European dual-nationals & Iranian hostage diplomacy
Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has treated dual-citizens and foreign nationals as bargaining chips in its negotiations with the West, imprisoning individuals on spurious charges while using their detainment as diplomatic leverage.
Tehran refuses to recognise dual citizenship, acknowledging instead only the Iranian identity of the individuals in question. As such, dual-citizens are regularly denied consular assistance from their alternative home nation. In reality, the Iranian regime is not blind to dual-citizenship at all. Rather, these unfortunate individuals are targeted by the regime precisely because of their dual-citizenship, which is seen as something that can be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Western countries.
The international response to Iran’s systematic use of hostage diplomacy differs from country to country, even from detainee to detainee.
However, although Iran’s detention of dual-citizens is nothing new, the conscious decision of certain European governments and institutions to look the other way is both novel and troubling.
In what follows, we take a look at how different European governments and non-state bodies have responded to the imprisonment of their fellow citizens and colleagues.
Where some countries perform well, coming to the defence of their citizens and taking proactive measures to secure their release, others are inexcusably silent on the matter. In certain cases, non-state bodies have taken far more decisive action than have the government of the same country.
Thankfully, there are some signs that European powers are belatedly running out of patience with Iran.
In September 2020, France, Germany and the UK, collectively known as the E3, summoned their respective Iranian ambassadors in a coordinated diplomatic protest against Tehran’s detention of dual nationals and its treatment of political prisoners. As the first coordinated action of European powers against Iran’s systematic abuse of dual-nationals, this was a highly promising development.
What our comparative analysis makes clear, however, is that until European states and the EU adopt a common and collective approach to dealing with Iran’s hostage diplomacy there is little hope that Tehran will alter its behaviour.
Observance of the basic norms of international diplomacy and human rights must be the precondition for European engagement with Iran, not its long term goal.
It is time for European leaders to put its values and its citizens before its blind commitment to maintaining dialogue with a morally bankrupt regime.
Prisoner(s): Ahmad Reza Djalali
Justification for imprisonment: Espionage on behalf of a hostile government (Israel) and ‘corruption on earth’.
Dr Ahmad Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian disaster medicine expert who taught at universities in Belgium and Sweden, was sentenced to death on charges of “cooperation with a hostile government” following a manifestly unfair trial in October 2017.
On November 24 2020, Djalali was transferred to solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison. There, he was informed that he would face capital punishment within the next week.
Dr. Djalali’s ordeal has been regularly highlighted on social media by leading humanitarian organizations, including Amnesty International, the Committee for Concerned Scientists, and Scholars at Risk.
Responding to the news, Amnesty International said it was “appalling that despite repeated calls from UN human rights experts to quash Ahmadreza Djalali’s death sentence and release him, the Iranian authorities have instead decided to push for this irreversible injustice.”
Prior to this announcement, Swedish institutions have been remarkably timid in confronting Iran about its treatment of Dr. Djalali’s, especially compared to Belgium.
The Belgian government has previously actually attempted to save the life of the researcher. In January 2018, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders called for his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to repeal Dr. Djalali’s sentence. Similarly, every university in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders has long since ceased all academic cooperation with Iranian universities in a show of support for Dr. Djalali. Caroline Pauwels, rector of Brussels Free University, noted that the decision to sever ties with Iranian academia had “the wholehearted support of the academic community in Belgium.”
By contrast, no such moral backlash has obtained in Sweden.
In the same month that the Flemish Council decried Dr. Djalali’s abuse, six Swedish universities (Boras, Halmstad, KTH University, Linnaeus, Lund, and Malmo) conducted a tour of Iran to discuss academic cooperation. The delegation ‘welcomed’ Iran’s proposal for a ‘Day of Iran and Sweden Science’ to take place the following year.
In December 2018, the University of Boras signed an agreement with the University of Mazandaran in northern Iran. In January 2019, the Swedish Ambassador in Tehran reportedly signed an MOU with the President of Sharif University of Technology to boost “academic and industrial cooperation” between Swedish and Iranian universities.
Until now, Sweden’s political leaders have mirrored the country’s universities in their apathetic response to Dr. Djalali's fate. In almost five years since his initial arrest, Sweden has failed to secure consular support for Dr Djalali. Not without cause, Dr. Djalali believes the Swedish government has abandoned him. Meanwhile, his sister claims she has been given the cold shoulder from the Foreign Ministry, an argument backed up by opposition leader Lars Adaktusson, who has claimed that Sweden is abandoning Djalali by continuing to treat the regime with kid gloves.
Upon hearing the tragic news that Djalali would be executed, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde announced that she has contacted the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to formally object to the planned execution. She took to Twitter to denounce the sentence and the death penalty, claiming she was working towards repealing the sentence. Iranian authorities, for their part, have warned against “all interference” by Sweden.
Prisoner(s): Kamran Ghaderi & Massud Mossaheb
Sentence: 10 years each
Justification for imprisonment: Espionage on behalf of a hostile government
Kamran Ghaderi, CEO of an Austria-based IT management and consulting company, was detained during a business trip to Iran in January 2016. Massud Mossaheb, an elderly Iranian-Austrian dual national who had previously established the Iranian-Austrian Friendship Society (ÖIG) in 1991, was arrested in January 2019 travelling to Iran with a delegation from MedAustron, an Austrian radiation therapy and research firm seeking to establish a center in Iran.
Austrian-Iranian citizens both, Ghaderi and Mossaheb are currently being held in Iran's notorious Evin prison, where they have undergone untold hardship and suffering since their initial arrests.
