On the face of it, Professor Abbas Edalat is an odd choice for arrest in Iran by the Revolutionary Guard, whose custody he is now believed to be in. Such as the professor of computer science and mathematics at Imperial College London ever engaged in political activism, it was as a vocal opponent of foreign interference in Iran.
He wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian in 2011, suggesting that western powers' treatment of Iran at the time was unjustified and comparable to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. He had also run a campaign group against war and sanctions on Iran. Now he stands accused of the very opposite - of being a member of a British spy network.
The British-Iranian dual-national was reportedly detained by the Revolutionary Guard on April 15th, after travelling to Tehran for an academic workshop.
His arrest was confirmed last night by Iranian officials, who cited "security charges" as the reason for his arrest, but declined to give further details. However, the Fars news agency reported that he was suspected of trying to "infiltrate" Iran as a spy. His house in Tehran has been searched, and his computer and some of his possessions seized.
Iran's History of Detention
For observers in the UK, Edalat's story echoes that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, another British-Iranian dual national arrested in Tehran in 2016 whilst visiting her family there. She was taken to prison and eventually charged with trying to overthrow the government.
Her husband Richard Ratcliffe has campaigned tirelessly for her release, but has been unable to see his wife since her arrest, or their young daughter who is now living with her grandparents in Tehran. Her case was the most high-profile, largely thanks to Richard Ratcliffe's activism, but it is far from the only one.
There may be up to thirty dual-nationals detained in Iran at present, though exact figures are difficult to determine given the secrecy they are often shrouded in by the Iranian state. There has, however, been a sharp rise in the detention of dual nationals in the past two years. Reuters reports that the number of European-Iranian nationals being arrested is also increasing - previously more American-Iranians were being detained.
Dual-nationals seem to be most vulnerable, partly because Iran does not recognise dual citizenship and so charges anyone with Iranian nationality as they wish, which gives foreign governments little legal room to work with. However there are other cases of foreign citizens being held too. Xiyue Wang, a American PhD researcher at Princeton University who had been conducting research for his history doctorate and studying Farsi in Tehran, was arrested in August 2016.
He was then charged with two counts of espionage in February 2017 and sentenced to five years at Evin Prison in Tehran. This is also where Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and a number of other dual-nationals, as well as political prisoners are detained - it has the dubious honour of being nicknamed "Evin University", given the number of intellectuals and academics within its walls.
Evin Prison has been dubbed "Evin University," due to the number of academics and intellecualts within its walls. The Prison is notorious for human rights abuses. /AFP
Divided Loyalties Inside Iran
The question is why someone like Professor Edalat, who is ostensibly supportive of the current government, would be a target for detention. And the answer is less likely to do with him personally than it is a matter of timing, and of the divided loyalties of the state of Iran. For all of the divides in the American government over whether or not to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, there is a mirror image in Tehran.
The reformist-inclined President Hassan Rouhani, who won a second term in 2017 riding on Iranians' hopes to see the deal through, has powerful enemies within the state to contend with. There is the ultra-conservative clerical body, which tends to see any rapprochement with the West as a dilution of the Islamic Revolution. And there is the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the armed wing that was tasked with guarding the victory of the Revolution at all costs.
The Revolutionary Guard and the Nuclear Deal
The Revolutionary Guard is increasingly thought, however, to be a force in its own right rather than one working in synchronicity with the state. And the Guard Corp's loathing of the nuclear deal is an open secret, a loathing based on both on ideological grounds, and because of the threat a lifting of sanctions would represent to their entrenched business interests.
Details are still sketchy, but arresting a dual British-Iranian national at this absolute low in the health of the Iran nuclear deal looks like Iranian hardliners trying to hammer another nail into the deal's coffin. President Trump looks ever more determined to kill the deal.
His opposition to it went from a campaign promise, to a "will I, won't I" routine over the first year of his Presidency, to what looks like its death knell over the last few weeks. He fired the pro-deal Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and made arch-Iran hawk John Bolton his National Security Adviser.
As the May 12th deadline for either extending the sanctions waiver or ending it approaches, French President Emmanuel Macron made an eleventh hour visit to Washington to try and sway Trump to save the deal, apparently to little avail.
If Trump does renege on the JCPOA as expected, the deal technically still stands between Iran and the European parties to the deal. EU member states remain generally very supportive of it, and even if America pulls out and reimposed sanctions, the economic impact of unilateral sanctions from Washington would be limited.
Whether a JCPOA without American participation would hold Iran's participation is open to doubt. But if opposition to it began to grow among the deal's other partners, it is very hard indeed to see a future for it. And Britain is the obvious choice to try and sway.
Will Britain Side With the United States on Iran?
Having boisterously parted ways with the European Union in 2016, its government is now desperate for allies. The embattled Prime Minister Theresa May has made clear that she is unprepared to alienate Trump, siding with him on most foreign policy matters, and keeping quiet where she cannot defend him. Iran hawks in the UK are taking note.
One British think-tank has said that the UK must avoid parting ways over Iran with the US after Brexit, and some prominent Conservative MPs and potential rivals for the post of Prime Minister have opposed the deal. A second British citizen finding themselves behind bars in Iran, despite what is meant to be a phase of warming relations, will make it harder to defend the British role in the JCPOA in Westminster if the position is challenged.
If these are the reasons behind Edalat's arrest, then appeals to Rouhani will probably have little traction, for it is him these detentions are trying to undermine.
Rouhani's credibility is already stretched now that the deal is on the rocks, and his power to stand up to hardliners is waning. Meanwhile, dual nationals and vulnerable visitors find themselves caught up in the mix, with Edalat becoming a political pawn in a game he never wanted to play.
Those who know him in the UK seem convinced of his innocence. For now, Edalat's fate hangs in the balance, and Iran's future with it.
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