The Iranian regime frequently utilizes hostages as political pawns and leverage against other governments. It has been attempting to conduct a comprehensive swap of prisoners with the West, specifically the US, for some time. And the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis appears to be providing the Islamic Republic with an opportunity to achieve this objective.
Iran first made its intention to arrange a comprehensive prisoner swap public in 2019. During an interview at the Asia Society in New York, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif made a public offer to the US and other countries regarding American and European citizens held in Iranian jails. Zarif made a bold statement, saying: “I put this offer on the table publicly now. Exchange them. All these people that are in prison inside the United States, on extradition request from the United States… Let us exchange them.” He added: “I have the authority to do that. We informed the government of the United States six months ago that we are ready.”
But Tehran did not entirely accomplish its goal, as the US refused to release all Iranian detainees and instead only agreed to exchange one prisoner. The Swiss government acted as a mediator, facilitating the exchange of Iranian prisoner Masoud Soleimani for US citizen Xiyue Wang in December.
Previously, Tehran was successful in swapping seven Iranian prisoners for four Americans in 2016. The Iranian regime also received a reported $400 million payment from the Obama administration when the exchange was completed.
The Iranian regime now seems to be using the coronavirus crisis and concerns about the health of its foreign detainees as leverage to push for the release of its citizens by the US.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, in March urged the Iranian authorities to temporarily release all political and foreign prisoners from its overcrowded and disease-ridden prisons. He told a press briefing in Geneva: “A number of dual and foreign nationals are at real risk if they have not... got (coronavirus), they are really fearful of the conditions. This is also my worrying concern and therefore I have recommended to the state of the Islamic Republic of Iran to release all prisoners on temporary release.”
UN human rights experts particularly emphasized the alarming situations of detained human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and defenders Narges Mohammadi and Arash Sadeghi, as well as dual nationals Morad Tahbaz (an Iranian-British-American national), Ahmadreza Djalali (Iranian-Swedish), and Kamran Ghaderi and Massud Mossaheb (both Iranian-Austrian). They warned: “Mr. Tahbaz and Mr. Mossaheb are over 60 years old and could experience serious health consequences from COVID-19 due to their age, including loss of life. These individuals also have existing life-threatening health issues, as do Ms. Mohammadi, Mr. Sadeghi, Mr. Ghaderi and Mr. Djalali, heightening the serious risk to their health if infected. The immediate release by the Iranian judiciary of these individuals and other prisoners of conscience could save their lives.”
Although Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it has systematically failed to meet its obligations. In addition, the country’s prisons are notorious for their lack of hygiene and access to medical doctors. The UN experts pointed out: “Iran’s prisons have long-standing hygiene, overcrowding and health care problems. We urge the Iranian authorities to implement measures consistent with their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right of persons deprived of their liberty to be treated with humanity and with respect for their inherent dignity, and the right to life.”
Iran is most likely attempting to get back dozens of prisoners from the US, including Milad Kalantari, Behzad Pourghannad, Manssor Arbabsiar, Behrooz Behroozian, Majid Ghorbani, Amin Hasanzadeh, and Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad. Meanwhile, there are currently at least four American citizens being held in Iran’s prisons: Navy veteran Michael R. White and Iranian-American dual nationals Tahbaz, an environmental activist, and father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi.
While foreign prisoners in Iran such as British dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe are mainly held on trumped-up charges, Iranian prisoners abroad have most likely committed serious crimes. For example, Arbabsiar was in 2013 sentenced in a New York City federal court to 25 years in prison after being found guilty of participating in a plot to murder the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US. And Ghorbani in 2018 admitted charges of conducting surveillance and collecting information about American citizens and members of the Iranian dissident group Mujahedin-e Khalq.
It is incumbent on the international community to push Tehran to release foreign prisoners and hold the Iranian authorities to account for endangering the lives of political and foreign prisoners amid the coronavirus crisis.