Arrests of Foreigners in Iran Not Helping

The subject of dual nationality Iranian citizens, such as Jason Rezaian, being arrested in Iran on what look like trumped-up political charges, has long been a concern.  But I have to say the most recent spate of arrests in Iran of foreigners, in the wake of the agreement on the JCPOA, has been particularly off-putting to me. Take the arrest, reported here and here, of Nizar Zakka.  As I understand it, Zakka is Lebanese and also holds permanent residence status in the US.  So he is not an Iranian citizen.  He has apparently recently been arrested on espionage charges because, according to Iranian state media, he “has deep ties to the U.S. intelligence and military establishment.”

I’m not sure what it means to have “deep ties to the U.S. intelligence and military establishment,” but if that on its own is enough for a foreigner to be arrested in Iran, then this sends a very discomfiting message to people like me who have for some time wanted to visit Iran, but who have both visceral and intellectual concerns about making it back out of the country.  I mean, like most people who write about nuclear nonproliferation issues, I know people in U.S. intelligence and military agencies.  Does that mean I have “deep ties” to those agencies?  I don’t think I do, but I’m not willing to gamble on what the IRGC is going to make of those connections.

I think this recent series of arrests is a real shame, because it is going to make people like me think more than twice about visiting Iran.  And particularly because, in the case of Nizar Zakka, he was actually in Iran by invitation of the government to attend a conference.  That’s basically why I would visit Iran if I were to go.  I’ve talked to several Iranian friends about this possibility in the past, and I was basically just waiting for the right opportunity to accept such an invitation.  But honestly I’m not going to do so at this point.

I think I understand at least partially the politics involved.  After the JCPOA was agreed, the conservative elements of the Iranian government have wanted to reassert themselves, and apparently they think that arresting foreigners with ties to foreign governments they don’t like will send a message of strength and continued antipathy towards those governments. Well, it may be doing that, but I don’t see that as in any way a constructive move for the country and its interests.  I don’t see how Iran’s interests are served by dissuading academics and businessmen who are generally in favor of increased engagement between Iran and the world, from visiting the country.  But maybe that’s also on the agenda of the authors of this new policy – to generally discourage engagement between Iran and the rest of the world.

If it is, then congratulations. I think it will work.

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8 Comments on “Arrests of Foreigners in Iran Not Helping”

  1. masoud says:

    If Americans are arrested in Iran while the government of the day is ‘conservative’, well that can only be because of some kind if irrational and xenophobic government led crackdown on Americans.

    If Americans are arrested in Iran while the government of the day is ‘liberal’, well the reasoning behind that is also crystal clear. This must some kind of irrational and xenophobic crackdown on Americans, but yeah, led by hmmmm, ‘conservative elements’.

    In any case, we can rule out with complete cetainty the possibility that anyone with even incidental contact with the US government is ever involved in activities like intelligence gathering or influence pedalling. Such things are anathema to the US’ political and cultural DNA.

    As for why citizens of countries that aren’t America but with which Iran has stringent disagreements with nonetheless, like Pakistan,or Bahrain or the UAE, or Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, or Russia, or Argentina India or Australia etc… Never seem to be the subject of these irrational hostage takings, well that really doesn’t need any explanation, does it? We are, after all, dealing with a bunch of irrational hostage takers.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      I’m picking up on your sarcasm.

      • Johnboy says:

        Dan,
        I’m not absolutely convinced that the NY Times is to be trusted as a dispassionate reporter of… well… anything to do with the Middle East, to be honest.

        With regard to the meaning of “deep ties to the U.S. intelligence and military establishment”, am I to assume that Nizar Zakka will have his day in an Iranian court?

        After all – as masoud alluded to – it may very well end up meaning: “he was caught red-handed spying for the CIA, and here’s irrefutable proof of his guilt……”.

