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Quietly, Iran keeps taking hostages, exposing an internal rift

Thought models

In the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, wary hardliners want to maintain their influence. Taking hostages is their tried-and-true way of creating leverage.

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The strong working relationship between Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, seen here in Vienna, offers some hope for Iran's Iranian-American hostages.

Kevin Lamarque/AP/File

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When Iranian authorities this week confirmed the arrest of an Iranian-American from San Diego visiting his ailing mother in his country of birth, it rang familiar.

A father-and-son pair of Iranian-Americans have also been imprisoned in Iran for months, with little news of their detention leaking out. Journalist Jason Rezaian, also a dual national, was released in January as part of a prisoner swap as the Iran nuclear deal took effect.

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And that’s only the Americans. At least three other dual-national Westerners are being held, generally on unannounced charges, Iran experts say.    

Americans have been nabbed and held as pawns in Iran’s internal power struggles from the outset of the Iranian revolution nearly four decades ago. 

Now the targets of the most radical elements of Iran’s competing power blocs are increasingly Iranian-Americans and other dual nationals visiting Iran to see family or pursue academic interests. They are being ensnared in the upheaval and redistribution of power in the wake of last year’s nuclear deal, experts in United States-Iran relations say.

Iranian hardliners opposed to President Hassan Rouhani and his diplomatic opening to the US and the West are widely assumed to be behind the detentions – and would not appear to be easily persuaded to permit the detainees’ release. But at the same time, some Iran experts say they see a window of opportunity for some kind of prisoner deal before President Obama leaves office.

Given the strong relationship between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Sharif, they add, that window will almost certainly close when a new US president takes office and Iran moves into another election cycle next year.  

“This is all happening in the context of intense competition for power in a completely new political environment,” says Bijan Khajehpour, an exiled Iranian business consultant who was held in Iran’s Evin prison for three months after Iran’s disputed 2009 elections. “The message they are sending out” with these detentions is “you can’t ignore us, you cannot eliminate us from the power structure – and you have to deal with us.”

Last October, Iranian authorities arrested Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi. When Mr. Namazi’s father (and dual national) Baquer Namazi went to authorities to seek his son’s release, the elder Mr. Namazi was also imprisoned.  

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The factions behind the detention of Americans and other dual nationals are assumed to be tied to Iran’s most conservative elements, like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC controls Iran’s intelligence services and security apparatus – as well as a significant slice of the Iranian economy.

One explanation for the detentions is that they are a way to embarrass Mr. Rouhani and perhaps even to scuttle the nuclear deal by souring budding relations with Western powers, some Iran experts say. Hardliners know from experience that nabbing dual-national Americans off Iran’s streets is one way to sow trouble, says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Others say the detentions might also be aimed at extracting economic concessions, with some in Iran disappointed by the economic returns from the nuclear deal. Some powers in Iran could be using the detentions “to build up their leverage [while] waiting for something from [the US] side,” says Mr. Khajehpour, managing partner with the Atieh International consulting firm in Vienna.

One potential counter move by the US could be to take Iranian companies not affiliated with the IRGC off the blacklist – allowing US businesses to deal with them, Khajehpour says. If the IRGC sees itself losing out on economic benefits it could be enticed to cooperate – though such a deal would have to include a “snap-back” provision to reinstate companies’ blacklist status if other dual nationals are detained, he adds.

But the prospects for freeing Iran’s imprisoned dual nationals before Mr. Obama leaves office – not to mention ending the practice altogether – are not bright, says Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington.

“You have to put the likelihood at 50-50 at best,” he says. “The ability to align timing and interests, that’s completely up in the air.”

With the Iran-American community numbering about 1 million and with eased travel between the two countries, Mr. Marashi says that those favoring improved relations in both countries have an interest in finding a solution to the use of detention as a tool.

One certainty is that the new dynamic in post-nuclear-deal US-Iran relations calls for new approaches, Marashi says. “We need new thinking for how to get these [dual nationals] out and then to keep this from happening in the future.”