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Iran detains an unknown number of foreign and dual nationals, mostly on charges of espionage. Many of those detained have sought to avoid publicity for their cases, in fear this will jeopardise negotiations for their release.

Research published in 2022 suggests at least 66 foreign and dual nationals have been detained by Iran since 2010—15 with links to the UK. Those detained include the British-Iranians Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, who were released in March 2022. Morad Tahbaz, an American-Iranian national who also holds British citizenship, remains in Iran, as does British-Iranian Mehran Raoof. Alireza Akbar, an Iranian-British dual national, was executed by Iran in January 2023.

This briefing details the known British-Iranians detained in Iran, some recent successes in arranging their release by the UK and other countries, and the tools available to the UK Government to help those detained.  

Allegations of arbitrary detention

The NGO Human Rights Watch has argued that since 2014 there has been a growing practice of “politically motivated arrests” against dual nationals in Iran. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled that many dual nationals have been arbitrarily detained, while the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran has expressed “serious concern” about the use of espionage charges against such individuals.

Are dual nationals part of a wider power play?

Campaigners have linked the detention of dual nationals to geopolitical tensions between Iran and European and North American countries. They argue they may be being used as “hostages” for negotiations on reviving a nuclear deal with Iran to limit its nuclear programme.

A number of dual and foreign nationals have also been arrested in Iran in the wake of the protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022. The Iranian regime has blamed outside intervention for the protests.

Critics of the UK Government also argued a £394 million debt owed by the UK to Iran for undelivered armoured vehicles and tanks was part of the reason for the detention of UK-Iranian dual nationals. The equipment was ordered by the Shah but cancelled by the UK in response to his overthrow in the Iranian revolution of 1979.

The UK Government long accepted liability for the debt, and came to an agreement to repay the debt in 2022. The funds will be used for humanitarian purposes only. The Government argues this was a separate issue to the detention of British-Iranian dual nationals and also rejects any link between detainees and the nuclear talks. The settlement of the debt was announced alongside the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori in March 2022.

What tools can be used to help detainees?

Iran does not recognise dual nationality for Iranians. This means that if dual nationals are detained, its government will not grant consular access to foreign officials to visit them in detention or attend their trials. However, foreign governments have raised such detentions with the Iranian authorities. They have also sought to develop an international coalition against states that arbitrarily detain dual and foreign nationals.

In 2022, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee announced an inquiry into state-level hostage situations. This will consider the challenges the Government faces in such situations and what can be learnt from successful negotiations for the release of dual nationals.

Known dual nationals detained and released

Brian Jenkins from the think-tank, the RAND Corporation, has noted since May 2011 there has always been at least one known British national detained by Iran, arguing that Iran is conducting a form of “coercive diplomacy.”

Several foreign and dual nationals have been released, including British-Iranians. In the case of Australia, the United States, Germany and France, these are believed to primarily be the result of prisoner deals, where Iranians detained in other countries are released in return. Many of those released have been individuals who do not hold Iranian nationality. For the UK:

In January 2023, Iran executed Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national, on charges of spying (which he denied). The UK condemned the execution and imposed sanctions on Iran’s prosecutor general in response.

Update log

January 2023: Execution of Alireza Akbari and international response.

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