In recent interviews, relatives of five dual nationals and one French citizen described the efforts of European governments to end their loved ones' detention as ineffective. Most said they felt officials had been too soft on Iran and implored them to take more assertive action to secure their relatives' release.
"I don't know why they don't want to call out Iran. I don't know why their attitude towards Iran is one of appeasement rather than confrontation, because it hasn't worked," Sherry Izadi, the wife of Anoosheh Ashoori, a British Iranian prisoner, said recently by phone from London, referring to the British government.
"Why not call this hostage-taking?"
Izadi has not seen her husband, a retired engineer, for nearly four years after he was arrested while on a trip to Iran in August 2017.
A year and two months later, he was sentenced to 10 years in Iran's notorious Evin Prison for "cooperating with a hostile state," referring to Israel, and to 2 years for "obtaining illicit funds" to be served concurrently, Izadi said. She says he is an innocent father caught up in a geopolitical game.
Shahrokh Nazemi, head of the media office at Iran's mission to the United Nations, said that Iran "categorically rejects" the "hostage" label and that a number of Iranian citizens are in jail in the U.S. and beyond who are "guilty of nothing."
"The U.S. with its 'maximum pressure' campaign — which includes illegal sanctions and arbitrary arrests of Iranians — has sought to bring Iran to submission, and that is tantamount to hostage-taking," he said in an email.
The interviews with European families took place before indirect talks between Iran and the U.S. began in Vienna to resuscitate the 2015 deal.
Several of the families and former detainees have since called on U.S. and European officials to prioritize the release of "hostages" in their dealings with Iran and to make their release a condition of the pact's revival.
"Hostages need to come home first," Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British Iranian woman, who was sentenced Monday to another year in prison, said in a statement this month ahead of the start of talks. "Else more lives will be collected, and it will continue to become more complicated to bring them home."
Iran does not recognize dual citizenship for its nationals, and as of Monday, only one of the at least 16 foreign and dual nationals known to be imprisoned or detained in Iran did not hold an Iranian passport, according to research by the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
Human rights groups have accused Iran of arbitrarily detaining not only dual nationals, but also thousands of its own people who protested across the country in recent years.
A spokesperson said the State Department was working "night and day" to bring home wrongfully detained U.S. citizens and was working with its allies to seek their citizens' release. The department is determined that Iran release U.S. citizens unjustly held in Iran regardless of what happens on the nuclear track, the spokesperson said.
European governments varied in their responses, but several said they were engaging with Iran.
Nazemi, of Iran's mission to the U.N., said that while Iran's judiciary is independent, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said the Foreign Ministry can "get involved" if and when the U.S. signals it is open to a comprehensive prisoner exchange. Any questions about convicted prisoners should be addressed to the judiciary, he said.
The number of foreign and dual nationals detained or imprisoned in Iran remains unknown.
As of Monday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran had recorded at least 12 Europeans known to be imprisoned or detained in the country.
Human Rights Watch says many of the dual nationals have been detained arbitrarily.
The State Department spokesperson said the Iranian government is wrongfully detaining at least four U.S. citizens, adding that Iran must also account for the fate of former FBI agent Robert Levinson and other U.S. citizens missing or abducted in Iran.
Iran has used wrongful and arbitrary detention to coerce and extract concessions from other countries for over 40 years, the spokesperson said.
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said that since the U.S. abandoned the nuclear pact in 2018, more French and German nationals have been arrested — an indication, he said, that Iranian hard-liners have sought to gain leverage over parties to the nuclear deal beyond America and Britain.
Ratcliffe said it was a "complete fiction" that Iran does not recognize dual nationality, "given that it targets those with a second passport for leverage."
Many of the Europeans who have spoken publicly about the predicament have said their governments advised them not to go public.
Izadi said Britain's Foreign Office advised her family to stay quiet, suggesting that speaking out could harm the chances of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Then, in 2019, Iran publicized her husband's imprisonment, prompting her to also speak out, she said.
"Our only regret, I think, is the fact that we did not go public sooner," she said, adding that staying quiet only focuses less attention on the Foreign Office and "how little it has done so far."
A spokesperson said that the Foreign Office actively seeks the immediate and permanent release and return of arbitrarily detained dual British nationals in Iran and that it was doing "all we can" to help them.
Izadi said she is concerned for her husband's physical and mental health. She said that Ashoori, 67, has attempted suicide twice since he was arrested and that he was held in solitary confinement for close to four months with no access to fresh air, with the light turned on 24 hours a day.
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While he is no longer in solitary confinement, Izadi said, her husband is experiencing Covid-19 symptoms.
Nazemi, of Iran's mission to the U.N., said multiple medical furloughs had been granted and homestays had been extended for some prisoners during the pandemic. Accusations of mistreatment should be taken up with the relevant authorities, and Iran always takes such charges and complaints seriously, he said.
