Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was beaming after welcoming Prof. Massoud Soleimani back from the US. It was part of a trade that took place despite US-Iran tensions.
Xiyue Wang was greeted by the US Ambassador to Switzerland after being held for three years by Iran.
Iran accused him of being connected to “foreign governments,” despite lack of any evidence. He was picked up in 2016, when he was leaving the country after conducting research. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on accusations of spying. In contrast, Soleimani was detained in the US in October 2018 and accused of “attempting to export biological material to Iran in violation of trade sanctions,” according to the BBC.
The reality is that Iran has been detaining foreign nationals, often Westerners, for years, using them as bargaining chips. Iran has never shown any evidence that those it detains for “spying” are spies.
For instance, in September The Guardian noted that an Australian named Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert was identified as an academic held in Iran. A dual UK-Australian citizen, she was a lecturer in Islamic studies but was arrested in Iran and held at Evin prison.
Like many of those Iran holds, her case was kept quiet by two governments to not to ruffle Iran’s feathers. Often in these cases, the families are told that if they keep quiet there is a greater chance their relatives will be released. There is no evidence that keeping quiet has deterred Iran from its continued detentions.
The case of the US-Australian academic was one of several revealed in September, including bloggers Jolie King and Australian Mark Firkin.
“The Australian government said it is lobbying Tehran to ensure all three are appropriately cared for,” The Guardian noted.
However, the report noted that the UK and Australia had been “trying to keep the identities of their arrested citizens out of the public domain” so that diplomacy would apparently be more “effective.” Iran has no evidence against any of these people and it is likely their detentions were related to recent tensions between the UK and Iran or Iran’s hopes to use them at a later date. For instance, Iran detained the American researcher after the Iran Deal, even as Western governments were hoping Iran would open to more visits and tourism.
Coincidentally, Iran released the bloggers King and Firkin in October after the news broke, after “very sensitive” negotiations. Reports said it was another apparent prisoner swap. A doctoral researcher named Rez Dehbashi Kavi had been detained in Australia for 13 months and was facing extradition to the US. He had been arrested and “accused of conspiring to export restricted American-made amplifiers that could be used to detect stealth planes or missiles,” according to a report.
The model is always the same with Iran. Regardless of press coverage, which Western diplomats reportedly don’t want, Iran and the West always engage in prisoner deals. The Western states involved don’t want press coverage or the families to make noise, not necessarily because it might make the negotiations more complex, but because it would put more of a spotlight on what is taking place.
For instance, Politico noted in 2017 that under the Obama administration there was a “one-time gesture” in which Iranian-born prisoners were released in a “modest trade-off for the greater good of the Iran nuclear agreement and Tehran's pledge to free five Americans.”
These deals often involve the same pattern. Iranians accused of serious offenses related to supporting the regime’s efforts to get around sanctions and threaten the security of foreign states are released in exchange for tourists and academics. It’s not exactly a good deal for the Western states and Iran calculates that it has the upper hand. It knows foreign governments want to keep quiet about what is happening and that no one will hold Tehran accountable. Under the Obama 2016 deal the men were released ostensibly for “sanctions-related offenses.” But Politico found that in fact three were part of an “illegal procurement network” supplying Iran with microelectronics for surface to air and cruise missiles. In addition, one of the men was seeking to supply Tehran with “satellite technology.” Fourteen other warrants for additional men were dropped. These men were part of a well-oiled Iranian regime network. One was accused of procuring elements used in IEDs that Iranian-backed groups used in Iraq to kill Americans.
The Obama-era discussions were also long and complex negotiations going back to 2013. They took place in Geneva and were “facilitated by the Swiss government,” The New Yorker reported. This report named Brett McGurk as key to the negotiations. It says that “four Iranian-Americans imprisoned in Iran had been freed as part of a prisoner exchange.” The article notes that those released in January 2016 included Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, a former US Marine imprisoned since 2011, Reverend Saeed Abedini, who was detained in 2012, and a fourth man about “whom little is known.” The article noted that a woman was released on bail, but her charges not dismissed and that a fifth American was allowed to leave. But two Americans were still being held, including Robert Levinson, who had disappeared in 2007, and Siamak Namazi.
Others have been held as well, including Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar and director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, released in 2007. The Washington Post reported in October 2016 that Iran sentenced Reza Shahini of San Diego to 18 years in prison. According to the same report “other parts of Iran’s government are enjoying international acclaim for their cooperation with the US.” It said John Kerry and Zarif had won an award. The report then noted Iran continued to detain Nazanin Zagheri-Ratcliffe, a British woman, and Nizar Zakka, a legal resident of the US. Then there were the three hikers who were detained in 2009. One, Sarah Shourd, was released in 2010 after 14 months in prison. She was released via Oman. Then Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal were released in September 2011. They were brutally treated despite no evidence of wrongdoing.
The list of known detainees in Iran is not that long, so it is a bit perplexing why governments seek to keep the information quiet. The patterns are usually the same, either researchers are detained or dual citizens or those who fit both categories. Usually they are traded, either openly or quietly, for Iranian citizens who are accused of working on behalf of the regime to get around sanctions. In no case has Iran shown evidence of the spying it alleges many of these foreigners are engaged in, which makes it appear Iran is merely holding hostages.