The hostages: Iran’s relentless detention of foreigners and dual nationals a roadblock to relations with the West

As she boarded what appeared to be an Australian government plane late Wednesday, her nightmare drew to a close. After more than two years locked up in Tehran’s Evin Prison, the 33-year-old British Australian scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert was heading home.  

“I am extremely pleased and relieved to advise that Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been released from detention in Iran and will soon be reunited with her family,” Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said in a statement on Thursday.  

But for other dual-national Iranians and foreigners captured as prisoners by the Islamic Republic, the horror continues. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a UK dual national, remains under house arrest in Tehran, under threat of being returned to prison or being charged with additional crimes. Nahid Taghavi, a 66-year-old German-Iranian women’s rights activist, was arrested recently on highly dubious national security charges.  

Iranian-American Siamak Namazi is serving out a brutal 10-year sentence for alleged espionage. French-Iranian anthropologist Farbia Adelkhah is serving a six-year sentence on national security charges.  

Countless others — some not yet publicly announced — remain in jail as pawns, caught up in the brinkmanship between Iranian political and security factions, or cast as characters in the paranoid fantasies of the Iranian deep state.  

Most dire of all, Ahmad Reza Jalali, a Swedish-Iranian doctor in jail for the last four years on charges of spying for Iran’s enemies, has told his family he may face imminent execution.

“They don’t let the lawyers see him,” his wife, Vida Mehrannia, told the Independent. The couple have an eight-old-year son and 18-year-daughter who have not seen their father in four years. “I haven’t told my son yet about the death sentence. Ahmad has told me that if anything happens to him, to tell my son there was an accident, not an execution.”

For the incoming administration of United States President-elect Joseph Biden and other world powers hoping to revive the Iranian nuclear deal scuttled by outgoing President Donald Trump and re-engage with Iran, Tehran’s habit of taking western civilians hostages poses a significant stumbling block, making a rapprochement even more politically unpalatable.  

Iran famously captured dozens of US embassy employees and held them hostage for 444 days in 1979 in a move that shapes relations with Washington to this day. Iran watchers say authorities in Tehran continue to take such prisoners for a number of reasons, the most pragmatic of which is to secure the release of Iranians held in detention abroad, sometimes caught in lengthy extradition procedures initiated by the United States in its attempts to enforce its laws globally.  

Iranian state television showed Ms Moore-Gilbert boarding the plane interspersed with fresh footage of three Iranian prisoners described as having been held abroad returning home. It was an apparent attempt to make the scholar’s release appear as part of an exchange.  

Iranian state television described them as “three Iranian economic activists who were arrested on charges of circumventing the [US sanctions].” But Thailand authorities said on Thursday the men were alleged Iranian operatives caught in a 2012 scheme to target Israeli sites in the southeast Asian country.  The plot was foiled after one of the alleged perpetrators botched the bomb-making operation and blew off his own legs. One of the prisoners shown returning on Wednesday was wheelchair-bound, missing both legs.

Iranian regime operatives also appear to detain dual nationals and foreigners as a way to build leverage in negotiations. Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter in Tehran, was captured on bogus espionage charges in 2015 and released more than a year later just as the nuclear deal with the US was being implemented and $400 million worth of previously seized Iranian assets were returned in a plane loaded with cash.  

While relations between Iran and UN Security Council members the US, UK and France have long been fraught, analysts are puzzled as to why the Iranians have now turned against northern European countries like Germany and Sweden that have long been diplomatic and economic partners. Ali Fathollah-Nejad, of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, speculated that Iran is lashing against added pressure following its execution of wrestler Navid Afkari, which sparked worldwide condemnation.  

“There is a move in Germany to reconsider relations with Iran after the Afkari case,” he said in an interview. “There seems to be a new turn.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the presidential palace in Lebanon. (Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS0

(via REUTERS)

Dual nationals are often caught up in factional infighting between Iranaian pragmatists and hardliners. Damaging relations with Germany — often a channel of diplomacy between Tehran and the west — diminishes chances that the moderate faction led by President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif can quickly reach an accommodation with the west before June presidential elections that hardliners hope to win.

Dual nationals also often serve as props for domestic propaganda. Paranoid regime operatives within the Iranian establishment allege vast, fantastic conspiracies that encompass Iranian turncoats and western spies. Detained dual nationals serve as characters in the narratives concocted by Iranian security services and propagated by state television.

On a recent quiz show, the names and faces of Mr Rezaian and Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe were answers to questions about alleged spies in the country. And before she was released, Ms Moore-Gilbert appeared in an Iranian state television interview in which she said she had visited a number of countries in the Middle East, including “the Zionist regime,” the term Iranian officials use to describe Israel.  

But often, the arrests have simply baffled observers. Ms Moore-Gilbert is a mild-mannered Middle East scholar who was in Iran on a fellowship when she was detained. International pressure appears to have helped win her release. Activist and hacking advocate Julian Assange, who is a relative of Ms Moore-Gilbert, sent the Iranian leadership a letter this year asking for her release after she was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of nuclear and economic espionage.

Dr Jalali, a physician specialising in mass casualty events, was frequently a visitor to Iran, giving lectures on managing disasters such as earthquakes. In 2015, his wife said, he was approached by Iranian intelligence officials, who asked him if he would be willing to spy for the Islamic Republic when abroad. He steadfastly refused, says his wife, Ms Mehrannia, a chemist at a laboratory in the Stockholm area.  

“He was very nervous about it and wondered if he should return back to Iran, but they told him it was okay,” she said.  

Ms Moore-Gilbert, whose family has asked for privacy as she returns home, was also reportedly pressured into serving as an intelligence asset for the Islamic Republic.  

Dr Jalali was arrested in 2016 while attending a conference at the Tehran University, which had invited him to participate.

“When he was arrested it was such a shock,” said Ami Hedenborg, of Amnesty International in Sweden. “If you are a political opponent, then you have some kind of awareness this could happen to you. But he is just a scientist.”

He was held in solitary confinement for months on end. In December 2017, Iranian state aired what it described as a confession, which Dr Jalali later described as being extracted from him under torture.  

He was charged with “spreading corruption on earth,” a crime that carries a possible death sentence. But until a few weeks ago, few believed that it would be carried out. That’s when Dr Jalali’s weekly phone calls home to Sweden stopped. This week, Ms Mehrannia got a quick call from her husband saying he was being moved and the end might be near.  

“We’re very shocked that they’re apparently pushing for this execution,” said Ms Hedenborg.  

The increased targeting of foreigners and dual nationals suggests that some in the Iranian regime have given up hopes of restoring good relations with the west. “The regime is definitely interested in entering negotiations with the US,” said Mr Fathollah-Nejad. “But probably, they have lost hope with Europe.” 

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