Who Are the Dual and Foreign Nationals Imprisoned in Iran?
*Editor’s Note: This post is updated regularly to reflect case updates. It was last updated on June 30, 2020.
At least 10 dual and foreign nationals or Iranian citizens who’ve lived and worked abroad were known to be imprisoned in Iran as of April 2020, according to research by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). The cases listed below are not exhaustive and only include those that have been brought to the attention of CHRI by the prisoners’ relatives and/or been made public by the prisoners’ families.
The prisoners’ arrests were followed by a pattern of prolonged solitary confinement and interrogations; lack of due process; denial of consular access or visits by the UN or humanitarian organizations; secretive trials in which the detainee is given limited access to counsel; and long prison sentences based on vague or unspecified “national security” and “espionage” charges. The Iranian government doesn’t recognize dual nationality and has denied the vast majority of these detainees consular access. In November 2017, Reuters reported that at least 30 dual nationals had been arrested in Iran since the signing of the nuclear deal in July 2015.
Iran has used imprisoned dual nationals as bargaining chips in its dealings with other nations. The Iranian judiciary’s ongoing imprisonment of these women and men—arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC’s) Intelligence Organization or the Intelligence Ministry, often while they were visiting Iran—also reflects Iranian hardliners’ efforts to prevent Iran’s engagement with the West.
No Iranian official has ever been held accountable for the deaths of some of these detainees in state custody. Iranian judicial officials, including hardline judges, have also never been held accountable for their collusion with the arresting authorities, which often influence or dictate prison sentences and other forms of punishment.
In February 2018, prominent academic and environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami, who had Canadian citizenship, died under suspicious circumstances in Evin Prison after being arrested a month earlier with several other environmentalists. Another Iranian-born Canadian citizen, photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, also died in Iranian state custody in July 2003.
There are grave concerns for the lives of some of the current prisoners, especially Baquer Namazi, a senior citizen who has been hospitalized several times for heart procedures; Ahmadreza Djalali, who has lost a substantial amount of weight in prison for unknown reasons; and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been separated from her three-year-old daughter for more than four years and has suffered from depression and contemplated suicide inside the Women’s Ward of Evin Prison.
Iranian-born civil engineer Anoosheh Ashoori has been serving a 12-year prison sentence in Tehran’s Evin Prison–10 years for “spying for the Mossad” and two years for “illegitimately acquiring 33,000 euros”– since August 2019. He was initially arrested in August 2017 while visiting his mother.
According to his son, Ashoori spent 10 years in the UK between 1972 and 1982 while studying mechanical and aeronautical engineering. Al Jazeera English notes that Ashoori left for Iran after his father became ill and took on the family’s construction business, Techno Khallagh, developing “Roofix”, a product for building earthquake-resistant homes, schools and mosques. He returned to the UK in 2005.
Although Middle East scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert was first detained in Iran by agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ intelligence organization in September 2018 (previously reported as October 2018), her family did not make her arrest public until September 2019 when her appeal against a 10-year prison sentence on espionage charges was denied. As of January 2019, she remained in the extremely restrictive and isolated Ward-2A of Tehran’s Evin Prison, which is controlled by the intelligence organization of the Revolutionary Guards. The Australian government and Moore-Gilbert’s family have stated that they are trying to seek her release through diplomatic channels. Read her letters from prison here.
Iran’s Appeals Court upheld a five-year prison sentence against Iranian-born French scholar Fariba Adelkhah in June 2020. The anthropologist was reportedly arrested on espionage charges by agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran in June 2019. Adelkhah is a specialist in social anthropology and political anthropology of post-revolutionary Iran, according to her biography written by Jean-François Bayart, Professor at IHEID (Geneva). The French Foreign Ministry did not confirm her arrest until July. On October 15, 2019, France’s Foreign Ministry demanded that Iran release Adelkhah and fellow French academic Roland Marchal.
Iranian-born Austrian dual national citizen Massud Mossaheb, who turned 73 in May 2020, has reportedly been detained in Iran since January 2019 on unknown charges. His family has appealed for his release on medical grounds via social media, citing his elderly age and pre-existing health issues, which would put him in the high-risk category for COVID-19.
A former businessman, Mossaheb is the secretary-general of the Vienna-based “Austrian-Iranian Society,” which reportedly promotes diplomacy between the two countries. During a February 2020 trip to Tehran, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg made no public mention of Mossaheb.
Citizenship: Iran with UK residency
UK-based British Council employee Aras Amiri was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in Iran on unspecified charges in May 2019. The Appeals Court in Tehran upheld her sentence in August 2019. Amiri is currently being held in the Women’s Ward of Evin Prison. An Iranian-born UK resident who worked for the British Council, Amiri was initially arrested in Tehran in March 2018 while visiting her ailing grandmother. The 33-year-old graduate student of the UK’s Kensington College of Business was initially held in Ward 209 of Evin Prison in Tehran, controlled by the Intelligence Ministry, before being released on bail in late May 2018. She was re-arrested sometime between August 23 and September 22, 2018. In a letter from Evin Prison, Amiri wrote that she had refused to spy for the Intelligence Ministry months before she was sentenced.
