history of arbitrarily detaining foreign and dual national citizens since the 1979  hostage crisis, frequently using those detained as diplomatic bargaining chips to gain leverage and win political and financial concessions.

  • Current arrests are typically overseen by the IRGC Intelligence service, a hardline-oriented institution that has been given a green light to target dual nationals associated with Western institutions.

  • Those arrested face spurious charges, such as collaborating with a hostile power or spying on the country, and are typically denied due process.

  • Iranian officials such as Foreign Minister Zarif have called for a comprehensive exchange of all foreign and dual national prisoners they hold in exchange for Iranian prisoners held by the U.S., most of whom are accused of violating U.S. sanctions. As of late 2019, 29 Iranian citizens were in U.S. custody, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Dual Nationals Not a Part of Trump-Era Swaps

  • The Trump administration has been open to prisoner exchanges with Iran. In December, Princeton PhD student Xiyue Wang, who was detained in Iran for 3 and ½ years, was released in exchange for Masoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist who was accused of violating U.S. sanctions.

  • In June, Iran handed over Navy Veteran Michael White, who was held in Iran for over two years after visiting the country to visit a girlfriend he met online. In return, the U.S. released Majid Taheri, an Iranian-American doctor held over an alleged sanctions violation. Science professor Dr. Sirous Asgari, who also faced sanctions charges, was also freed, although U.S. officials said his case was unrelated to White’s.

  • Notably, both Wang and White were American citizens, and did not have dual Iranian nationality. This contrasts with the Namazis and Tahbaz, who are also Iranian citizens.

  • Washington Post columnist Jason Rezaian, who himself was held in Iran from 2013-2016, has said of the Trump administration potentially placing less of a priority of securing the release of dual nationals: “It is hard to escape the conclusion that those in charge don’t regard the current hostages as worthy of the same level of intervention as those who have already been freed.”
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