Iran TV videos target 2 detainees accused of espionage
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian state television aired videos Sunday targeting a Briton and an American serving time on espionage charges, likely trying to pressure the U.S. and Britain as London considers making a $530 million payment to Tehran.
The case of Iranian-British national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has gained momentum in recent weeks as British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson faces tremendous criticism at home over his handling of it.
Meanwhile, state television aired footage of an emotional Chinese-American national Xiyue Wang as U.S. President Donald Trump continues his hard line against Tehran and its nuclear deal with world powers.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, already serving a five-year prison sentence for allegedly planning the “soft toppling” of Iran’s government while traveling there with her toddler daughter, faces new charges that could add 16 years to her prison term.
On Thursday, Iranian state television aired a seven-minute special report on Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It included close-ups of an April 2010 pay stub from her previous employer, the BBC World Service Trust.
It also included an email from June 2010 in which she wrote about the “ZigZag Academy,” a BBC World Service Trust project in which the trust trained “young aspiring journalists from Iran and Afghanistan through a secure online platform.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe left the BBC in 2011 and then joined the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency. Both her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and Thomson Reuters repeatedly have stressed she was not training journalists or involved in any work regarding Iran while there.
The state television report comes as the British foreign minister faces criticism after he told a parliamentary committee that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “teaching people journalism” when she was arrested last year. Though Johnson later corrected himself, the Iranian television report made a point to highlight them.
Speaking to The Associated Press on Sunday, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband said the report and other Iranian comments about his wife seemed timed to exert as much pressure as possible on the British government. He said the material appeared to be from his wife’s email, which investigators from the hard-line Revolutionary Guard immediately got access to after her arrest.
“It’s trying to justify the new charges,” Ratcliffe said.
The report comes as Britain and Iran discuss the release of some 400 million pounds held by London, a payment Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered. The shah abandoned the throne in 1979 and the Islamic Revolution soon installed the clerically overseen system that endures today.
Authorities in London and Tehran deny that the payment has any link to Zaghari-Ratcliffe. However, a prisoner exchange in January 2016 that freed Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and three other Iranian-Americans also saw the United States make a $400 million cash delivery to Iran the same day. That money too involved undelivered military equipment from the shah’s era, though some U.S. politicians have criticized the delivery as a ransom payment.
Late Sunday, Iranian state TV aired a feature focused on Wang, a Chinese-born American graduate student at Princeton who is accused of passing confidential information about Iran to the U.S. State Department. He was arrested while conducting research on the Qajar dynasty that once ruled Iran for his doctorate in late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history, according to Princeton officials, who confirmed to the AP that he was in Iran to learn Farsi and conduct research for his dissertation.
Authorities have alleged he scanned some 4,500 pages of digital documents, paid thousands of dollars to access archives he needed and sought access to confidential areas of Tehran libraries. State TV aired footage of him in what appeared to be an Iranian courtroom, those around him blurred out, as well as footage of him emotional and later talking to a camera, as well as an image of his Iranian visa and a school ID.
“About Iran in that regard, the more knowledge the United States possesses about Iran, the better for its policy toward Iran,” he said in the footage. “There is no doubt about it. It is quite obvious.”
Wang was arrested on Aug. 8, 2016. Princeton, his wife and others had been quietly working toward his release when Iran publicly announced his prison sentence in July.
Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, told The Associated Press on Sunday that she hasn’t spoken with the U.S. State Department about the video but she’s reiterating the allegations against her husband are untrue. Qu notes the video’s airing come just before the mid-December deadline for Congress to decide whether economic sanctions lifted under the Iran nuclear accord should be re-imposed.
Analysts and family members of those detained in Iran have suggested that hard-liners in the Islamic Republic’s security agencies use the prisoners as bargaining chips for money or influence. A U.N. panel in September described “an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals” in Iran.
Others with ties to the West detained in Iran include Iranian-Canadian national Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani, a member of Iran’s 2015 nuclear negotiating team, is believed to be serving a five-year prison sentence on espionage charges.
Iranian businessman Siamak Namazi and his 81-year-old father Baquer, a former UNICEF representative who served as governor of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province under the U.S.-backed shah, are both serving 10-year prison sentences on espionage.
Iranian-American Robin Shahini was released on bail last year after staging a hunger strike while serving an 18-year prison sentence for “collaboration with a hostile government.” Shahini is believed to still be in Iran.
Also in an Iranian prison is Nizar Zakka, a U.S. permanent resident from Lebanon who advocates for internet freedom and has done work for the U.S. government. He was sentenced to 10 years last year on espionage-related charges.
In addition, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing.
Bruce Shipkowski in New Jersey contributed to this report.