All Iranian Americans who travel to Iran know they face a certain amount of risk.
Obliged to use Iranian passports instead of obtaining visas like other Americans, Iranian Americans can easily be barred from leaving the country and become pawns in the three-decade-old U.S.-Iran confrontation as well as in Iran’s complicated domestic political battles.
The latest such pawn appears to be Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian.
Last week Rezaian, his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a correspondent for the National newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, and two other dual nationals were detained by Iranian authorities.
Apart from acknowledging that detention, Iranian officials have given no information about the reason for the arrests.
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told a Capitol Hill briefing on Monday that there was still no official judiciary record of the detentions, a sign that shadowy intelligence officials may be conducting a fishing expedition to try to develop a case against Rezaian and the others.
The timing of the arrests – just after the end of the latest round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) – suggests that hard-line opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are looking for ways to impede a deal, or to keep Iranian aspirations for greater civil liberties and reconciliation with the U.S. to a minimum in the event an agreement is reached.
“Our evaluation is that the hardliners are terrified of a more open press and increased political and social freedoms, because they fear once they allow any such opening their tight control of domestic affairs will quickly unravel and they will be challenged on many fronts,” Ghaemi said.
Dual nationals have frequently become ensnared in such domestic fights.
Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian who reported for Newsweek from Iran, was jailed from June 2009 to October of that year in the aftermath of disputed presidential elections.
Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was kept from leaving Iran after visiting her mother in December 2006 when her passport and other belongings were stolen by plainclothes security agents on the way to the airport.
Later thrown into Evin prison and kept there for four months, Esfandiari appears to have served several purposes for elements of the Iranian government.
One was to intimidate Iranians advocating better relations with the United States. Another was to retaliate for the arrest of several officers of the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards by U.S. authorities in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil.
The officers were seized and held by U.S. authorities for more than two years in the aftermath of a deadly assault on U.S. troops in Karbala by Iran-backed Iraqi militia members.
While Iranian authorities did not secure their release in return for Esfandiari, they did let her go following an international outcry about her detention and to avoid more bad publicity before then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to the UN General Assembly in September 2007.
There should be a similar outcry now about Rezaian, an amiable 38-year-old from California who has a reputation for fairness and accuracy and who had just finished covering the latest round of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.
Testifying Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman called on the Iranian government to “immediately release Mr. Rezaian and the other three individuals as soon as possible.” She added that there was “absolutely no reason” for the journalist’s arrest.
Sherman also urged Iran to release two other dual nationals held by the regime for years, Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini, and to help locate another American, Robert Levinson, who disappeared on Iran’s Kish island in 2007.
Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who was born in the U.S. to Iranian parents, was arrested three years ago while visiting relatives in Iran for the first time, coerced to confess to being a spy and sentenced to death.
The sentence was overturned but Hekmati was reportedly convicted instead of “practical collaboration with the U.S. government” and handed a 10-year term.
Abedini fell afoul of the Iranian government because he is a Christian convert from Islam and a pastor.
From 2000 to 2005, he held prayer services in private homes in Iran – something Farsi-speaking Christians are obliged to do because they are often barred from Christian churches in Iran, which are reserved for the Armenian and Assyrian ethnic minorities, according to Tiffany Barrans, the international legal director for the American Center for Law and Justice.
Barrans, who also participated in Monday’s briefing on Capitol Hill, said that Abedini had stopped holding such services and instead – with the encouragement of Iranian authorities – turned to humanitarian work.
He was in Iran to continue efforts to build a non-sectarian orphanage in the city of Rasht when he was taken off a bus and arrested two years ago, Barrans said. Even though the evidence against him was old, he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in jail.
“He was not there as a missionary but someone who wanted to care for the people of Iran,” Barrans said.
There is an old saying that no good deed goes unpunished. Many of the dual nationals arrested in Iran have been proponents of better US-Iran relations and have actively contributed to trying to ease the 35-year-old hostility between the two countries.
Now, when the prospects for progress look more promising than they have in many years, it is sad and ultimately self-defeating that portions of the Iranian government – with the evident acquiescence of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – continue the practice of taking dual nationals as political hostages.
If and when diplomatic relations are restored, Iranian Americans can significantly contribute to Iran’s economic resurgence.
Meanwhile, for humanitarian reasons alone these individuals should be freed to return to the United States before Rouhani comes here again for the annual UN General Assembly meeting, if not sooner.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.