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Is Iran willing to come back to the table with the US to discuss more prisoner swaps?

A senior U.S. diplomat has indicated that the United States would like to engage in face-to-face meetings with Iran to discuss prisoner releases; or prisoner swaps.

The arbitrary detention of foreign and dual-nationals to use as bargaining chips in the diplomatic arena has been a favoured tactic of Tehran. However speaking at a virtual event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook said:

“We’d love to have an in person meeting to have a consular dialogue so that we can move faster than we have…The door for diplomacy on our side is wide open, not just on these matters but on … all the issues that have been bedevilling the US-Iran bilateral relations for 41 years,”

In his talk, Brian Hook explicitly identified prisoner exchanges as one of the key outcomes he hoped to achieve from the meetings. According to Hook, these meetings will cover a wide array of issues with Iran which along with prisoners will almost certainly include Iran’s weapons embargo, nuclear ambitions, ongoing sanctions and its participation in proxy conflicts such as Yemen.

Brain Hook confirmed the US planned to continue the arms embargo on the Islamic Republic indefinitely which is currently due to expire in October 2020. The US seeks an extension via the UN Security council but it is unclear if Russia and China will support this move.

US-Iran relations

US-Iran relations have significantly cooled under the Trump administration, who in 2015 pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal which placed limits on Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for economic sanction relief. In the years since economic sanctions were restored and Iran has pursued its nuclear ambitions with a new vigour.

In the past President Trump has accused Iran of “arbitrarily detaining Americans”. Last September, after intense lobbying by families of Americans with loved ones still unjustly jailed in Iran, Trump ordered a visa ban stating,

“I have determined that it is in the interest of the United States to take action to restrict and suspend the entry into the United States, as immigrants or non-immigrants, of senior government officials of Iran, and their immediate family members.”

The history of Iran detaining U.S. citizens stems from the Iranian siege of the US embassy in 1979. Executive Order 12170 was issued by American President Carter and enabled the U.S. government to freeze Iranian government assets held within the United States. It has since been renewed 40 times, November 2019 being the most recent. It is now the “oldest existing state of emergency” and is still used for punishing Iran for taking US citizens hostage.

Trump labelled Iran’s Islamic Republican Guards as a terrorist organisation, accused of facilitating the baseless arrests and ultimately harming scores of Americans and Europeans by fabricating their crimes for the benefit of the regime; subjecting them to forced confessions, torture, disappearances and worse.

Tensions between the two countries heightened further at the turn of this year when a United States drone killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force in Baghdad airport sparking huge anti American protests in Iran. However despite this rapprochement, In March this year Iran returned U.S. Navy veteran, Michael White who had been detained in Iran for nearly two years and faced a ten year jail sentence.

The prisoners

Michael White arrived back in the U.S a day after an Iranian scientist, Cyrus Asgari was returned to Iran from the US. Asagri, a scientist at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, was arrested four years ago on an academic visit to Ohio and charged with stealing state secrets. He was acquitted by a US court last year but had not been repatriated to Iran. Both sides denied the exchange had been a prisoner swap. However in December 2019, American student Xiyue Wang was also released as part of a prisoner exchange after spending more than three years behind bars in Iran.

Iran has been hit by the coronavirus particularly hard. As of 17 June 2020 they had recorded 195,000 coronavirus cases and 9185 deaths in hospitals. However, experts estimate that the real figure is likely to be at least double this amount. The imposition of strict sanctions by the US is now hindering the ability to fight the virus, a fact which might incentivise Iran to come to the negotiation table.

The US invitation for dialogue may give hope to those dual nationals imprisoned in Iran who are most at risk of coronavirus through ill health or age. However it remains to be seen if it will only be U.S passport holders who will be included in any future prisoner return negotiations.

Following the release of Michael White President Trump tweeted,

“I will never stop working to secure the release of all Americans held hostage overseas!”

This was echoed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said last week that the United States “will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones.”

