As talks continue to revive the nuclear deal with Iran in Vienna, the United States Special Representative for Iran, Robert Malley, said that although the issue of the four U.S. citizens held in prison in Iran is separate from the nuclear negotiations; however, the United States is unlikely to sign an agreement with Iran without Tehran releasing Iranian-Americans that are being held.
Malley told Reuters on the issues of dual national being held in prison in Iran and the fate of the Vienna talks:
“They’re separate and we’re pursuing both of them. But I will say it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran”.
Robert Malley mentions four prisoners by name: Siamack Namazi, Bagher Namazi, Morad Tahabaz, and Emad Sharghi, and considers the release of these four as a precondition for the agreement. The number of imprisoned dual nationals in Iran is much higher than this. There are also Iranian-European citizens held in Iranian prisons. Even though European countries are also part of the talks in Vienna, it is unclear to what extent these imprisoned European nationals are included in the negotiations.
The request for the release of dual nationals being held in Iranian prisons are not part of the negotiations and their inclusion as a requirement cannot replace any discussions the world powers and international mechanisms could potentially have with the Islamic Republic over the situation of human rights in Iran. Western governments that are taking part in the ongoing negotiations with Iran, cannot claim that by raising the issue of imprisoned dual nationals, they have included the situation of human rights in the Vienna talks.
The Complicated Situation of Iranian-American Prisoners in Iran
Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman, and his 85 years old father, Baqer Namazi, Murad Tahabaz, an Iranian-British-American environmental activist, and Emad Sharghi Iranian-American businessman are the foreign nationals that the Iranian government is holding prisoner.
Siamak Namazi, who passed the sixth anniversary of his imprisonment in Iran in October 2021, is the longest-held political prisoner who is a dual national in Iran. Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) first detained Siamak Namazi in 2015, just as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had been signed. His 85 years old father, Baquer Namazi, in early 2016 was lured to Iran to visit Siamack in prison. He was also detained on bogus national security charges. Both father and son were sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge of “collaboration with a hostile government.”
The main body behind the Iranian-Americans detention is the IRGC intelligence that does not answer to the executive branch in Iran – it is the government who is in charge of the negotiation with the world powers and the foreign ministry in Iran has to finally arrange the releaser of the prisoners through IRGC.
There are two objectives that Iran follows in arresting dual nationals: pursue a material or diplomatic interest and or to deter Iranian dual nationals from the homeland. For example, in the case of Nazanin Zaghari, the British-Iranian dual national that is being held in Iran, the Islamic Republic is after an old unsettled debt of the British government to Iran. deter the Iranians abroad from returning to Iran. The hardliners in Iran prefer not to have many western-oriented Iranians reside in Iran, so by arresting some prominent ones; they deter other Iranians from returning.
A person familiar with the current negotiations process told Zamaneh that there had been some talks on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations about the dual national prisoners. Still, the two issues are not negotiated simultaneously. Iran wants the two issues to be dealt with and settled separately, but the US has been more interested in a parallel resolution leading to the release of prisoners, similar to the events that occurred in 2016.
Political Prisoners in Iran
According to official data, the number of prisoners in Iran has almost tripled since the 1979 Revolution. Nearly 300,000 people are considered permanent prisoners in Iran. Iranian officials do not announce the number of political prisoners and even deny that there are political prisoners in Iran.
Ali Asghar Jahangir, the former head of the Prisons Organization, said: “There is no political prisoner in Iran as defined in the world. We have a small number of [national] security prisoners. Who has endangered the security of the country, and the number of them is small.”
But according to human rights organizations, there are hundreds of political prisoners in Iran. The Iran prison Atlas lists 602 political prisoners in Iran, but the number of political prisoners is higher. There are many prisoners who are not known or the human rights documentation process has no access to them or their families. Security forces have arrested hundreds of protesters on each occasion of street protests, labor protests, and water crisis protests that have happened in the past year in Iran. Some are released on bail but others have remained in prison without the outside world having access to them.
These political prisoners are dissidents, civil and labor activists, human rights activists, and women rights activists; most of them are Iranian citizens without dual nationalities and as such, they are never subject of any international negotiations.
For decades, foreign prisoners and dual nationals have been the tools of Iran’s political dealings with other countries. The starting point of this tactic was the Islamic Revolution and the taking of American diplomats hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran. Months of negotiations back then ended when the United States returned Iran’s frozen assets. When Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, the remaining 52 hostages were released after 444 days. Although these frozen assets might not have been seized at first if not for the hostage taking, this trend later prompted the Islamic Republic to couple hostage-taking with its foreign policy demands.
