Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, visiting Iran has always entailed some risks for Iranians living abroad. However, in recent years there has been a new wave of arrests and persecution of Iranian dual nationals. Although several cases have been publicized, there may be many more unreported arrests. Many families are afraid of further consequences if they speak to the press.
Previously, Iranian Americans were the main targets for Iranian security forces as they could be used either as bargaining chips or in prisoner swaps. One of the highest profile cases of recent years was Jason Rezaian, an Iranian American journalist who, according to his lawyer, was taken hostage in order to extort concessions during talks with the United States (US) over its nuclear programme.
In 2017 and 2018, however, attention seems to have shifted to Iranian Europeans. In September 2017, a United Nations panel described ‘an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals’ in Iran. These arrests are happening at a time when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has promised to reach out to the Iranian diaspora.
The revolution that paved the way for the establishment of the Islamic Republic, eight years of war with the Baathist regime in Iraq and ongoing post-war political and economic instability have caused millions of Iranians to migrate to the West. Today, there is a relatively large Iranian diaspora living both in Western Europe and North America. A large segment of this community is integrated and has acquired second European, Canadian or American nationalities. Like other diasporas, most people have maintained their links to their homeland. Yet the question of visiting has not always been a straightforward one for many Iranians. For the first wave of immigrants who fled in the early 1980s, either because of their connection to the previous regime or their ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities, returning to the homeland has been a farfetched dream.
Following the 1997 victory of Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president, the right conditions were created for many dual nationals to visit the country. The president openly invited Iranians to visit and invest in its developing economy. Although the government attempted to normalize the ties with politically ‘unproblematic’ Iranians residing in the West, the hardliners took other steps to make the situation difficult both for the government and some of the returnees. Yet for many Iranians living overseas, the Khatami era was the easiest time to visit the country without the fear of persecution. The hopeful reform era was followed by eight years of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who drastically changed the situation. Following the 2009 election, which resulted in widespread protests over alleged vote rigging, a crackdown on Iranian dual nationals started.
The most high-profile case was the arrest and execution of the Iranian-Dutch woman Sahra Bahrami in 2011, which galvanized both the Iranian diaspora and the international community. Over next few years, numerous cases of arrests and persecution were reported. Many of them were either students or residents in the West who were arrested upon their return and charged with political or security-related crimes.
In 2013, Rouhani was elected on a moderate ticket. At the beginning of his first term, he reached out to the Iranian diaspora. On his first trip to New York to address the UN General Assembly, he told an enthusiastic crowd of Iranian Americans that he would make it easier for them to visit Iran. “This is the right of every Iranian, to visit their homeland,” he said to cheers and applause. “If I were to transmit your message to Iran, perhaps it is this: ‘Visiting Iran is our incontrovertible right.’”
To reassure those who were still afraid of returning home, his government asked people to get in touch with the authorities through a designated email address, so their cases could be evaluated by a special committee made of representatives of the judiciary and the security forces prior to their arrival. Although this provided some optimism, the reality proved to be more complicated. Reports emerged of people being arrested or having their passports confiscated upon their return. This deterred many Iranians, particularly those with a political profile, from making the trip.
Rouhani’s first term was primarily focused on reaching a nuclear deal. Following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was officially agreed in July 2015, there was new optimism about rapprochement with the US and further normalization of ties with the West. Reducing tensions with ‘the hostile’ countries could make the life of Iranians living in these countries a lot easier. However, the result was exactly the opposite.
Since the signing of the deal, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have arrested at least 30 dual nationals, mostly on spying charges. In the years before the deal, the number of dual nationals imprisoned at any given time was usually in single figures. However, the pattern of these arrests has changed. Previously, most of the detainees were Iranian Americans, but now the majority of the detainees are Iranians with European passports. In February 2018, at least 19 out of the 30 detainees had European citizenship.
Among them are Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ahmadreza Djalali. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British Iranian, has been in prison since April 2016. On 10 September 2016, she was sentenced to five years in jail ‘for allegedly plotting to topple the Iranian regime’. Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-based Iranian scientist, was arrested in 2016 after attending a conference in the Iranian capital Tehran. He has been sentenced to death on ‘espionage charges’. In 2017, some 75 Nobel Prize winners called on the Iranian government to release him, but he is still under the imminent threat of execution by hanging.
Iranian factional politics can largely explain the new crackdown on dual nationals. The IRGC, which are responsible for most of the arrests, are not accountable to the government. Hence, by arresting these dual nationals they can exercise power, buy more influence and at the same time actively prevent further normalization of ties with the West.
This resistance to normalizing ties extends to the Iranian economy, to which the government has been keen to attract foreign investment. The IRGC have vast interests in various segments of the economy and are not interested in seeing any major changes. This could explain why there has been more focus on Iranians with European passports. Many European firms are investing in the energy sector at the moment, and these arrests could send the ‘right’ signals to European leaders, making them think twice before strengthening ties with the current government. These reasons are coupled with other traditional motives such as using detainees as bargaining chips either for prisoner swaps or ransoms.