Last year Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and holder of a US permanent resident visa was released from Iran after spending four years behind bars on baseless accusations for spying for the United States. The release came after the intervention of the Lebanese president and years of intense lobbying by civil society groups and the international diplomatic community.

In a phone interview with IOHR Zakka explained based on his experience,

“The ongoing negotiations will have a very great impact on the hostages but mostly, I think it goes beyond the hostages and goes into the agreement before elections with the two countries. It’s a reply to the President’s message when Michael White was released.”

Mr. Zakka has also previously called into question whether the US government has the same commitment to helping trapped dual nationals, saying in an interview to the Washington Post:

“They [did] a good job of getting people back, but this is the end of the road, and we need to get these last few people home…If not, I will have doubts about their commitment to dual nationals.”

Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, called for the release of an Iranian-American conservationist, Morad Tahbaz (who also holds British citizenship) in a tweet on 5 June on World Environment day, said:

“We call for the release of Morad Tahbaz, a renowned conservationist suffering in a jail cell in Iran. All who care about basic human rights, the environment, and the preservation of endangered species should join our call for Iran to #FreeMorad.”

Tahbaz, along with eight members of his Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, was arrested in Iran in January 2018 while studying the endangered Asiatic cheetah. His group had the endorsement of the United Nations Development Program and had been granted government permits but were accused of spying and received prison sentences of between four and 10 years for “contact with the enemy U.S. government.”

Other dual national US Iranian passport holders Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer Namazi, were arrested in 2015. Siamak has spent 1710 days in prison (as of 17 June) of his ten year sentence while his 84 year old father Baquer, a former UNICEF representative, was granted extended furlough In August of 2018 due to his medical problems but not allowed to travel outside Iran to receive treatment.

Few prisons globally have been able to offer protection against the coronavirus. In Iran a few dual-national prisoners, including British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, were granted temporary furlough amidst fears that their safety would be compromised should they remain in prison during the pandemic. There is currently no news from Iranian authorities whether Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe will be returned to prison soon or be granted clemency. However there is a slim hope since Roland Marchal, an academic in Paris, was returned to France in March.

The Swiss government represents the US in negotiations with the Islamic republic since the US cut diplomatic ties in 1979. It is hoped that Swiss officials may intercede to also call for the release of Dr Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish dual national who is facing a death sentence in Tehran’s Evin prison.

Dr Djalali has suffered severe medical conditions and received very limited access to medical care while being refused furlough during the coronavirus outbreak. However Dr. Djalali is a globally renowned academic expert in emergency disaster medicine. His skill set is never more needed to address the education of the medical profession in tackling pandemics. In what is likely to be a long and protracted fight against the coronavirus around the world, the United States would benefit all by seeking his timely release.

In a recent interview with IOHR TV, Scholars at Risk founding Executive Director Robert Quinn voiced the call of academics around the world to free Ahmadreza:


“We hope the Iranian government itself will recognise that now especially is a time where a compassionate or humanitarian release would be appropriate”

Anoosheh Ashoori is a British-Iranian dual national, who was working as a civil engineer when he was arrested in Iran and charged with spying for the Mossad and illegitimately acquiring 33,000 euros. He has ten years remaining of a twelve year sentence. In April IOHR published an audio recording Ashoori smuggled out of Evin prison. In it he appealed to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to save him from death by Coronavirus in prison. Ashoori is in a vulnerable age group and the anguish in his voice was clear at the failure of the UK government to do more to free prisoners in Iran.


Another inmate of Evin Prison is Australian-British citizen Kylie Moore-Gilbert who is currently serving a 10 year sentence in the isolated Ward-2A. While in detention, her family have reported that she has been subjected to torture and it was widely reported, but fervently denied by those closest to her, that she had attempted to commit suicide earlier in the year. As Ms. Moore-Gilbert does not hold dual nationality with Iran it may make her a target for a swap but Iran must come to the negotiating table to make this possible.

The International Observatory of Human Rights calls on Iran to free all unjustly held prisoners now and cease the practice of using dual national citizens as bargaining chips.


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