You may still remember the story of Helmut Hofer. Helmut Hofer was arrested in 1997 on charges of adultery. Hofer was quickly put on trial and sentenced to death. He spent two and a half years in prison until the Iranian Supreme Court overturned the death sentence. In an interview with Radio Farda six years ago, Hofer told the heartbreaking story of how the political game between countries ruined his life. Hofer was arrested at the same time as the Mykonos trial. He believes that the Islamic Republic set him up to swap him with Kazem Darabi, one of the convicts in the Mykonos case in Germany – the trial was on charges laid in relation to the Mykonos restaurant assassinations in which Iranian-Kurdish opposition leaders were killed in Berlin, Germany on 17 September 1992.
During Obama’s presidency, in 2016, under the JCPOA agreement, several dual nationals were exchanged. Seven Iranians detained in the U.S. for violating nuclear-related sanctions swapped with Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati, Christian preacher Saeed Abedini, and another Iranian-American Nosratolah Khosravi. The release was finalized on the same day the nuclear deal was implemented.
There were also several prisoners released during Trump’s presidency; the details of the exchange are little known. The exchange of Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian university professor in prison in the United States, with Xiao Wang, an American researcher and doctoral student at Princeton who was imprisoned in Iran, was one of those exchanges. Michael White, a U.S. veteran, has been swapped with Sirus Asgari, an Iranian university professor imprisoned in the United States.
Dual and Foreign Nationals in the Iranian Prison
Currently, four Iranian-Americans (Siamack and Bagher Namazi, Tahabaz, and Sharghi) are imprisoned in Iran. There is also Afshin Shaykh al-Islami Watani, a Kurdish environmental activist who is a US green card holder whose release is unlikely to be discussed during the talks.
Anousheh Ashouri, Iranian-British, Nazanin Zaghari Iranian-British, and Mehran Raouf, another Iranian-British labor activist, are all imprisoned in Iran and there has been no news about their release being tied to the negotiations in Vienna.
Abdul Rasool Dori Esfahani, a Canadian citizen, was a senior member of the nuclear negotiating team who has been detained in Iran since 2016 on espionage charges.
Fariba Adelkhah, an Iranian-French researcher, is in Evin prison on charges of conspiracy to act against national security and propaganda against the state. Nahid Taghavi, an Iranian-German citizen, was sentenced to 10 years. Two Iranian-Austrian citizens have also spent several years in prison in Iran.
Massoud Masahib, 73, secretary-general of the Iran-Austria Friendship Association, accused of spying for Germany and Israel is also another dual national in Iranian prisons. Kamran Ghaderi, another Iranian-Austrian citizen, has been in an Iranian prison for six years.
Ahmadreza Jalali, an Iranian-Swedish researcher, was sentenced to death for espionage.
Benjamin Breyer is not a dual citizen but a French tourist who was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for “espionage” and “propaganda against the state” during the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna.
Foreign nationals and dual nationals are systematically detained in Iran. Islamic republic patiently sets up a trap for them, puts them on trial on bogus national security charges, and keeps them in prison until the day that they could be used for bargaining. They are accused of crimes that are difficult to verify due to the non-transparency of the judicial process in Iran. The judiciary is complicit in the security forces’ case-making, so the rule is that a court ruling does not rely on impartial investigation and judicial justice.
Nahid Taghavi, an Iranian-German citizen, is one of those who do not know why she was targeted. Still, one theory is that the case against her is related to the arrest of Assadollah Asadi in Germany. Asadi is currently serving a 20-year sentence in Belgium for plotting a terrorist operation in Europe. It is said that Asadi has told Belgium police that he would not stay in prison for long and would one day be exchanged for a European prisoner.
It is unclear whether the current Vienna talks will include the exchange or release of dual Iranian-European nationals.
A former hostage and US diplomat, Barry Rosen, suggests that Europe must prioritize hostages in nuclear talks with Iran. Barry Rosen, 77, was one of the US embassy staff detained in Tehran for 444 days by the Iranian regime in 1979.
“The Iranian government’s use of hostage diplomacy cannot be dealt with through the actions of any one country. Every time a Western country accedes to Tehran’s demands, it simply emboldens the regime to continue – or ramp up – the practice in the future”, Barry Rosen wrote in an opinion piece.
The former American diplomat called on Europe to lead the way: “It is time for Europe to lead the way, and for the international community to stand up to the Islamic Republic. Without comprehensive and effective action, the Iranian regime will have little incentive to stop this cruel practice and will continue to disavow international norms.”
Currently, several Iranian and former political prisoners are on a hunger strike in Vienna to raise awareness about the lives of prisoners in Iran. This move began with Barry Rosen’s hunger strike.