Australian falls victim to Iranian crackdown on foreign dissidents and hostage-taking

Dr. Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi

An Australian citizen has become the latest hostage of the rogue Islamic Republic of Iran. On December 6, it was reported that Dr Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi, a population expert at the university of Melbourne who holds dual Iranian-Australian citizenship, was “detained” by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and had been in prison for several days. She has been accused of “social espionage” and “collaboration” with the West. Iran doesn’t recognize dual nationals and treats foreign citizens it kidnaps as solely Iranian subjects, rendering the possibility of Australian consular access unlikely, as The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) noted in a statement.

Dr. Hosseini-Chavoshi’s arrest should be seen as the latest development in a wider trend. As Iranian politics specialist Mehdi Khalaji noted in the latest edition of the Australia/Israel Review, Iran has been engaging in a renewed violent crackdown on Iranian dissidents abroad in recent months, part of which involves increasing moves to arrest and persecute dual nationals who visit Iran. As Khalaji wrote:

For years, many observers assumed that Iran had largely abandoned its agenda of killing dissidents abroad in order to build trust with the West and to normalise relations with the international community. But… the regime has been intently pursuing foreign assassination plots again for some time, in tandem with domestic manoeuvres intended to ward off persistent political protests and intensified media pressure at home

The regime has kept its definition of “enemy” fluid, depending on its domestic political situation. In January 2010, near the height of the Green Movement, the Intelligence Ministry reportedly released a list of 60 foreign organisations “involved in soft war” against the Islamic Republic, including media networks, think-tanks, universities and affiliated entities. The ministry warned that relations with any of these organisations were “against the law,” prohibiting Iranian citizens from signing contracts or soliciting funds or other support from them.

Such a wide definition of “enemy” has given the regime legal ground to arrest dual nationals. In an Aug. 28 interview, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi told state television that “dozens of spies” working in the state bureaucracy had been arrested. He then emphasised that “we prevent dual nationals from assuming any state position.” Similarly, Reuters reported in November 2017 that the IRGC had arrested “at least 30 dual nationals during the past two years, mostly on spying charges, according to lawyers, diplomats and relatives.”

Aside from international terrorism, hostage-taking appears to be one of the Islamic Republic’s primary modes of interacting with the civilised world, and has been since its inception with the infamous Iran hostage crisis.

An open letter published by the Center for Human Rights in Iran signed by the families of six dual and foreign nationals imprisoned in Iran on December 3 asserts that “[since 2007] over 50 people with some connection to a western power have been taken hostage by the Iranian authorities.”

Some of those arrested, such as internet freedom and freedom of speech advocate Nezar Zakka, a Lebanese national and US permanent resident, were officially invited by the Iranian government and subsequently kidnapped by the IRGC. Many have been tortured, a practice Amnesty International says is “widespread and committed with impunity” in Iran, where there is no due process of law. The targeted individuals come from a range of backgrounds, including academia and journalism, and this association with a Western cultural institution bears the death penalty in Iran.

Another open letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei signed by 123 scholars and conservationists pleaded the case of 10 kidnapped colleagues who had been charged with “sowing corruption on earth,” a nebulous capital crime, in connection with their use of camera traps.

Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who was himself arrested by the IRGC and held for over a year, emphasised that kidnapping dual nationals is a core element of Iranian foreign policy because “the main point of contact between Iranian society and other countries has become dual nationals working in different fields.” Commenting on Dr. Chavoshi’s case, he stated “unfortunately, I think the real truth here is that she was making facts known to the world that, for whatever reason, the Islamic Republic establishment deems unacceptable.”

This is only half the story, however. Iran under the Islamic regime often appears to relate to the world via blackmail, of which kidnapping foreign nationals is an essential part. Dual nationals arrested as “hostages” can then be traded for policy concessions or a huge ransom. Meanwhile, the implementation of the JCPOA nuclear deal in 2016 was accompanied by arrangements whereby four Americans held by the Iranians were released simultaneously with the supply of US$400million in cash, though the Obama Administration denied this was a direct “tit-for-tat” arrangement.

As Australia undertakes a review of its support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian nuclear deal, it must not allow the IRGC to dictate its policies by kidnapping its citizens. Iran is a rogue nation, and should be treated like one. Bad enough that it hosts Al-Qaeda and supports the Taliban, among a host of other terrorist groups around the world, or that it plans terrorist attacks and assassinations on foreign soil. The kidnapping of an Australian researcher should serve as a wake-up call.