Arrests like that of Briton Kameel Ahmady are also being used to leverage the release of Iranians accused of violating US sanctions
Last week, Kameel Ahmady, a dual British-Iranian citizen, was arrested by Iran and incarcerated in Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison, along with many other political prisoners.
Ahmady, an anthropologist who has written about child marriage and female genital mutilation in Iran, is the latest Western dual national to be taken into custody by the Islamic Republic. At least three other such Britons are being held, a part of the growing number of Westerners jailed on charges mainly related to espionage.
Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California with expertise on Iran’s political development and nuclear program, said that while the country’s closed system of government made it impossible to ascertain the veracity of the charges, he believed those arrested were being used as “bargaining chips” to obtain the release of Iranians being held for violating US economic sanctions. Those financial penalties were reinstated after President Donald Trump in 2015 withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal.
“It seems to me, however, that most, if not all, of them have been arrested because the West has also arrested numerous Iranians around the globe with the accusation that they helped Iran to go around the economic sanctions,” Sahimi told The Media Line.
These include Iranian scientist and professor Masoud Soleimani, who was detained in July of this year for allegedly violating sanctions.
At least seven Americans, including dual nationals and one tri-national, are in Iranian custody. These include Princeton University researcher Xiyue Wang, whose detention began on August 7, 2016.
In a statement to The Media Line, a State Department spokesperson said: “The Iranian regime continues to deliberately target and detain US citizens and other foreign nationals, particularly dual citizens, on fabricated national security related changes. The United States is committed to securing the release of all US citizens wrongfully detained and missing in Iran. For both privacy and security reasons, we do not comment on or discuss the number of Americans detained in Iran.”
Other Western countries with dual citizens imprisoned in Iran include France, Sweden, Austria and Canada.
Sir Adam Thomson, director of the London-based European Leadership Network think-tank, contended that Iran’s actions were a direct consequence of Washington leaving the nuclear deal.
“It’s not surprising that if you push a country like Iran, it will push back. And we should expect hard-line elements in the Iranian regime to use whatever unpleasant and illegal methods they judge to be most effective,” he told The Media Line.
“We may not sympathize,” Thomson continued, “but it’s not hard to understand this when Iran and its population’s prosperity and dreams are being pushed to the wall by [the] US ‘maximum pressure’ [campaign].”
Ahmady’s arrest comes amid escalating maritime friction between Iran and the United Kingdom. On July 4, Britain detained the Grace 1 – an Iranian tanker carrying oil off the Strait of Gibraltar – over suspicions of noncompliance with European Union sanctions on Syria. Shortly thereafter, Iran seized a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, along with its crew.
Last Thursday, a Gibraltar court ordered the release of the Grace 1. In response, a US federal court issued a warrant to keep the ship detained on financial and national security charges.
European Leadership Network’s Thomson argues that Iran’s maritime escalation and imprisonment of dual nationals are being carried out in an effort to acquire leverage that can be used to improve the Iranian regime’s economic plight without alienating the remaining parties to the nuclear pact or provoking the US into a war.
“Iran is trying to accumulate all the cards it can in a high stakes game between peace and war. The seizure of ships gives Iran hostages for bartering and reminds the world of its ability to disrupt oil flows,” Thomson said. “But Iran’s actions still seem calibrated to avoid outright US intervention or total destruction of the [JCPOA].”
In June, Iran freed US permanent resident Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen who had been held since 2015. Saeed Malekpour, an Iranian with permanent residency status in Canada, was arrested while visiting his dying father in Iran in 2008. After being confined for eleven years, he was granted a furlough from prison, during which he fled; he reached Canada this month.
USC’s Sahimi contended that Ahmady’s arrest would not induce a military response. “The West will not start a major war because a few of its citizens have been arrested by Iran. Plus, this is not a new development. It has been going on for years,” he said.
One of Iran’s best-known dual citizen captives was Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, who was imprisoned from 2014 to 2016.
“The situation is fragile,” Thomson concluded. “At any moment miscalculation by Tehran or Washington could lead to unwanted further escalation.”
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies Program)