Ghaderi's physical and mental health has severely deteriorated throughout his detention. He was denied appropriate medical treatment, despite having a tumour in his leg. Ghaderi's “confession” was extracted through torture and intimidation, including being wrongfully informed that his mother and brother were also imprisoned and that his cooperation would secure their release. In the almost half decade since his arrest, the Austrian government has failed to provide Ghaderi with consular support.
Similarly, Mossaheb’s advanced age has made his time in Evin prison excruciating. He has been placed in solitary confinement for weeks at a time. The International Observatory of Human Rights, Mossaheb believes he is quite sick and badly needs medical attention. The Austrian government is in touch with Mossaheb’s family and has tried to use “silent diplomacy” to get Mossaheb released, to no avail. He has yet to be granted Austrian consular assistance. The UN has consistently called for the release of both men, citing their particular vulnerability to Covid-19, which is believed to be rife in Iran’s prison system.
Unlike the Swedish government, Austrian leaders seem to be making the right moves.
In July of 2019, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg contacted his Iranian counterpart, the supposedly moderate Mohammad Javad Zarif, seeking his help to free Mossaheb, while the same month, an Austrian foreign ministry spokesman said his government had insisted—unsuccessfully—that Tehran release Mossaheb on the bases of humanitarianism and his age. President Alexander Van der Bellen also held talks with Iran’s President Rohani over the release of both prisoners.
Despite these significant interventions, the Austrian government has been no more successful than other governments in pressuring Iran to release its citizens.
Prisoner(s): Fariba Adelkhah & Roland Marchal
Sentence: 6 years
Justification for imprisonment: Espionage
Fariba Adelkhah, a French-Iranian anthropologist and academic employed by Sciences Po, was arrested on trumped-up charges of “propaganda against the system” and “colluding to commit acts against national security” in July 2019. Shortly after Adelkhah’s arrest, her colleague and partner Roland Marchal was accused of “colluding to commit acts against national security” and similarly detained.
Upon receiving news of the arrests, Sciences Po immediately implemented a series of actions in close collaboration with the Crisis and Support Centre of the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs (MEAE).
The prisoners’ home university worked with the French Foreign Ministry to provide legal assistance and apply political pressure. With the help of the MEAE, the university ensured that both Adelkhah and Marchal received the assistance of a highly experienced Iranian lawyer. The lawyer was approved by the Iranian judicial authorities, a move which is far from usual, ensuring that both prisoners received a defence that was both watertight and officially authorised.
Although Marchal was subsequently released, Adelkhah remains in Evin prison and has yet to be granted any French consular assistance. The numerous protests which have taken place at Science Po over Adelkhah’s continued detention attest to the ongoing interest in her case and the widespread disgust of colleagues at her treatment.
While Emmanuel Macron has called for Adelkhah’s release and has referred to her detention as “intolerable”, the French President resolutely refuses to weigh Iran’s treatment of French citizens in the same scales as that which dictates his ongoing support for the JCPOA.
According to her lawyer, Fariba was allowed on temporary release in early October due to her medical condition. She is currently in Tehran with her family and is obliged to wear an electronic bracelet.
Prisoner(s): Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Sentence: 5 years (currently under house arrest)
Justification for imprisonment: "for allegedly plotting to topple the Iranian regime" and for “running a BBC Persian online journalism course which was aimed at recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran"
Possibly Iran’s most high-profile dual national prisoner, the British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was jailed for five years in 2016. Although given temporary furlough due to Covid-19, she remains under house arrest in her parents’ home in Tehran, where she is forced to wear an electronic tag and is subject to unscheduled visits by IRC officers.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family have campaigned tirelessly for clemency from the regime, especially as her health rapidly deteriorated under the strain of life in Evin prison.
Despite having less than a year of her sentence remaining, mounting health concerns and pressure from the UK government, the Islamic Republic continues to refuse to allow an early release for Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Indeed, just as she approaches freedom, the regime has laid a second set of charges against Zaghari-Ratcliffe in September. On Monday 2 November, she was subjected to yet another dubious court appearance, which received widespread cross party criticism in the United Kingdom. Her trial has been adjourned indefinitely and her freedom remains entirely dependent on the whims of the regime.
Following this, her MP, Labour's Tulip Siddiq, has warned that “burying our heads in the sand is costing my constituent her life”.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release is allegedly dependent on a £450 million debt, dating back to the days of the Shah, for a cancelled arms deal. In the past, the UK government has refused to acknowledge this debt. In September 2020, however, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace formally stated he was actively seeking to pay the debt to Iran to help secure the release of dual-nationals, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
This is an incredible development from the UK, who not only have admitted their debt to Iran, but are willing to engage in hostage negotiations with the regime.
However, this week, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary noted no one in the House of Parliament accepted the “legitimacy of any direct link between the debt and the arbitrary detention of dual-nationals.” Furthermore, while the UK continues to examine options to resolve the arms debt, a court hearing over the alleged debt has been postponed until 2021, apparently at Iran’s request.
The UK government has in fact made a number of unusual moves in an attempt to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, not always in her best interest.
In November 2017, then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, made an ill-advised comment in the House of Commons that Nazanin was “simply teaching people journalism,” a claim manifestly denied by her employers, the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Nazanin was returned to court following Johnson's comments and the statement was cited in evidence against her.
While Johnson has apologised for his remarks, the damage is arguably done.
In a more promising development, in March 2019 former Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, took the very unusual step of granting Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection – a move that raises her case from a consular matter to the level of a dispute between the two states.
Unlike other European countries, the UK government actually understands the danger Iran poses to its dual-citizens. In May 2019 UK upgraded its travel advice to British-Iranian dual nationals, for the first time advising against all travel to Iran. The advice also urged Iranian nationals living in the UK to exercise caution if they decide to travel to Iran.