The arrest of a London-based British Council employee, 32-year-old Aras Amiri, while she visited family back home in Iran, is a sign that the Iranian regime is locked into a game which reflects the sharp divide between conservatives and reformers. President Hassan Rouhani is helpless. The arrest of journalists, dual citizens and Iranians who live in the west is the work of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The IRGC has an immense network of political and financial interests in Iran. Some estimate that it controls as much as 40 per cent of the Iranian economy. It was a staunch opponent of the anaemic nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015.
According to that deal, the Iranian regime, which has long lived inside a nuclear dream-bubble, would drop its relentless efforts to build a nuclear weapon for 10 years and open up Iran’s market for western companies. This would mean demolishing the wall the IRGC has built around the Iranian economy, and sacrificing a healthy chunk of its economic interests in this undeveloped but massive market.
At a time when the US and Iran are beating the drums of war, the sane act for the Iranians would be to seek closer relations with Europe. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA a year ago, and last week sent an aircraft carrier to the Gulf citing unspecified threats from Iran, which then suspended in part its own compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. The UK, France and Germany are the remaining signatories, and offer the only real path for Iran to pursue a less fraught future
But this is not how the IRGC works. It is perhaps the only group inside Iran, which actually agrees with Trump’s policies. The IRGC does not want foreign investments, does not trust the west, and does not want the deal to survive. For a long time, the IRGC had been concerned about US businesses lurking in the background, waiting to see a break in the cycle of the Iranian “madman” leadership.
Less than a year after signing the deal, which triggered a tentative race among potential European investors, Iran locked up the Iranian-British journalist Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and accused her of being a spy. Since then, the British government’s fumbled diplomacy to get her released has been in vain.
In 2017, Reuters pointed out that since signing the JCPOA a new trend had emerged in the dual nationals being detained. “A majority of those arrested since [the nuclear deal was signed], 19 out of the 30, have citizenship in Europe. Previously most of the detainees were Iranian Americans.”
The corps had used US citizens as a bargaining chip in exchange for the release of Iranian frozen assets (worth billions of dollars) in the US. It is a strategy that paid off.
In January 2016, Iran released the Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and three other Iranian-American prisoners in exchange for the return of $400m from Iran’s frozen accounts. The regime tried to implement the same strategy to manipulate the UK during its protracted negotiations to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Her fate has been tied to the settlement of a £300m debt that London owes Tehran from an arms deal dating back to 1970s.
Iran seems unconcerned that its strategy leaves it looking little different to Isis and other terrorist groups, which have sought to profit from kidnapping western nationals. How can Iranian hawks morally justify detaining a woman who went to Iran to see her family, just because she works for the British Council? And why does the UK still seem ready to do business with a country indulging in a fascistic, manipulative form of diplomacy, even while British citizens are locked up on phony charges?
The UK foreign office still advises against all but essential travel in Iran for those with dual nationality. The threat comes because hard-line Iranians understand that dual nationals are an emblem of an opening society. They arrive as corporations establish a foothold and as foreign governments expand their diplomatic missions, and they are a symbol that the regime’s grip can be loosened on the pace and nature of what’s left of modernisation and liberalism among ordinary Iranians.
For hardliners they are the enemy scouts, preparing for an assault on the essence of the everlasting 1979 revolution and in that sense, they are fair game.
In Iran, the “western hostages” strategy will never go away – as long as it is working. In many ways it is not Iran’s fault; it is always the West that is to blame. As long as the UK and its allies continue giving succour to a poisonous regime as it offers teasing glimpses or a new and lucrative market, then others will suffer the same torment as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Aras Amiri.
Source » independent