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Why is Iran intensifying crackdown on dual citizens?

Iran can use dual citizens to put pressure on Western countries to give Tehran geopolitical or economic points

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

The number of Iranian dual citizens being detained and thrown in jail has reached its highest level.

Most of those being targeted are from Western countries (Europeans or Americans), who have Iranian ethnicity. Iran does not recognize dual citizenships even if the person was born in another country.

Many believed that Iran would open up politically and socially after rejoining the global financial system and after sanctions were lifted. Rowhani encouraged the Iranian Diaspora to visit Iran without fear. So why is Iran ratcheting up its arrests of dual citizens?

Those in jail

As part of a crackdown on American citizens, the Iranian authorities recently confirmed that they have arrested Iranian-American, Robin Shahini, who was visiting his ailing mother.

Some of the dual citizens who are currently spending time in prison are Nazak Afshar, a French citizen who travelled to Iran to visit her ill mother. He was detained at the time of arrival and was sentenced to six years in prison. The charges against her are still not clear.

Iranian authorities use dual citizens as pawns for extracting economic concessions or receiving political and financial gains and can also use them to swap prisoners

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

A month later, Nanzanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British citizen who is also not a political or human rights activist was arrested. She was with her infant daughter. The authorities also reportedly confiscated the child’s passport. In June Homa Hoodfar, a Canadian citizen and university professor, was arrested. Bahman Daroshafaei, a British citizen, was arrested a few months ago and his family still isn’t aware of his whereabouts and the charges leveled against him.

Mostafa Azizi, a Canadian documentary filmmaker, was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for “acting against national security,” “insulting the Supreme Leader,” and “propaganda against the state.” Recently, the Islamic Republic arrested Seraj Mirdamadi, a French journalist, who was later sentenced to six years in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state”.

Hossein Nouraninejad, an Australian journalist was also arrested and sentenced to six years in prison on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”

Even the State Department has acknowledged the increasing threat against American citizens since the nuclear deal was reached. In a March travel warning, the Department said that since the nuclear deal, “Iran has continued to harass, arrest, and detain US citizens, in particular dual nationals.”


Dual citizens as pawns

Iranian authorities use dual citizens as pawns for extracting economic concessions or receiving political and financial gains and can also use them to swap prisoners.

This year, Iran swapped 4 Iranian-Americans for seven Iranian prisoners in the US. In addition, a report revealed that the US and European officials and congressional staff were briefed on the following issue, that “the Obama administration secretly organized an airlift of $400 million worth of cash to Iran” when four Iranian-Americans were released.

Iran can use dual citizens to put pressure on Western countries to give Tehran geopolitical or economic points such as ignoring the IRGC’s military adventures, turning a blind eye on Iran’s breaches of international laws and testing of ballistic missiles, or not imposing penalties on Iran.

The hardliners are also sending a message to the moderates that the nuclear agreement does not mean more political and social liberalization. From a trade perspective, the hardliners want to keep the country closed to competition so that the IRGC and the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, maintains monopoly over the wealth and financial system.

The Iranian government is also sending a message to the West and to the Iranian people that the Islamic Republic will not only target and arrest prominent and influential people, but also ordinary citizens such as Mr. Shahini.

Iranian authorities are more concerned about Western cultural infiltration among the youth than anything else. Iran is clearly attempting to show the United States, as well as young Iranians, that the nuclear agreement does not mean the Islamic Republic will welcome Westerners, open up its political and economic systems, and promote social justice, liberty, freedom of assembly, speech and the press.

Following the nuclear agreement, dual citizens are increasingly being used as pawns to extract economic concessions or for receiving political and financial gains, as well as for sending a message to the Iranian people, and the West, that Tehran will not alter its fundamental policies.

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Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at Dr.rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu, @Dr_Rafizadeh.

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