Iranian British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested by the IRGC in Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport while she was on her way back home to London after visiting her parents. Her 22-month-old daughter, who was with her at the time, was placed in the custody of her grandparents in Tehran.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison in September 2016 on unspecified “national security charges.” She is currently being held in the Women’s Ward of Evin Prison and has been diagnosed with advanced depression. In October 2017, one month before she became eligible for early release, she was threatened with 16 more years in prison based on new charges brought by the IRGC.
Iranian American dual national Siamak Namazi was the head of an oil and gas company based in the United Arab Emirates when the Revolutionary Guards arrested him in Tehran in October 2015. In October 2016, he and his then 80-year-old Iranian American father were sentenced to 10 years in prison for “collaborating with enemy states” after a trial in which they were denied due process. An appeals court upheld the sentence in August 2017.
Businessman Morad Tahbaz, who has Iranian, British and US citizenship, was detained with at least nine environmentalists from the Iranian wildlife charity, the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation (PHWF), in January 2018 on alleged espionage charges and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in November 2019. One of his fellow detained colleagues, Iranian Canadian Kavous Seyed-Emami, died under suspicious circumstances in custody in February. Tahbaz was a board member of the PHWF. The exact charges against him remain unclear.
Ahmadreza Djalali is an Iranian-born Swedish scientist (received Swedish citizenship in February 2018), physician and expert in emergency disaster medicine who has been detained in Evin Prison since he was arrested on April 24, 2016, by Intelligence Ministry agents. In October 2017 he was sentenced to death for espionage charges based on a forced confession. In a letter from the prison, Djalali wrote that he was imprisoned during a trip to Iran for refusing to spy for the Intelligence Ministry. He has appealed his sentence. Photos of Djalali that surfaced in April 2018 indicate that he has lost a substantial amount of weight for unknown reasons. His family says the authorities are refusing to allow him to receive medical care from outside the prison’s clinic.
Kamran Ghaderi was the CEO of an Austrian IT management and consulting company when agents of the Intelligence Ministry arrested him upon his arrival at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport on January 2, 2016. He was on a routine business trip and had previously traveled to Iran on many occasions for work and business seminars, including as a member of the Austrian delegation to Tehran led by then-President Heinz Fischer in October 2015.
The prosecution used a coerced confession by Ghaderi to gain a 10-year prison sentence against him in the Revolutionary Court where he was tried for the charge of “conducting espionage for enemy states.” The Appeals Court later upheld the sentence. During a February 2020 trip to Tehran, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg made no public mention of Ghaderi.
Released or Status Unknown
*Released to French custody on March 21, 2020.
According to a biography written by the University of Geneva’s Didier Péclard, French sociologist Roland Marchal, an expert on sub-Saharan Africa, was working with the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique when he was arrested during a trip to Tehran in June 2019 along with fellow academic Fariba Adelkhah, who is also his romantic partner. Marchal and Adelkhah are both currently associated with the Paris Institute of Political Studies (aka Sciences Po). The French Foreign Ministry did not confirm Marchal’s arrest until October 15, 2019, when it demanded that Iran release both researchers.
*Released to Swiss custody on medical furlough on March 19. Allowed to return home to the U.S. on June 4, 2020.
US navy veteran Michael R. White has been jailed in Iran since July 2018. Iran has not specified any charges or details about his case but acknowledged his imprisonment in January 2019. In an interview with the New York Times, White’s family said he was undergoing cancer treatment and has “serious medical conditions that could be life-threatening without regular, specialized medical care.”
*Released and allowed to return to the U.S. on December 7, 2019.
Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University PhD student, was conducting research in Tehran’s archive centers for his thesis when he was arrested in August 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison in July 2017. An Appeals Court upheld the sentence in August 2017.
*Released on bail in November 2019.
Iranian-British social anthropologist Kameel Ahmady has been detained in Tehran on undisclosed charges since August 11, 2019. Born in the Kurdish city of Mahabad in Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province, Ahmady has not lived in the UK since 2004 when he was attending university, his wife told CHRI. His research was conducted in Iran with governmental permission and focused on politically sensitive issues including child marriage and female genital mutilation.
*Released and sent back home with all charges dropped on October 5, 2019.
Travel bloggers Mark Firkin and Jolie King were arrested in Iran in July 2019 and taken to Evin Prison. Referring to their cases during a press conference on September 17, 2019, Judiciary Spokesman Gholam-Hossein Esmaili said, “This matter concerns two cases for which indictments have been issued. One case is about two individuals who were caught taking photos of military installations and restricted areas. The photos and videos, extracted from their camera memory, were taken with drones.” The Australian government had stated that it was trying to seek the couple’s freedom through diplomatic channels.
