The coronavirus pandemic has in no way diminished tensions between Iran and the United States. Neither has it made the Islamic Republic of Iran less hostile toward Western powers as a whole. The Iranian regime remains in blatant non-compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and continues to insist upon far-reaching economic incentives in order to reverse the steps it has taken toward violation. And last month, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps used a newly-developed two-state rocket to launch a military satellite, in plain defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231.
On the other hand, the pandemic has prompted new speculation about the possibility of prisoner exchanges leading to the freedom of numerous Western hostages currently being held by the Islamic Republic. At least four American citizens are currently serving lengthy prison sentences on the basis of unsubstantiated spying charges. They are accompanied in Evin Prison and other notorious facilities by foreign and dual nationals representing a number of countries in Europe, including Britain, France, and Sweden.
But even this is not the full extent of hostility toward the West that is currently on display in Iranian prisons. The regime is also holding untold numbers of its own citizens whose only crimes are speaking to Western media outlets or otherwise acting in a way that is deemed “collaboration” with “enemies” of the theocratic dictatorship. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently issued a statement calling for the release of one such individual, Hassan Fathi, an independent journalist who began serving an 18-month sentence on May 6, based solely on conversations that he had with the BBC.
The CPJ statement placed special emphasis on the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has apparently had an especially serious impact on Iran’s prison population. The Iranian judiciary has generally denied reports of outbreaks among inmates, but President Hassan Rouhani admitted last week that in one prison, the introduction of a single vector for coronavirus led to the infection spreading to at least 100 out of 120 prisoners before authorities had any knowledge of it.
Of course, neither Rouhani nor any other official would say so, but this rapid and uncontrolled spread is indicative of the cramped and unsanitary conditions that are typical of Iranian prisons and especially the political wards in places like Evin. That Tehran facility is currently home to Siamak Namazi, one of the falsely imprisoned Americans who was first arrested in 2015. Prior to the pandemic, Evin’s political ward also held fellow American Michael R. White, as well as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British dual national who was apparently arrested in 2018 on the basis of her past employment with the charitable arm of the Reuters.
White and Zaghari-Ratcliffe are both members of a comparatively lucky group who have been released from prison on a conditional basis as a result of concerns over COVID-19. White’s luck was late in coming, however, as he reportedly contracted the illness before being transferred to the Swiss embassy, which handles American consular affairs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, meanwhile, seems to be in relatively good health, but the terms of her furlough are vague and she could be returned from her parents’ home to Evin at any moment.
Still, advocates for the British citizen are holding out hope that Tehran will see fit to release her altogether and allow her to rejoin her husband and five-year-old daughter in the UK. White’s presence at the Swiss embassy arguably makes this prospect more realistic. Some experts anticipate that he will return to America as soon as the US releases Sirous Asgari, an Iranian professor who was charged with, then acquitted of sanctions violations before being moved into detention by immigration authorities.
The potential swap promises to validate much of what has been said about Iran’s practice of detaining foreign nationals. It is generally understood that those individuals are regarded as bargaining chips, to be used in securing the release of actual criminals from Western custody, or in obtaining any number of other concessions, including financial payments. But in the category of rewards for hostage-taking, Asgari is a rather small prize. Having already been found not guilty at a fair trial, his release back to the Islamic Republic was already inevitable.
The same cannot be said of Michael White, least of all in light of his coronavirus infection. That development only added to pre-existing concerns about White’s health, as he had recently recovered from cancer treatment before traveling to Iran to visit a friend. Among a range of other abuses, Iranian political prisoners are routinely denied access to medical care, and so White’s condition was reportedly already deteriorating before COVID-19 became a factor.
This points to a likely reason why Iran is now considering putting an end to this case by accepting a prisoner swap that is unbalanced in favor of the United States. Doing so might discourage close scrutiny of the prisoner’s treatment, and that in turn might prevent Western authorities and human rights groups from exposing the full scale of the Iranian coronavirus outbreak and Tehran’s resulting mismanagement.
Of course, Michael White is only one variable that Iran needs to remove from the equation. And while this understanding of the regime’s thought process might be encouraging for those who expect Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release to follow, it is important that no Western policymakers or human rights activists fall into the trap of praising Iran for taking very basic humanitarian steps on the basis of self-serving motives.
The US, Britain, and other Western nations all have solemn responsibilities to help their citizens whenever they are targeted by hostile entities. But those responsibilities should never come at the expense of the further duty to promote human rights throughout the world. This is especially important now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has exacerbated an already dire situation for Iran’s prisoners, especially its political prisoners.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran estimates that over 42,000 Iranians have died of COVID-19 so far. But Tehran is doing everything in its power to cover up evidence supporting the death toll. This secrecy is especially easy to maintain when it comes to prisons, where reports of abuse, neglect, and death are only made known to the world via leaks channeled through a network of tireless activists.
UN special rapporteurs and other human rights experts have long sought access to Iranian prisons, but Tehran has steadfastly refused. The regime no doubt understands that these appeals for access could become unbearable if Western hostages are widely believed to be suffering under worse conditions than usual. But in the days ahead, the regime must also be made to understand that those appeals will become equally unbearable as long as anyone is suffering under such conditions, even if they have never set foot outside of the Islamic Republic.