Izadi said that if there were more of a coordinated push by European countries and others to hold Iran to account on the "hostage situation," families would most likely have seen better results.
"At the moment, Iran doesn't feel that it's accountable to anyone," she said. "It's been doing this with impunity."
The Obama administration created the role of envoy for hostage affairs following criticism from families that not enough was being done. With regard to Iran, the U.S. has referred to Levinson as a hostage but does not describe Americans imprisoned in the country as such.
The spokesperson for the British Foreign Office did not comment on individual cases but said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has raised the issue of arbitrarily detained dual British nationals with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and that Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab continues to engage his counterpart "at every opportunity."
"The regime must end its arbitrary detention of all dual British nationals," the spokesperson said.
'A small flower'
Mariam Claren said that her mother, Nahid Taghavi, a German Iranian, has been arbitrarily detained in Iran since October and that her trial on undisclosed charges started Wednesday.
She said that German officials have reassured her that her mother's case is a priority in the Foreign Office but that she does not know what the government has done to try to secure her release. In any case, Claren said, it has not been enough to free her mother, 66, who she said has diabetes and was recently transferred back to solitary confinement.
European governments, including Germany's, appear to be approaching Iran as if it were a "small flower" that needs watering, she said.
"They're officially violating human rights, not only about dual nationals about their own people, other political prisoners," she said by phone from Cologne. "And the European governments are sitting and waiting to get back to the JCPOA," she added, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Office declined to discuss Taghavi's case but said the government regularly addresses individual cases, as well as human rights violations more broadly, with Iran.
"Germany highly values and stands up for human rights around the globe, including Iran," the spokesperson said.
'New Iran hostage crisis'
Some relatives are concerned that the fates of their loved ones were being caught up in geopolitical negotiations.
Ratcliffe said that tying his wife's case to a multilateral settlement would make it, and others, more complicated and that it risked "ransom creep."
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was handed a one-year sentence and travel ban Monday after having been found guilty of spreading propaganda against the Islamic republic, just weeks after she finished a separate five-year sentence, her husband said.
"At this point the Iranian regime is trolling them," Ratcliffe said of the British government after his wife's conviction. "They need to make crystal clear that this abuse is unacceptable. By actions, not just words."
He rejects the allegations against his wife, and the U.N. has described her detention as "arbitrary." Johnson said Monday that Iran's decision to sentence Zaghari-Ratcliffe to another year was "wholly unjustified."
As foreign secretary, Johnson complicated Zaghari-Ratcliffe's case by saying she was training journalists when she was arrested in 2016. He later said that was a misstatement and apologized publicly to Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family.
Ratcliffe said that his wife has suffered from severe bouts of distress and depression and that he worries that as time ticks by, the psychological consequences of her time in Iran are deepening.
Meanwhile, he said, all governments, including Britain's, have not done enough to dissuade Iran from "hostage-taking" and had allowed Iranian authorities to use the tactic with impunity.
The U.K. government, he said, had been "downright feeble" in its exercise of his wife's diplomatic protection — a rarely used diplomatic device granted by the then-foreign secretary in 2019 that elevated her case to a "state to state issue."
"I think the approach the U.K. and other countries have adopted has helped us sleepwalk into a new Iran hostage crisis," he said. "A generation ago everyone could pretend this was just a U.S. problem. Not now — it's a global problem."
The British government maintained that it is working hard to get Zaghari-Ratcliffe home.
'I speak from experience'
European countries, including the U.K. and Germany, along with the U.S., all recently backed a Canadian initiative against arbitrary detention by states seeking to exercise diplomatic leverage.
However, human rights lawyer Jared Genser said, European governments tend to say little publicly about their citizens imprisoned in Iran, in contrast to the U.S.
Genser represents Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi, who was arrested in October 2015 and was later convicted along with his elderly father, Baquer Namazi, who was arrested in 2016 after he went to Iran to visit his son.
He has argued for Washington to work with European allies to present a united front, demanding that Tehran release those held arbitrarily as a condition for any concessions or sanctions relief.
"Imagine the impact if all those governments all got together and simply said, 'We're not going to discuss or negotiate anything with you until you release our citizens,'" Genser said. "It's never happened before, and it would attract enormous attention."
Babak Namazi, brother of Siamak Namazi, said it is crucial that his loved ones are released before sanctions are lifted, or else Iran will no longer have an incentive to set them free.
Namazi said he has been burned before.
He said Obama administration officials reassured him that the then-new nuclear agreement would enable a diplomatic dialogue between Tehran and Washington that would eventually help secure his brother's release.
Today, Siamak Namazi has been behind bars for over 2,000 days.
Their father was released on medical furlough in 2018, and then, a year and two months ago, Iranian authorities informed him that his sentence had been commuted and his case had been closed, Namazi said. Later, in May, he was told that he was banned from leaving the country, Namazi said.
"Giving the carrot first and then hoping Iran will release my family did not work," Namazi said.
"I speak from experience. I've gone through that process."