      • masoud says:

        Dan,
        If you’re considering going to Tehran and are really nervous about this type ofnthing, I suggest trying to contact Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverret to get their view on the matter. They’ve both worked for multiple organizations that rank at the top of Iran’s naughty list, from PNAC to WINEP to the accursed CIA itself. They seem to have no hesitation making yearly visits.

        Personally, I think you would be warmly welcomed with open arms by whatever orgwnization’s invite you accept, and any one else you randomly run into on the street. I also think you have valuable opinions in your areas of expertise, and the understanding on the npt etc… In Iran has in certain places been negatively influenced by the worldwide English language media, and so you’d bring some quite welcomed clarity to some of these matters.

        As for the current laundry list “poloticized hostages”, there’s really not much more to it than the retired FBI agent investigating cigarette smugling on Kish for unnamed private entities, who after 7 years of oh so beleivable heart string pulling stories of his so sad family turned out to be a “rougue” CIA officer. Or the three kids who started off 45 minutes from Iran’s border with the eternally serene Iraqi Kurdistan, hiked west for half a day, but claim they were either ‘kidnapped’ by Iranian border guards, or else ‘lured’ over an unmarked border and then ‘kidnapped’ and were just stunned, stunned, that they could actually be imprisoned for breaking laws passed in other countries.

        The US(and the UK) openly admit to being involved in a huge variety of intelligence operations in Iran. Sometimes they get caught. There’s nothing more or less to it than that.

        BTW, If anyone actually believes Jason has actually been ‘kidnapped’ for ‘being a reporter’, and is being used as leverage for a prisoner trade, why then hasn’t any other Western media outlet withdrawn its reporters as a precaution? Actually I’m pretty sure the Washington Post has sent additional staff into Tehran to cover the story. Not to mention Jason’s Mom has shown no fear of visiting either. Not exactly the behaviour you’d expect. And a US journalist has recently asked Zarif about this. And Zarif after the usual proviso’s basically came out and said Jason was being taken advantage of by the US embassy in the UAE and was being asked to undertake extra curricular duties in exchange for the processing of his new wife’s visa application. So not even the ‘reformists’ are trying to maintain that this is all just an unfortunate misunderstanding anymore. Bet you won’t read that I the NY Times, but seriously, what did you expect?

  2. Dan Joyner says:

    Masoud, thanks for your comments. The Leveretts are good friends of mine and you’re right that they have traveled to Iran without incident.
    I also appreciate the link to Zarif’s remarks. This is the first time I’ve heard any specificity about the charges against Rezaian. I am of course always open to being persuaded by facts about the guilt or innocence of anyone charged with a crime. But this is really the problem – the lack of transparency in the Iranian legal system for anyone outside to know the facts of a case, or even the charges. As you know, media is tightly controlled in Iran, and that lack of transparency does tend to promote suspicion, fear and misunderstanding. If the Iranian criminal justice system wants to be perceived more legitimately by other countries, and less feared by foreigners, it needs to be more transparent.
    I appreciate your kind words about me personally being welcomed in Iran, and as I said I would sincerely like to visit. Not just because of my work on the nuclear issue, but also because I am an ancient history buff and I would dearly love to visit Persepolis and the tomb of Cyrus the Great. I really hope that I can feel comfortable enough to visit at some point.

  3. Cyrus says:

    I don’t know anything about the circumstances of the various arrests though I do remember reading how Hezbollah had broken the CIA’s informant ring in Lebanon, and I wonder about the relation if any. Frankly speaking more broadly of human rights issues in Iran, I am always of the opinion that aside from the hypocritical finger-wagging from abroad, one has to take a broader view: Iran was a country that not so very long ago at all, had 50% literacy rates. Iran certainly has human rights problems of a variety of sorts and opaque legal operations is just one, and whether this is any different from many other US allies is an obvious question to ask, but in the long term, one has to view the rate of progress not just where we are today. Higher education rates better access to the world, more engagement can only help change, whereas a policy of sanctions and blockade only promotes the wrong element,


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