Dual Nationals Imprisoned in Iran Face Uncertain Fate

By Ahmad Rafat

Efforts by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO] to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe have once again highlighted the plight of dual-national Iranians, who are imprisoned on fabricated charges by the Islamic Republic.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 37-year-old British-Iranian woman, was arrested on April 3, 2016 by Kermanshah Province’s Tharallah Division for allegedly “plotting to topple the Iranian regime.” She is currently serving a five-year sentence at Tehran’s Evin Prison. Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked as a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the international news agency Thomson Reuters’. At the time of her arrest, she was on holiday in Tehran, visiting her family.

The UK is reportedly prepared to pay 400 million pounds of the money it owes Iran  in exchange for Nazanin’s release, according to the Daily Telegraph. A spokesperson for the UK Prime Minister Theresa May has, however, denied any connection between the 400 million pounds payment and the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The money is part of the 650 million pounds which Iran used to purchase 1,750 Chieftain tanks from the UK before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran received only 185 of those tanks; the rest were never delivered, because of the outbreak of war with Iraq and because of Western sanctions imposed on Tehran. The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) voted in favor of returning the 400 million pounds to Iran in 2009, but the move was halted because of a new set of sanctions imposed on Tehran.

The UK has, in the past, paid ransom to secure the release of British-Iranian citizens detained by the Islamic Republic. The recent meeting between the UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe has only strengthened speculation around the payment of ransom to Iran to secure her release.

Boris Johnson and Richard Ratcliffe

This is not the first time that the Islamic Republic has arrested and imprisoned Iranians with dual citizenship on trumped-up charges.

The regime uses these hostages as bargaining chips in its dealings with the West. During the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, Iran released four Iranian-Americans in exchange for $400 million in cash which was transported on a plane to Tehran. The money was part of the Iranian assets which were frozen by the U.S.

There are currently six Iranian-Americans held by the regime. There are also more than 30 Iranians with dual nationality – 19 of them citizens of European Union nations – who have been arrested and imprisoned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC] in the past two years, according to the Reuters news agency.

There were hopes that Iran would change its behavior after the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA, known as the Iran nuclear deal.]

Iran doesn’t recognize its citizens’ dual nationality. This has prevented dual-national Iranians from receiving embassy and consular help and support during their incarceration and trial. Some European countries warn dual-national Iranians that their embassies would not be able to protect them inside Iran, because the Islamic Republic doesn’t recognize their dual citizenship status.

Some observers believe that Iranian dual nationals have been used as pawns in the power struggle inside the regime. In addition to its military power, the IRGC also controls a large segment of the Iranian economy. It views the return of foreign companies to Iran, following the easing of sanctions, as a serious threat to its economic monopoly.

IRGC commanders have repeatedly criticized President Hassan Rouhani’s government for signing major contracts with foreign companies. Some analysts believe that taking Iranian dual nationals hostage has an adverse impact on economic relations with European countries, and dissuades them from investing in Iran. 

Many of the dual-national Iranians who have been imprisoned in the past two years are in legal limbo. Some have not been properly charged, nor have they been given a court date.

Many families break their silence only after they’ve given up all hopes of seeing their loved ones released. Vida Mehrannia kept quiet for nine months about the imprisonment of her husband Ahmad Reza Jalali, a physician, researcher and university professor who had taught in Italy, Sweden and Belgium. She didn’t even tell his colleagues in those countries about his imprisonment. Vida finally spoke to the media after she gave up hope of ever seeing her husband. Jalali was charged with spying for Israel and sentenced to death on 26 September by judge Salavati.

While Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was with her young daughter Gabriella on holiday in Iran at the time of her arrest, others such as Ahmad Reza Jalali were invited by the Iranian government to attend seminars and conferences. Nazar Zaka, a Lebanese-American information technology expert, was invited in September 2015 by Shahindokht Malavardi, presidential adviser in women and family affairs at the time, to attend a conference in Tehran. He was arrested by the IRGC and sentenced to 10 years in jail. He was also fined $4.2 million.

President Hassan Rouhani is well aware of the fact that the IRGC is using the imprisonment of the dual nationals as a tactic to fight his government. He, however, prefers to remain silent — or, as does his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, hide behind the notion that it is imprudent to interfere with the independent work of the Judiciary.