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Mar 1, 2017 | 09:30 GMT

The Pawns of Iran's Security Apparatus

Iran, the IRGC in particular, has detained numerous political prisoners
(CHRIS J. RATCLIFFE/Getty Images)
Forecast Bullets
  • The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will continue to arrest Iranians with Western citizenship or residency as a way to secure its interests and boost its legitimacy.
  • The frequency of arrests may increase as Iran's emergence from international isolation attracts Iranians living abroad to return.
  • Such incidents will run counter to President Hassan Rouhani's drive to rejoin the global economy.

Iran's high-profile release of five imprisoned U.S. citizens in January 2016 marked a moment of detente between the United States and Iran, timed to coincide with Washington's suspension of wide-ranging economic sanctions. Over the past year, however, Iran has continued to arrest people with Western citizenship or residence, more than making up for those it released in January. Whereas Tehran ended 2015 with 11 acknowledged Western prisoners, that number was up to 16 by the end of 2016 — and that's only the prisoners whom the public knows about.

Iran has long had a reputation for imprisoning political dissenters. Hundreds of journalists, activists and academics are in jail in Iran for various political offenses, raising concerns about Iran's domestic legal system and the propriety of political dissent. A smaller group of prisoners who hold either foreign passports or have foreign residency sheds light on how Iran's security apparatus is maintaining relevance amid Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's drive for reform.

Trolling for Targets

Since 2008, Iranian security forces have arrested at least 29 people (roughly half of whom are still in detention) with strong foreign ties. Most are Iranians with dual citizenship, holding passports from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other European countries. Detainees come from a variety of professional backgrounds: academia, journalism, the tech sector and, in one case, the French government. Most have been charged with conducting espionage, working with a foreign state or consuming alcohol. Some, however, have spent a few months in prison without ever being charged or given a formal explanation for their detention before being freed as mysteriously as they were arrested.

Some cases involve obvious political or national security motives. For example, Sabri Hassanpour, a Dutch-Iranian detained in April 2016 during a trip to Khorramshahr to visit his family, was a host on Rahaaee TV, an anti-government channel that broadcasts over YouTube. One of the five U.S. citizens released in January 2016, Amir Hekmati, is an Iranian-American and former U.S. Marine who, after leaving the service, maintained professional contact with U.S. military research outfits such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Tehran claimed he had been sent to Iran to work as a CIA spy. Meanwhile, Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent and CIA contract employee who has been missing since he was detained in 2007, remains unaccounted for. (His case differs somewhat from the others, since he was more likely to have been conducting actual intelligence work.) On the surface, at least, it makes sense that the Iranian security apparatus would take an interest in individuals such as these.

Western-Linked Prisoners Held in Iran
(Stratfor)

Some prisoners, however, appear to have been essentially lured to Iran before their arrests. In at least two cases, Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security arrested people who had traveled to Iran with official invitations to attend trade conferences. In September 2015, Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and permanent U.S. resident, was arrested en route to the airport after attending the International Conference and Exhibition on Women in Sustainable Development in Tehran. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Zakka had been invited to the event by a member of the president's Cabinet. A year after his arrest, Zakka was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison, with no evidence ever made public. In April 2016, Ahmadreza Jalali, a Sweden-based researcher specializing in emergency and disaster medicine, was arrested on espionage charges after attending an event at the invitation of Tehran University. According to Jalali's wife, the judge hearing his case threatened to give him a death sentence.

It is unlikely that Zakka will serve the full 10-year sentence or that Jalali will be executed. Hekmati, the released former U.S. Marine, likewise received a death sentence, but it was quickly overturned. Mostafa Azizi, a filmmaker with Canadian residence who was charged with insulting Iran's leader, served only one year of an eight-year sentence before being released in 2016. Other American prisoners, such as two of the three hikers who were detained in 2009, were also released a year into eight-year sentences. (Their release was aided by nearly $1.4 million in bail paid by the sultan of Oman.)

The Motives Behind the Arrests

Since his election in 2013, Rouhani has been on a drive to reintegrate Iran into the global system. As nuclear sanctions against Tehran have been relaxed, Rouhani has tried to present Iran as ripe for investment in an attempt to rejuvenate the Iranian economy — a major pillar of his presidential campaign. This effort has included hosting events in New York appealing to Iranian expatriates to return to Iran and invest there.

