Families of Western prisoners in Iran hope its isolation could force their release

Families of dual nationals detained in Iran are hopeful that the tensions created by the Iran Nuclear Deal’s failure could compel authorities to allow their loved ones to be released.

President Donald J. Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran Nuclear Deal initially raised fears over the fate of Western and dual national prisoners in Iran. However, campaigners say the diplomatic standoff could be in their favor.

On May 20, an Iranian court told British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained since visiting her parents in Iran in March 2016, that she would face fresh charges, on top of her five-year prison sentence. The new charges came weeks after the arrests of two other British-Iranians who were visiting Iran.

A surge in the arrests of dual nationals over the past few years, and the long-term difficulties in obtaining their release, has been ascribed to internal politicking in Tehran. But these prisoners are also wound up in diplomatic rapprochement with Iran, and observers and campaigners told WikiTribune that Tehran has frequently displayed its ability to exert influence on the fates of Western prisoners.

Prisoners vulnerable to Tehran’s internal politics

According to Jasmin Ramsey, of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, most of these prisoners are arrested and kept in detention by the Revolutionary Guard, a branch of Iran’s armed forces.

“The Rouhani government … says the judiciary’s independent and ‘we don’t have power to tell them what to do’,” said Ramsey.

“Well of course we know that the judiciary is not exactly independent. In fact in certain branches, for example the revolutionary court system, it often bends to pressure by the arresting authorities in political cases.”

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These prisoners often become subject to Tehran’s internal politics, characterized (FT) as a divide between reformists in Hassan Rouhani’s government and the Ayatollah’s hardliners.

But Ramsey said this was possibly an over-simplified dynamic that has been used when convenient by Rouhani’s government.

“The Rouhani government doesn’t have absolute power to release the dual nationals but it certainly has influence, and the onus is on the president, who is responsible for upholding citizens’ rights, and the Iranian government as a whole to stop allowing Iran’s security establishment and judiciary from arresting dual nationals and then using them as political playing cards,” Ramsey said.

Though prisoners can become the focus of diplomatic feuds, it can be misleading to view them as part of a larger geopolitical plan, according to some campaigners.

Cyrus Vafadari’s parents are both currently detained in Iran. His father has joint U.S.-Iranian citizenship, but they both lived and worked in Tehran. Vafadari told WikiTribune that his parents were not necessarily vulnerable due to their links to the West, but were simply subject to the arbitrary and undemocratic use of power the Revolutionary Guard are well-known for.

“The evidence we have is that the Revolutionary Guard is bringing a variable, antiquated, obscure law … dating from the Shah’s time,” said Vafadari. “Basically they’re using this law to try and take my parents’ property.”

He said his parents were not political.

“They’re not involved with the opposition, they’re not journalists, they’re businesspeople. All they do is participate in the economy and they’ve been targeted for whatever reason, whether it’s because they’re international, I can’t say.

His parents’ case has been appealed and they are hoping for a successful judgment by the end of May.

“This is Iran’s last chance to avoid giving out an implicit public statement that they just don’t care about their citizens’ rights,” said Vafadari.

Europe offers the carrot, US the stick

Though they are subject to internal Iranian politics, some of these prisoners’ cases have also become the subject of long-running diplomatic feuds. For example, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has raised Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case with Iranian officials.

Richard Ratcliffe talks to demonstrators following a march in support of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian mother who is in jail in Iran, in London, November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Similarly Robert Levinson, a former FBI investigator, was detained in Iran in 2007. He has been the subject of extensive work by the State Department and FBI, with a $5 million reward available for information that leads to his return.

Two of Levinson’s adult children told WikiTribune that Iranian authorities initially opened a criminal kidnapping investigation, and later changed this to a national security case, limiting the powers of their lawyer in Iran. Recently, their lawyer told them the case appears to have been stalled.

“We can’t help but ask ‘why?’” said Samantha Levinson.

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She and her brother David both said they are optimistic that Trump’s more hard-line approach to Iran may help free their father.

“To our knowledge he has never been formally charged with anything,” said David Levinson.

“For 11 years, so across three [U.S.] administrations, we have been unable to bring my father home,” he said. “We were encouraged by Secretary Pompeo bringing home the hostages from North Korea and we believe that with this administration’s focus on bringing back detained Americans overseas, that our father could be as well.”

Ramsey said this hope was not unreasonable. She said that Rouhani was able to use his influence to obtain the release of four U.S. and detainees as a gesture of goodwill in January 2016.

“It’s not great that the U.S. has pulled out of the Nuclear Deal but, at the same time, Iran continued to hold these prisoners during the Nuclear Deal,” said Ramsey. “Iran is always really difficult to predict.”

She said European countries that are trying to work with Iran to maintain the Nuclear Deal must bring up these prisoners in their talks.

“They need to bring up these prisoners and ensure that Iran does something to protect the rights of people that enter Iran, whether they’re entering as visitors or residents or whatever, they need to use that leverage it’s countries like the UK, France, Germany, that are involved with the Nuclear Deal,” said Ramsey.

“But again the onus is on Iran and the Rouhani government has responsibility to uphold these citizens’ rights.”

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