Iranian regime using foreign prisoners as political pawns

Iranian regime using foreign prisoners as political pawns


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. (Adem Altan/AFP)

Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has generally resorted to backchannels in order to negotiate deals with foreign governments whose citizens it holds as prisoners. But, in an unprecedented move, during a recent interview at the Asia Society in New York, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif made a public offer to the US and other countries regarding American and European citizens held in Iranian jails.

Zarif made a bold statement, saying: “I put this offer on the table, publicly, now. Exchange them. All these people that are in prison inside the United States, on extradition request from the United States… Let us exchange them.” He then acknowledged the authority that he enjoys, saying: “I have the authority to do that. We informed the government of the United States six months ago that we are ready.”

First of all, it must be noted that Zarif’s statement contains a critical inaccuracy. Being part of the executive branch, neither Iran’s foreign minister nor President Hassan Rouhani have the power to make such offers to foreign governments. These matters are under the control and authority of the hardline judiciary system. The head of the judiciary, also known as the chief justice of Iran, is directly appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In other words, the judiciary system also requires Khamenei’s blessing to make decisions about foreign prisoners and hostages.

In fact, it is intriguing that Zarif contradicted himself by admitting this. When the foreign minister was questioned about the conditions and potential release of a group of environmental scientists held by Iran, he replied: “This is not my job. Our judiciary is independent. I have not agreed with the accusations against them, but I am busy enough preventing wars and economic pressures.”

This begs the question of how Zarif seemingly has the authority to release some prisoners but not others. The eight environmentalists, who were arrested more than a year ago, are still in detention accused of crimes such as “spreading corruption on Earth.” One of them, the Iranian-Canadian Kavous Seyyed-Emami, died in suspicious circumstances while in jail. Without providing any valid proof, Iran’s judiciary announced that he had committed suicide because of the evidence of spying against him. The Iranian regime has regularly framed sudden deaths in its prisons, or through interrogations, as “suicides.”

Despite pressure from human rights organizations, Iran declines to release the environmental scientists. Several Members of the European Parliament from a wide range of political parties wrote a letter to Rouhani stating: “We understand that the Iranian judiciary has accused the activists of using environmental projects as a cover to collect classified strategic information, but a committee established under your authority has found no evidence of these allegations.” But Iran has not yet responded.

Under the presidency of the so-called moderate Rouhani, travel warnings issued by other countries to their citizens have increased

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh


Another foreign citizen held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison is the British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who worked for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency. Others detained in Iran’s political prison include US Navy veteran Michael White, Xiyue Wang — an American citizen and graduate student at Princeton University who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge of spying — and Iranian-Americans Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Neyssari, and Baquer and Siamak Namazi.

Under the presidency of the so-called moderate Rouhani, travel warnings issued by other countries to their citizens have increased. For example, the British Foreign Office recently warned all UK-Iranian dual nationals not to travel to Iran. Its statement declared: “There is a risk that British nationals, and a higher risk that British/Iranian dual nationals, could be arbitrarily detained in Iran. All British nationals should consider carefully the risks of traveling to Iran.”

While Iran’s foreign minister does not wield power when it comes to releasing or exchanging prisoners, there is a possibility that he is being instructed by one of the hardline organizations — the judiciary system, the Ministry of Intelligence, the senior cadre of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or the Office of the Supreme Leader — to carry out this mission. In other words, he is acting as the hardliners’ puppet to advance their parochial and political interests.

The Islamic Republic has frequently utilized hostages as political pawns and leverage against other governments. This has been the policy of the theocratic establishment since the revolution in 1979, starting with the takeover that year of the US Embassy in Tehran, which led to 52 Americans being held hostage for 444 days. The regime released them only when it had achieved its political, economic and ideological objectives.

In a nutshell, the Iranian regime is once again using foreign citizens as hostages in order to blackmail other governments. It is incumbent on these countries not to submit to Tehran’s hostage-taking game. Accepting Iran’s terms will only embolden and empower the regime.

  • Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh
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