The powerful IRGC, however, is keen to make sure that it benefits from Rouhani's reforms. Though the nuclear sanctions on the government are being wound down, other sanctions against the IRGC are expanding since it continues to engage in ballistic missile testing. This shapes the IRGC's interests in two primary ways. First, it needs to maintain its bargaining position in relation to the United States. Second, as Iran's economy opens up, the IRGC is looking for ways to protect its extensive domestic economic interests. (As one of Iran's most cohesive institutions, it maintains formal and informal networks of financial holdings in strategic industries such as construction and logistics.) This helps explain why the IRGC has been behind at least 11 of the 29 arrests involving foreign citizens or residents over the past nine years. The January 2016 release of U.S. citizens, for example, illustrated how such prisoners can be used as bargaining chips.

But the IRGC is looking for far more than just prisoner swaps. The security force was formed shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 as a way to safeguard the founding principles of the new state. The notion that the West (particularly the United States) is determined to subvert the revolution is integral to the Iranian political system — and one that the IRGC invokes to justify its expansive power. Arrests of individuals promoting Western ideas or criticizing Tehran gives the IRGC proof that it is living up to its charge.

As Rouhani encourages foreigners of Iranian descent to consider investing in the country, the IRGC is reminding such individuals to play by its rules.

 In particular, the IRGC is signaling that while outsiders can bring investment and business expertise, they should check their political opinions (particularly negative ones about Tehran) at the door. For example, British passport holder Roya Nobakht was arrested in 2013 after posting on Facebook that Iran was "too Islamic." After U.S. citizen Robin Shahini was arrested in 2016, Iranian media published pictures of him allegedly joining opposition protests and meeting with former political leaders. Several others were arrested on charges of possessing alcohol, which is widely consumed in Iran but illegal on grounds that it is anti-Islamic.

In each case, those arrested also face charges of espionage or working for a foreign state. Not every Western prisoner can be linked to anti-government or anti-Islamic activity, but connections to such activities highlight how Iran's security apparatus applies a broad definition to what it counts as espionage and supporting a foreign state. The evidence can be as thin as a critical social media post.

An Opaque Problem

The conflict between the government's drive for investment and the security apparatus' desire for control has played out publicly in some cases. In 2014, for example, top officials in the executive, legislative and judiciary branches were apparently left in the dark about the arrest of Washington Post contributor Jason Rezaian, a U.S. citizen, who was one of the five prisoners freed in January 2016. Even Iran's prosecutor general told reporters that he had no details about the case. And in January 2017, the IRGC blocked a pending court order to grant temporary relief to a Canadian resident sentenced to life in prison after his arrest in 2008. Even when suspects are released, they are often done so only after the IRGC has forced them to confess to espionage and paraded them on television as evidence that foreign powers remain dangerous to the revolution.

The political complications surrounding many of these cases often means that details about arrests, charges and sentences are slow to trickle out. The main source of information about arrests is typically family members who have waited months or years to take the case public out of fear of delaying the process. Only once it has become clear that the process has stalled do families typically go to the media in hopes that raising awareness will pressure foreign governments to get involved. For example, the most recent known case involved a man named Karan Vafadari and his wife, Afarin Niasari, both U.S. citizens who ran an art gallery in Tehran. The couple were arrested in July 2016, but their family did not go public with the arrests until December. Similarly, the arrest of the Swedish researcher in April 2016 did not become public until January after he had been threatened with a death sentence, according to his wife.

Moreover, Iran does not recognize dual citizenship and typically does not allow dual citizens of Iranian descent to access consular services from their home embassy. This is a violation of the Geneva Convention, but it minimizes diplomatic blowback while signaling that, ultimately, the security apparatus controls the fate of foreign passport holders coming in and out of the country.

What's clear is the rate of arrests is increasing: There were 11 such cases in 2016, as many as the previous four years combined. From September 2015 to July 2016, Iranian security forces averaged one arrest of a foreign resident or passport holder every 24 days. If that pace continued, there would be at least eight additional arrests that have not yet been made public. Granted, the increase in arrests tracks with the surge of Iranians returning home after years of sanctions, but that trend is expected to continue as well. Iran's tourism sector forecasts an increase in annual visitors from 5 million in 2015 to 25 million in 2025.

Since the 1979 revolution, travel to Iran has come with some big associated risks. Though arresting foreigners is nothing new, targeting Iranian expats with charges of espionage does pose a challenge to Iran's attempts to re-engage with the world after years of international isolation. As long as the IRGC sees arrests as a tool to secure its own interests and bolster its legitimacy, there is no reason to expect the trend to stop in 2017.

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