*Released into Lebanese custody on June 11, 2019.
Citizenship: Lebanese with US residency
Information technology expert Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-born US permanent resident based in Washington, DC, has been imprisoned in Iran since September 2015. He was arrested in Tehran in September 2015 despite being officially invited by the Rouhani government to attend a conference on women and sustainable development.
In August 2017, Iran’s Appeals Court upheld a 10-year prison sentence and $4.2 million fine against Zakka for unspecified espionage charges.
*Released on medical furlough at an unknown date in 2018 and serving his sentence at home in Tehran.
Iranian American dual national Baquer Namazi, a former UNICEF representative, was arrested in Tehran in February 2016 after travelling to Iran to gain his son’s release. He was 80-years-old at the time. In October 2016, he and his Iranian American son Siamak Namazi were sentenced to 10 years in prison for “collaborating with enemy states” after a trial in which they were both denied due process. Baquer Namazi underwent heart surgery in September 2017 to receive a pacemaker. In August 2018 the Namazis’ lawyer in Iran revealed to CHRI that Baquer Namazi had been at home on furlough for “considerable length of time” receiving medical treatment.
*Released on bail in July 2018 and awaiting the result of his appeal. Still in Iran as of June 2019.
A member of the minority Zoroastrian faith, Iranian American dual national Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Neyssari, an Iranian architect, were managing the Aun Art Gallery in Tehran when they were arrested by the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization on July 20, 2016—ostensibly for serving alcohol in their home and hosting mixed-gender parties.
In March 2017, new charges were brought against the couple, based on claims by the IRGC that they had attempted to overthrow the Islamic Republic and recruit spies through foreign embassies. Karan has been sentenced to 15 years in prison and Afarin, a US permanent resident, to 10 years in prison. A petition set up by their stepson has received more than 10,000 signatures of support.
*Released on an unknown date in 2018 and remained in Tehran until December 25, 2018, when he returned home to the UK.
London-based Iranian British academic and antiwar activist Abbas Edalat has been detained in Iran since April 15, 2018, after being arrested by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). A professor of computer science and mathematics at the Imperial College in London, Edalat had traveled to Iran from his home in London at an unknown date to attend an academic workshop.
Robert Alan “Bob” Levinson, an American former Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, disappeared on March 9, 2007, in Kish Island, Iran, where he was reportedly last seen. His family has repeatedly requested that Iran provide information about his whereabouts and allow him to come home while the Iranian government has stated that Levinson is not in Iranian custody. In November 2018, the families of Levinson and five dual and foreign nationals imprisoned in Iran called on the international community to convince Iran to free their loved ones.
*Released on bail in July 2018 and awaiting the result of his appeal. Still in Iran as of June 2019.
Citizenship: Iran with US permanent residency
Iran-based art gallery owner and US permanent resident Afarin Neyssari has been imprisoned in Iran since July 20, 2016, after being arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Tehran’s International Airport. Her husband, Iranian American dual national Karan Vafadari, was arrested the same day after she called him while she was detained in the airport. He was ultimately sentenced to 15 years in prison on a variety of trumped-up charges without due process according to his family.
In January 2018, Neyssari’s family posted an unusually high bail amount set for her by Judge Abolghasem Salavati, the head of the 15th branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran. But according to her stepson, Cyrus Vafadari, Salavati refused to let her go, stating, “If I wanted her released, I wouldn’t have set bail so high.” Neyssari was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran that same month without due process. The exact charges she was convicted of remain unclear.
*Released on medical furlough at an unknown date and serving his sentence at home in Tehran.
Iranian British dual national Kamal Foroughi was working as a consultant for an oil and gas company when he was arrested on May 5, 2011, by the IRGC and sentenced to seven years in prison for “espionage” and one year for “possession of alcoholic drinks at home.” The latter sentence was eventually dropped. He is currently eligible for release.
An Appeals Court upheld a five-year prison sentence issued against Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani, an Iranian Canadian dual national, on October 8, 2017. The initial sentence, issued against Esfahani by Judge Abolqasem Salavati of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in May 2017, was for espionage charges including “collaborating with the British secret service.” Esfahani represented the Central Bank of Iran during the talks on the country’s nuclear program between Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1. After the final deal was struck in July 2015, he advised the Rouhani government on implementing the deal’s financial provisions.
*Arrived in Canada on August 2, 2019, after leaving the country while on medical furlough.
Citizenship: Iran with Canadian Permanent Residency
Saeed Malekpour was a computer programmer and web developer living as a permanent resident in Canada before the Revolutionary Guards arrested while he was visiting Iran in 2008. He was charged with “insulting the sacred” for allegedly creating an online pornographic network. In September 2010, a Revolutionary Court sentenced him to death, but the sentence was ultimately commuted from death to life imprisonment in August 2013.