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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 have links to the UK. At least 40 foreign and dual nationals were also reportedly arrested during the protests in Iran that followed the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022.

This research briefing details the known British-Iranians detained in Iran, some recent releases of detainees, and debates and assessments of how the UK Government can best support detainees and secure their release.  

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, Europe, and North America. They argue detainees may be being used as “hostages” for negotiations on reviving a nuclear deal with Iran to limit its nuclear programme (these talks have stalled since 2022).

A number of dual and foreign nationals were also arrested in Iran in the wake of the protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022. The Iranian Government 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 last Shah of Iran but cancelled by the UK in response to his overthrow in the Iranian revolution of 1979.

The UK Government had long accepted liability for the debt, and came to an agreement to repay it in 2022. The UK has released the funds to be used for humanitarian purposes only, though the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has expressed concern over the delay in arranging repayment and the lack of controls on how Iran will spend the funds.

The UK Government argues the repayment was a separate issue to the detention of dual nationals and also rejects any link between detainees and the nuclear talks. The settlement of the debt was announced alongside the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh 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 2023, the Foreign Affairs Committee published its report on state-level hostage situations. It argued the UK Government should strengthen deterrence through applying sanctions against those involved in detention, and to employ “the strongest possible language to call out situations of state hostage taking.” The Government said it would continue to work to secure the release of detainees but rejected several committee recommendations, including the establishment of a separate Director to manage these cases.

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, and argues 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. Many of those released 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. The UK also condemned the execution of Swedish-Iranian Habib Chaab in May 2023.

Update log

January 2023: Execution of Alireza Akbari and international response.

May 2023: Added Foreign Affairs Committee report on detained dual nationals.

September 2023: Added Government response to Committee report (section 7.2) and release of Morad Tahbaz.

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