It emerged on Friday that an Iranian court sentenced a British woman to five years in jail earlier last week. Arbitrary detention by the authorities has long been the most serious security-related risk for foreigners travelling to the country, albeit mainly for dual Iranian nationals. Such cases do not appear to have become more common this year, but the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has reportedly expressed concerns that dual nationals might be spying for foreign nations.
Iran’s detention of dual nationals on charges related to spying has been the subject of intensified international press coverage in recent weeks. This coverage does not necessarily reflect an increase in the number of cases. Rather it seems to be driven by several individual and high–profile cases, and because such detentions have continued despite a prisoner exchange between Iran and the US in February. All but one of the five US nationals released in February had familial ties to Iran and held Iranian passports. Iran only allows dual nationals and people of Iranian heritage to travel to the country on their Iranian passports.
By our count, at least seven dual nationals of Canada, the US, France and Iran detained in the last two years remain in custody. There has been some speculation in the international press that following the prisoner exchange earlier this year, the authorities are deliberately detaining people to negotiate the release of other Iranians held abroad. This may well be one factor, but according to an Iranian official, the IRGC intelligence wing also believes that foreign intelligence agencies are recruiting dual nationals.
The spokesman for the Iranian parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy told the local press around ten days ago that the IRGC had briefed members of the committee about its concerns. The IRGC has been behind many of the recent detentions, most often arresting people when they try to fly home, or at their residence, often several weeks or months after they have arrived in the country.
Journalists, activists and researchers have long been the most frequently-arrested groups in Iran, both of sole and dual Iranian nationals. The latter do not appear to have been deliberately targeted in such cases, rather their detention is an extension of the authorities’ policies towards these groups, and because they view them as their own citizens. However, several of the recent detentions targeted several American-Iranians who were private sector consultants or citizens who may have expressed support for the 2009 Green Movement protests in social media posts at that time.
Such detentions appear to be fairly uncommon, given the large size of the Iranian diaspora and the numbers of visitors to Iran each year, and while such cases have been high profile, the detention of Western nationals arriving in Iran through normal ports of entry has been rare. According to the government, five million people went to Iran on tourism last year. It is unclear how many of these are people visiting relatives as opposed to pilgrims and other tourists, but we suspect the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands at least.
However, the options to secure the release of prisoners are particularly limited in cases where the IRGC, rather than the civilian government, are involved. More generally, there is little that detainees’ employers or embassy can do, not least because the authorities often do not disclose what charges detainees are facing, and also because both detentions and negotiated releases seem to be related to political developments, over which both governments and companies often have little influence.
Image: Iranian Revolutionary Guards members march during a parade ceremony/ Vahid Salemi/AP/Press Association Images/2008
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