Arrests of Foreigners in Iran Not HelpingPosted: November 6, 2015
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.