On Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif once again professed his country’s readiness for prisoner exchanges involving Western nationals who have been taken hostage in the Islamic Republic in recent years. Zarif naturally did not acknowledge those individuals’ status as hostages, but with few exceptions, the Iranian judiciary and Iranian state media have failed to substantiate the allegations of espionage or other, vaguer national security crimes that have been used to justify their sentences.
The foreign minister’s commentary on this subject was apparently prompted by recent news that a British-Australian academic, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, had been released from Iranian custody after serving more than two years of a 10-year sentence. The surprise commutation of that sentence coincided with the release of three Iranian nationals from prison in Thailand, where they had been implicated in a 2012 bomb plot that unsuccessfully sought to target Israeli diplomats.
The apparent prisoner exchange is significant for multiple reasons. It may have implications for other Western nationals who remain as hostages to the Iranian regime, and it may also connect one or more of their cases to those of other alleged Iranian terrorists. If Tehran specifically used Moore-Gilbert in order to seek the release of individuals who were involved in an Iranian bomb plot, then it is quite possible that it was motivated in part by the concurrent start of a terror case in Belgium which involves similar state-sponsored terrorism.
In June 2018, an Iranian diplomat and three accomplices attempted to set off explosives at a gathering of Iranian expatriates just outside Paris. But the terror plot was thwarted by multiple Iranian authorities, leading to concerted efforts by Iranian officials to secure the release of that diplomat, Assadollah Assadi. These efforts failed, and the trial for all four terrorist suspects began in an Antwerp court last Friday. Verdicts are expected before the end of the month, but it seems likely that Tehran will still make further attempts to interfere in the outcome.
Assadi’s potential 20-year sentence may even help to explain the recent, unexplained arrest of an Iranian-German dual national, Nahid Taghavi. The 66-year-old retired architect has been held incommunicado in solitary confinement at Evin Prison since October 19, and her family’s inquiries into her case have been rebuffed with explanations that no information will be released until after her interrogation is complete.
Tehran has a long history of using coercive and torturous interrogation methods as a means of securing false confessions from individuals whom authorities have decided in advance to convict. This practice has been applied to a wide variety of domestic activists as well as to foreign and dual nationals who stand to help corroborate the regime’s narrative describing constant threats of foreign infiltration and attack.
That narrative has been reflected in countless state media broadcasts and publications regarding persons facing spurious charges of espionage. Moore-Gilbert was no exception and was even made the subject of a ten-minute television package that reaffirmed the allegations against her, even as she was being released. Those allegations specifically relate to spying on behalf of Israel, but the only evidence presented in the broadcast was images of her visiting tourist sites in the country.
Many other such broadcasts have been strengthened by forced confessions. This seems to have been absent in Moore-Gilbert’s case, but Taghavi’s protracted pre-trial detention suggests that regime authorities are hard at work trying to elicit such a confession. Her lack of contact with family members strongly implies that she has also had no contact with a lawyer. And because Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, she will not be granted the German consular assistance she would receive if detained in most other countries.
If Iranian authorities succeed in manufacturing a national security case against Taghavi, they may then attempt to leverage it for influence over the sentencing of the four regime operatives who are currently on trial. Although that trial is taking place in Belgium, the alleged mastermind of the 2018 terror plot was actually arrested in Germany and then extradited to Belgium. It is therefore easy to imagine that Tehran could appeal to Berlin to recommend a lighter sentence for Assadi, in exchange for a promise of less vigorous prosecution of the newly-detained German citizen.
Of course, by swapping Moore-Gilbert for three Iranians imprisoned in Thailand, the Iranian regime has arguably demonstrated that hostages can be used as indirect leverage over countries to which they have no known ties. That being the case, any number of existing hostages could be brought to bear on the Assadi case, or on that of any other Iranian whom the regime wishes to see released.
Zarif’s recent comments about prisoner swaps indicated that there are many such individuals. He explicitly claimed that the prospective targets of prisoner swaps would be those who were “illegally” detained, though he gave no details of who these individuals might be or how Tehran had determined that the charges against them were fabricated. One might suppose that Zarif was simply attempting to project its own practice of hostage-taking upon a foreign adversary, except the foreign minister’s allegation of illegal conduct was broadly applied to courts and law enforcement agencies spanning the US, Europe, and Africa.
Given the recent involvement of the Thai judiciary, it seems as though Tehran means to suggest that Iranians are being illegally detained in Asia, as well. Regardless of the precise extent of Zarif’s allegation, it does not specify who might be coordinating such a far-reaching conspiracy against Iranian nationals. Meanwhile, no such unresolved questions loom over the allegation of hostage-taking by the Iranian regime. It has been squarely focused on traditional adversaries of the Islamic Republic, and it has consistently involved similar national security charges, backed up by similar assortments of manufactured evidence.
In the most extreme cases, Western citizenship has been sufficient grounds for the Iranian regime to levy an accusation of spying for Israel and then secure a death penalty in the face of international outcry. This was the case, for instance, with Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish dual national and academic who was recently the subject of an urgent call-to-action by UN human rights experts. Djalali had spoken to his wife by phone on November 24 and informed her that he was being transferred to solitary confinement, meaning that his execution was likely imminent.
It is not clear whether the ensuing international appeals had an impact on the judiciary’s decision-making, but as recently as Wednesday, authorities told Djalali’s family that the implementation of his October 2017 sentence had been “postponed for a few days.” While Tehran has seemingly delayed executions in response to the international outcry in the past, the judiciary rarely cancels them altogether. In fact, repeated delays are sometimes used as a tactic of psychological torture, insofar as they leave all death row prisoners with a pervasive sense of uncertainty about when they might be killed.
In Djalali’s case, the perceived political value of the prisoner makes it perhaps equally likely that his case is being used to intimidate other dual nationals or that his execution is being held back so that he may be used as a bargaining chip in dealings with the whole of Europe. If the latter is the case, then it is quite possible that the latest threat to Djalali’s life was specifically scheduled to coincide with Zarif’s appeal for further prisoner swaps, so that the prisoner’s advocates would be motivated to fully support such swaps.