On Tuesday, Iran’s Nour News Agency, an entity close to the country’s Supreme National Security Council, quoted an unnamed government official as saying that Tehran was dropping plans for prisoner swaps with the United States. The statement is a probable sign of the regime hardening its approach to foreign and dual nationals as it makes the transition from the administration of pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani to avowed hardliner Ebrahim Raisi.
Raisi was formally recognized as the next president by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a ceremony on Tuesday, setting the stage for his formal inauguration on Thursday. Tuesday’s event also coincided with the brief seizure of a tanker ship near the port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. Last week, two crew members on another vessel were killed by what was believed to be an explosives-laden drone belonging to the Islamic Republic.
Many observers interpreted the attacks as a preview of further escalation after Raisi takes over the presidency. Many of the same observers expect an even greater escalation in the Iranian regime’s attacks on dissident activists and other perceived domestic threats to the theocratic system. The planned retention of American citizens in Iranian prisons demonstrates the potential connections between these two categories of issues, and Iran’s Resistance movement is sure to highlight those connections in the interest of convincing Western policymakers that assertive dealings with the Raisi administration would be in their own nations’ interests as well as in the interest of the Iranian people.
At least 16 dual nationals are currently detained in the Islamic Republic, with two having been sentenced on Wednesday, the day after Raisi’s induction ceremony. Mehran Raoof and Nahid Taghavi were both sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of affiliation with a banned group and “propaganda against the state.” Raoof and Taghavi hold citizenship in Britain and Germany, respectively, and are both in their mid-60s. These details, together with their history of social activism, make them especially vulnerable both to the inherently harsh conditions of Iran’s political wards and to targeted harassment by prison officials and security forces.
These dangers are greatly amplified by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has had a much more devastating effect on the Islamic Republic than on any other country in the region. Iran set a record for new cases on Monday, at 37,189. The Health Ministry also recorded 411 deaths, pushing the official total beyond 91,000. But the National Council of Resistance of Iran insists that the real situation is even worse than regime authorities are letting on. Gleaning information from various institutional records and eyewitness statements, the NCRI has determined that the true death toll is fast approaching 350,000.
The pace of these deaths and the extent of the cover-up have a common source in that many outbreaks have occurred in prison facilities where inmates are routinely denied basic medical care. Early in the pandemic, regime authorities claimed to have released thousands of prisoners on furlough to reduce the risk of transmission, but these reports could never be fully verified and in any event, the relevant statements tended to specify that political prisoners, or persons accused of “national security” crimes, were to be excluded from furlough arrangements.
This restriction implies that authorities were knowingly weaponizing the novel coronavirus – a conclusion that was supported by various reports of new inmates being integrated into crowded prison populations without virus screening and often without separating prisoners according to the nature of their crimes as required under Iranian law. Raoof and Taghavi were initially detained in Evin Prison during a time when furloughs were supposedly still in effect but political detainees were being added to the prison population on a regular basis. They have remained there for roughly the past 10 months, during which time Taghavi spend 194 days in solitary confinement and was subjected to 1,000 hours of interrogation.
Their sentencing on Wednesday coincided with the sentencing of three other activists who hold only Iranian citizenship. Although charged with similar political offenses, their sentences range from two years and eight months to six years and eight months. The harsher sentences for Raoof and Taghavi were possibly influenced by a long history of paranoia and harassment directed at dual nationals, who are routinely accused of espionage or collaboration with “hostile” foreign states on the basis of the flimsiest evidence, such as casual communication with friends who live abroad.
But this is not to say that other categories of political prisoners can expect better treatment during the Raisi era. Their prosecution, sentencing, and extrajudicial punishment are likely to accelerate also, in keeping with the new president’s long history of human rights abuses involving critics of the Iranian regime. During the summer of 1988, he played a key role in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, and beginning in November 2019, as head of the judiciary, he oversaw elements of the regime’s crackdown on political activism following that month’s nationwide anti-government uprising.
Approximately 1,500 peaceful protesters were killed in the initial clashes that resulted from that uprising, and at least 12,000 individuals were arrested. Raisi’s judiciary oversaw a campaign of systematic torture for months afterward, in an apparent effort to elicit forced confessions and set the stage for aggressive prosecution of activists, including prosecution on charges that carry the death penalty.
At least 48 death sentences were carried out in Iran during the month of July alone. There is no question that the Islamic Republic will retain its title as the country with the highest rate of executions per capita, and there is ample reason to believe that that rate will climb even higher as Raisi promotes crackdowns in his role as president, and leaves the implementation of those crackdowns to his former deputy, now the new judiciary chief, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei.
July also saw the issuance of prison sentences for at least three Iranian human rights lawyers – a sign that the judiciary intends not only to crack down on dissent but also to further criminalize the act of providing dissenters with a legal defense. This presents a particular danger to Iran’s civilian population if unrest continues to expand, as it is widely expected to.
In June, the vast majority of Iran’s eligible voters boycotted the tightly-controlled election which brought Raisi to power, and the day after his “victory” was confirmed protests began to break out in various localities, over various issues. In mid-July, water shortages in Khuzestan Province inspired massive protests first in that region and later across much of the country. As the movement spread, it also took on an anti-government message reminiscent of that which defined the November 2019 uprising and a prior uprising in January 2018.
At least 12 individuals have already been killed in the latest round of protests, but Resistance activists anticipate that more casualties will be confirmed as activists work to convey information in spite of the regime’s efforts to block the internet and social media. Mass arrests have also been reported, and concern is growing that these could set the stage for systematic killings which would compound the new president’s legacy of participation in crimes against humanity.
Whatever crackdowns are visited upon the Iranian people in the coming days, they are sure to have knock-on effects upon existing political prisoners and upon political prisoners who are also dual nationals. In the face of large-scale unrest, Tehran invariably attempts to diminish popular sentiment by blaming it upon foreign infiltration, and this is all but certain to provide the Raisi administration with greater incentives to issue punishments for the crime of having lived outside the Islamic Republic.