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Foreign nationals in Iran are systematically arrested and detained so the government can use them as leverage to gain political concessions from other countries, including Germany.
The 67-year-old German-Iranian activist Nahid Taghavi is still in detention after being arrested in the Iranian capital in October 2020. Last week, an Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced her to 10 years and eight months detention on charges of engaging in political activity. Such courts are used to try people suspected of wanting to overthrow the government, the proceedings usually take place behind closed doors and evidence is rarely disclosed.
Taghavi was charged with "belonging to an illegal organization" as well as spreading "propaganda against the regime," all of which she denies. But her lawyer Saeid Dehghan told DW that the court was not interested in conducting "a fair and transparent trial."
"Prisoners are held in isolation for long periods and interrogated for hours without legal counsel, in an attempt to find something incriminating," said the human rights lawyer, who has experience of defending foreigners in Iran and Iranians with dual citizenship and is currently also representing two detained French nationals. "Lawyers are often only given access to the files shortly before the trial begins. In the end, they have no chance of defending their clients against the charges, for which there is no evidence. We know that they are taken hostage, in order to be exchanged at a later date."
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has systematically arrested foreign citizens or Iranians with dual citizenship to be used as bargaining chips in order to gain political concessions. Not long after the revolution, radical students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 US nationals hostage and demanding that the deposed shah, who had fled the country for the US, be handed over. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi never returned to Iran and the standoff only ended after 444 days, after a freeze was lifted on $8 billion in Iranian assets.
"If the citizens of a certain country are arrested and sentenced in Iran then it has to be assumed that Iran is upset for some reason or other and has a score to settle," agreed Omid Memariam, director of communications at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), who in 2005 won Human Rights Watch's highest honor, the Human Rights Defender Award.
"Compared to other Western countries, Germany still has a good relationship with Iran and is still Iran's biggest trading partner in the EU," he told DW. "Germany played a key role in the nuclear deal negotiations until 2015. Moreover, Berlin has been reserved in its criticism of human rights violations in Iran."
Why Taghavi was jailed and why Germany might have become a target is unclear. One reason could be the detention of the Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who was arrested on German soil in 2018 after being accused of being involved in a plot to attack opponents of the Iranian government in Villepinte, not far from Paris. He was handed over to Belgian authorities and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment earlier this year for attempted murder. He is reported to have told Belgian police that he did not expect to spend very long in jail and assumed that his government would soon exchange him for a European prisoner.
Since his arrest, four German nationals have been arrested in Iran. Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian medic accused of espionage and collaboration with Israel and sentenced to death, could also potentially be exchanged. There is no reliable information on how many foreign nationals are currently behind bars in Iran.
Although Iran has said that it wants to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, it has arrested nationals from all of the Western signatories of the deal and informed the UN of its uranium enrichment plans. In February, before talks resumed in Vienna about a potential return to the deal, the US, France, Britain and Germany all called on Iran to release their detained nationals. Subsequently, Iran signaled that it was prepared to exchange prisoners on "humanitarian grounds."
Initially, it wanted to release four US citizens in exchange for four Iranian nationals jailed for violating US sanctions and for $7 billion in unfrozen assets.
But on August 3, nournews.ir, which has close ties with Iran's security council, reported that the exchange had been postponed because of "the US government's cowardly behavior." This was an indirect confirmation, however, that Iran does use detained foreigners to obtain political concessions and that "humanitarian grounds" are just a pretext. The fate of the individuals themselves plays little role.
"She is not well," Nahid Taghavi's daughter Mariam Claren told DW. "She contracted COVID-19 in Tehran's Evin jail. There was an outbreak about a month ago in the women's section. Over 15 women were granted temporary release but not her despite her age and underlying conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Her attempt to obtain medical leave was refused against the recommendation of the prison doctor, so as to increase the pressure on Germany. The Islamic Republic's hostage diplomacy is well known to all."