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Iran continues targeting of dual citizens and foreigners

Soldiers and members of the Revolutionary Guard are among thousands of Iranians attending Friday prayers in Tehran, 29 January 2016
Soldiers and members of the Revolutionary Guard are among thousands of Iranians attending Friday prayers in Tehran, 29 January 2016

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on on 26 September 2018.

Iran's security apparatus has escalated its targeting of Iranian dual citizens and foreign nationals whom they perceive to have links with Western academic, economic, and cultural institutions, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch has documented and reviewed the cases of 14 dual or foreign nationals whom Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) Intelligence Organization has arrested since 2014. In many cases courts have charged them with cooperating with a "hostile state" without revealing any evidence. People interviewed about the cases said they believed that in the cases of those targeted, authorities perceived these individuals shared an ability to facilitate relationships between Iran and Western entities outside the control of Iranian security agencies.

"At a time when Iran was getting ready to open its door to international trade and cultural exchanges, security authorities were apparently throwing in prison some of the people best suited to rebuild relationships with the international community," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "This targeted campaign against foreign and dual nationals sends a threatening message to Iranian expatriates and foreigners interested in working in Iran, that their knowledge and expertise are a liability if they visit the country."

In May and June 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 people with close knowledge of the 14 cases documented, including former detainees, lawyers, family members, and Iran policy experts. Human Rights Watch also reviewed Persian-language videos featuring these cases on Iran's state TV, statements of Iranian officials, and submissions made on behalf of Iranian cases to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Based on this evidence, it is apparent that Iranian authorities have violated detainees' due process rights and carried out a pattern of politically motivated arrests. The exact number of those detained since 2014 is most likely considerably higher than the 14 cases Human Rights Watch confirmed. On November 9, 2017, Reuters reported that authorities had detained at least 30 dual nationals in Iran since 2015.

While detainees have ranged from academics to art curators, during interrogations, intelligence personnel accused detainees of spying or espionage based simply on their affiliations with Western public institutions, as opposed to any specific action or document that could raise the possibility of wrongdoing. The supposed incriminating videos Iranian state media broadcast also mirror the interrogators' questions, highlighting detainees' affiliations with various legitimate institutions and accusing them of espionage without offering any evidence.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled that the arrests and detentions in several of these cases were arbitrary, and that authorities targeted people based on their "national or social origin" as dual nationals or foreign nationals. It also noted that there was an emerging pattern of Iran detaining dual nationals.

The detention of these individuals is marked by serious due process violations. Iranian authorities systematically deny people charged with national security crimes access to lawyers of their choosing during the investigation phase. Sources familiar with detention of dual and foreign nationals have said that many of them did not have access to any legal counsel during investigation.

Branch 15 of Tehran's revolutionary court has tried and sentenced a majority of the accused in these cases under article 508 of the Islamic penal code, which states that "any person or group who cooperates with hostile states in any shape or form… if not deemed Mohareb [a sentence which involves the death penalty], will be sentenced to 1 to 10 years in prison." The revolutionary court verdicts, however, do not align with a 2014 opinion of Iran's Supreme Court that stated, "Iran is not in conflict with any country and the phrase 'hostile state' does not refer to political differences with countries."

Some Iranian media outlets close to the rights-abusing intelligence agencies, including the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) news agency, play an important role in undermining fair trial rights and the presumption of innocence by shaping public opinion about detainees' alleged offenses. The outlets broadcast smear-campaign "documentaries" claiming that the accused are part of Western attempts to "infiltrate" the country. Some of the broadcasts include film of the accused making apparently coerced confessions.

Dual nationals who were detained and later released were usually not acquitted but released on what authorities have often called "humanitarian grounds." Since the prisoner exchange between Iran and the United States in 2016, there have been several indications that Iranian authorities might be willing to again release detained dual and foreign nationals in return for bilateral agreements with the detained people's countries.

"Having citizens with deep connections to other cultures and countries is an asset, not a criminal offense," Whitson added. "But Iran's security apparatus has apparently made the despicable decision to use these individuals as bargaining chips to resolve diplomatic disputes."

Expanding Role of the Revolutionary Guards' Intelligence Organization

As Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has increased its role and influence, it has become the leading security agency targeting dual nationals and foreigners. In reaction to former President Mohammad Khatami's attempts to achieve limited accountability for the serial assassinations of dissidents in the late 1990s, several groups began to develop parallel intelligence institutions outside the control of his presidency. Under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, those intelligence institutions retained and expanded their power outside the Intelligence Ministry's oversight. An article published in the Fars News website on October 2106 reported that 16 intelligence organizations were operating in Iran.

While Ahmadinejad's Intelligence Ministry arbitrarily arrested hundreds of activists across the country, it was seen by other parts of the security establishment as incapable of dealing with the anti-government demonstrations that broke out following the June 2009 elections. Esmaeel Ahmadi Moghadam, the former head of Tehran's police, told Shargh newspaper on August 23, 2015 that the Intelligence Ministry was weak because reformist forces created its structure: "During the 2009 sedition [i.e., Green Movement election protests] we felt that the ministry staff at large were good people… but there were tendencies [toward reformists] and these people will not do their best to cut the roots of the sedition."

Hardliner intelligence forces went a step further in 2009, when on October 7, IRNA news agency reported that the status of the Revolutionary Guards' Intelligence Unit was upgraded to the IRGC Intelligence Organization, designating it a major intelligence institution with broad powers. When President Hassan Rouhani's term began in 2013, his intelligence minister attempted to facilitate coordination among intelligence institutions by regularly convening meetings of the Council to Coordinate Intelligence.

Despite this effort, the ministry became even more marginalized under Rouhani, to the point that that the IRGC Intelligence Organization arrested several activists close to the government and had met with Seyed Mahdmoud Alavi, the intelligence minister, at the end Rouhani's first term. Since 2013, the IRGC has also arbitrarily arrested dozens of Iranian journalists, activists, and academics on vaguely defined national security charges accusing them of being connected to Western entities and kept them in solitary confinement for months, among them dual and foreign nationals.

On October 11, 2017, a court sentenced Abdol Rasoul Dorri Esfehani, a dual Canadian-Iranian citizen and a member of Iran's nuclear negotiations team arrested by Revolutionary Guards' intelligence, to five years in prison for "espionage." Intelligence Minister Alavi then said that he did not consider Dorri Esfahani a spy and that it is the Intelligence Ministry that makes such determinations. Mizan Online News Agency, the judiciary's news agency, published an article the next day saying that other intelligence agencies, such as the Revolutionary Guards, have similar mandates.

The Intelligence Ministry continues to target people on vaguely defined espionage charges, but the IRGC Intelligence Organization, led by Hossein Taeb, appears to have established itself as the leading security agency in repressing dissent and perceived threats to the autocratic control of the Islamic Republic's unelected political bodies, extending its reach to foreign and dual nationals.

On September 2, Javad Karimi Ghodussi, a Parliament member from the city of Mashahd, released a "documentary" that, without providing any evidence, accused Dorri Esfahani of cooperating with American and British intelligence. The video, allegedly produced by people close to Revolutionary Guards' intelligence, directly attacked the intelligence minister's statement that he did not consider Dorri Esfahani a spy.

Read the full statement on HRW's site.

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