Iran’s foreign prisoners and the ‘Game of Pawns’

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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Jason Rezaian, Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post - who has been behind bars in Iran since July 2014 - was this week convicted of espionage. After 447 days in jail, a court finally handed down a verdict. The Iranian Students’ News Agency quoted Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, a spokesman for Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, as saying Rezaian had been found guilty.

Interestingly, Mohseni-Ejei, who was intelligence minister from 2005 to 2009, said he did not know the details of the sentence. The verdict will most likely be appealed, as Mohseni-Ejei said the ruling was not final and could be appealed in the next 20 days.

The major controversies concerning this sentencing included the lack of due process and judicial transparency. One other crucial issue, when it comes to foreign prisoners - particularly dual citizens - is linked to the intersection between Iran’s judiciary and Tehran’s power and political objectives on the global stage.

Foreigners or dual citizens became a tool that can be used to advance Iran’s political objectives.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

In other words, the politics behind detaining, incarcerating and sentencing those who hold dual citizenship become complicated in Iran’s labyrinth of power and political machinations.

When it comes to the fate of foreign or dual-citizenship political prisoners in Iran, the office of the president does not have any significant influence, just as the president does not have the final say over Tehran’s fundamental foreign and ideological policies. The judicial system - which is closely connected to Iranian intelligence - and the office of the supreme leader call the shots.

In addition, the judicial system, informed by the intelligence agency, closely monitors Iran’s relations with other nations and Tehran’s everyday politics. Therefore, although it appears that these three pillars of government act separately, there exists no genuine separation of power among Iran’s judicial, legislative and executive branches.

This suggests that when a foreigner is arrested, Iran’s relations with the prisoner’s country become the major platform through which the judiciary and intelligence agency make decisions and direct the outcome of the case. As such, evidence often does not play a role, hence why these cases are often conducted in secret or behind the scenes. Forced confessions and questionable methods of interrogation are common.

In these cases, foreigners or dual citizens became a tool that can be used to advance Iran’s political objectives, as has happened to Rezaian, who holds citizenship from Iran’s geopolitical and ideological rival, the United States. His trial unfolded against the backdrop of negotiations between Tehran and six world powers, which resulted in a nuclear deal.

It is not unrealistic to argue that Iran’s intelligence and judiciary might sometimes target a foreigner or dual citizen as part of a plan to put pressure on his country of citizenship, and achieve Tehran’s political or ideological objectives. When the objectives are met, the prisoner is often released.

Currently, Iran is searching for an opportunity to swap 19 Iranians held in U.S. custody, with the three Iranian-American citizens held in Iran (Rezaian, pastor Saeed Abedini, and U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati).

Iran’s intelligence and judiciary might sometimes target a foreigner or dual citizen as part of a plan to put pressure on his country of citizenship, and achieve Tehran’s political or ideological objectives.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

“If the Americans take the appropriate steps and set them free, certainly the right environment will be open and the right circumstances will be created for us to do everything within our power and our purview to bring about the swiftest freedom for the Americans held in Iran as well,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. However, it is difficult to make an analogy between those arrested in Iran on questionable charges, and the Iranians detained in the United States.

Political liberalization

The sentencing came weeks after Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sealed the nuclear deal in order to pave the way to lift political and financial sanctions against Iran. The deal created hope that the government may partially liberalize domestic politics and loosen its grip on freedom of expression, press and assembly, among others. However, that hope is irrational.

Iran’s main objective when negotiating was to force the West to lift sanctions because they were endangering the political establishment’s hold on power. Therefore, from Tehran’s perspective, the deal was solely tactical, and was never intended to trigger any changes in Iran’s fundamental domestic, foreign policy and ideological principles.

Hardliners believe that Rouhani and Zarif went too far in communicating with the United States. Zarif was heavily criticized for shaking hand with President Barack Obama. They are thus sending a message not only to the West, but to Iranian moderates that they are in charge, and that the nuclear deal will not lead to further rapprochement with Washington.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: [email protected], or on Twitter: @MajidRafizadeh

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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