Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have arrested at least 30 dual nationals during the past two years, mostly on spying charges, according to lawyers, diplomats and relatives, twice as many as earlier reported by local or international media. The number marks a sharp rise since 2015, when an international nuclear deal raised hopes of detente with the West. In the years before that the number of dual nationals detained at any given time was in single figures, Reuters reports.
It also points up a new trend as a majority of those arrested since then, 19 out of the 30, have citizenship in Europe. Previously most of the detainees were Iranian Americans. Detainees’ relatives and lawyers said the Guards were using them as bargaining chips in international relations and to put off European firms that sought business in Iran after the government agreed the deal with world powers to lift sanctions. Iranian authorities have previously denied holding detainees for ransom and accuse Western governments of holding Iranians on trumped-up charges.
Relatives of dual nationals detained in Iran, their lawyers and Western diplomats shared information such as name, date of arrest and any charges, on condition neither they nor the detainees were identified, citing fear of repercussions. Iran does not routinely announce arrests or charges and does not recognize dual nationals, whose rights to consular assistance are enshrined in the UN Vienna Convention.
In all cases, the sources said the detainees had not carried out any espionage and were arrested only because of their second citizenship. Several governments argue that maintaining a low profile is in the best interests of the detainees. Dutch Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Daphne Kerremans said identifying detainees “could get the prisoners into trouble.” Some relatives only break their silence once their initial hopes have been dashed.
The wife of Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-based Iranian scientist arrested in 2016 after attending a conference in Tehran, decided to speak out in February.
“We were all hopeful that he would be released soon. He was calling us from jail, saying he had not been officially charged. They had told him that he would be released after answering a few questions. I made the case public to media after nine months when he was threatened with a death sentence by a prosecutor and went on a hunger strike,” Vida Mehrannia said by telephone from Stockholm.
Djalali was sentenced to death in October on espionage charges. Official confirmation of new arrests sometimes emerges indirectly. Records of a session of the European Parliament in June 2017 showed three Dutch-Iranian nationals were in jail in Iran. Only one case has been reported. Dutch Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Kerremans told Reuters the individuals were arrested in November 2012 and January 2016 and said government actions were mostly “aimed at ensuring an honest trial, not demanding release.”
“It is very difficult for the Dutch government to lend support since Iran does not recognize the Dutch nationality of the prisoners, and gives little to no information about them,” she said.
In January 2016, then-British Prime Minister David Cameron raised the issue of three dual UK-Iran nationals held in Iranian prisons in a phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Only two of those cases were known to the public at the time.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British aid worker employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested in April 2016 while on holiday in Iran and later charged with plotting to overthrow Iran’s clerical establishment. UK foreign ministry spokesman declined to specify how many British-Iranian dual nationals had been arrested.
In 2016, Iran released five U.S. citizens in a prisoner exchange as the nuclear deal was implemented. One remained behind and six American citizens or permanent residents have been arrested since, their lawyers or relatives have told media, of whom one has been freed on bail.
A U.S. State Department official confirmed three cases, did not comment on two others and mentioned another detainee, Nizar Zakka, saying he was unjustly held and calling for his release without clarifying his U.S. status. Asked for more details about Zakka and other detained U.S. citizens and legal residents, the official said the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad was a top priority, adding: “Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”