FPI Bulletin: Iran’s Hostage Crisis Continues

June 23, 2016

The Iranian hostage crisis continues. In the five months since the nuclear deal’s implementation and a concurrent prisoner exchange between Washington and Tehran, the Islamist regime has seized additional captives, while other prisoners excluded from the January swap continue to languish behind bars. If past is precedent, Iran likely seeks to use the prisoners as bargaining chips to extract further concessions from the West — yet another signal that the Obama administration’s solicitous posture toward the regime has encouraged rather than reduced its provocations.

The circumstances surrounding the latest abductions appear depressingly familiar. In each case, the regime has advanced spurious charges of espionage or failed to articulate its allegations at all. In some instances, it has subjected its prisoners to solitary confinement or elicited forced confessions. It has specifically targeted Iranians with dual citizenship even as it refuses to recognize the concept of dual nationality, thereby rendering them unable to use consular services. And it shows no sign that it intends to refrain from capturing further hostages.

In February, Tehran arrested 80-year-old Iranian-American Baquer Namazi, a former UNICEF official and the father of businessman Siamak Namazi, whom the regime has incarcerated since October. To date, Tehran has failed to announce any charges against either of them. “Now both my innocent son Siamak and my Baquer are in prison for no reason,” wrote Effie Namazi, wife of Baquer and mother of Siamak, on Facebook. “This is a nightmare I can’t describe.” In the same month, Iran also detained British-Iranian Bahman Daroshafaei, a former journalist for BBC Persian, but released him on bail after three weeks.

In March, Iran abducted French-Iranian Nazak Afshar, a former employee of the French embassy in Tehran, whom the regime previously arrested in 2009 on espionage charges but freed after intervention from Paris. In April, the regime sentenced her to six years in prison without specifying any new charges; she currently awaits a decision on her appeal.

In April, Iran apprehended 37-year-old British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the mother of a two-year-old girl. Tehran subjected her to solitary confinement for 45 days before moving her to a communal cell, and only last week formally accused her of seeking the regime’s overthrow. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, British citizen Richard Ratcliffe, reported that the regime forced Nazanin to sign a confession “under duress.” Later in April, Iran also arrested Dutch-Iranian Sabri Hassanpour, an anchor for an online satellite channel that supports the Iranian opposition.

In early June, Tehran arrested Canadian-Iranian Homa Hoodfar, a professor of anthropology at Concordia University who researches the role of women in the Muslim world. While the regime has yet to announce any formal charges, Iranian media with links to the IRGC have disclosed some details. “They claim that my aunt is fomenting a feminist revolution in Iran,” said Hoodfar’s niece, Amanda Ghahremani, adding that the charges “are very absurd” and “baseless and not grounded in any fact whatsoever.”

In addition to Siamak Namazi, Iran also continues to detain other Iranians with Western ties arrested prior to the January prisoner exchange. British-Iranian businessman Kamal Foroughi has served five years of an eight-year term for an espionage conviction. Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen with U.S.-permanent residency who leads an American-funded nonprofit organization that promotes Internet freedom in the Middle East, has languished behind bars since last September with no formal charges; Iranian media, however, have accused him of spying for Washington. Moreover, Tehran has still failed to provide information regarding the fate of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007.

Mindful of the precedent set by the January prisoner exchange, Iran has pursued these detentions in order to advance a broader strategic objective: the extraction of further concessions from the West beyond the nuclear deal. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned in February in the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Iran may “use American citizens detained when entering Iranian territories as bargaining pieces to achieve financial or political concessions in line with their strategic intentions.” Not surprisingly, the State Department’s latest travel warning to Iran in March notes that the regime continues “to harass, arrest, and detain U.S. citizens, in particular dual nationals.”

Tehran’s behavior also serves an ideological purpose. The regime seeks to demonstrate that the nuclear deal, despite the stated hopes of the Obama administration, will not fundamentally change the relationship between Iran and the West. By abducting dual nationals, Iran discourages foreign travel to the country, undermines Western efforts to achieve a broader rapprochement, and intimidates the moderate opposition at home. In so doing, the regime seeks to ensure that its radical vision of the Islamic Revolution remains untainted by Western influence. As Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in August 2015, “They wanted to use [the nuclear deal] as a means to exert influence in our country, but we blocked their path and we will definitely block their path in the future as well.”

In the 11 months since the nuclear agreement, the Obama administration has not designated any Iranian entities for human rights abuses. On the contrary, U.S. officials have actually visited Europe to encourage wary banks and companies to resume business with Iran, a move that only encourages the regime’s misbehavior. If the White House wishes to prevent future kidnappings, it should reverse this policy, and instead work to reinvigorate non-nuclear sanctions on Iran. Put differently, the United States must show the regime that the costs of its aggression far exceed the potential benefits.

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