March 14, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iran Announces New Charges Against Iranian-American

March 14, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iran Announces New Charges Against Iranian-American

Iran recently brought new charges against an Iranian-American and his Iranian wife, accusing them of hosting parties in Tehran. The move represents a direct challenge to the Trump administration, which haspledged to secure the release of Iranian-Americans incarcerated in the regime’s notorious prisons.

Though Iran has not identified the names of the defendants, a statement from the prosecution suggests that the regime has targeted Karam Vafadari and Afarin Niasari, who previously ran an art gallery in Tehran that often hosted foreign diplomats. Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, Tehran’s prosecutor-general, accused the couple of serving alcohol, exhibiting and selling “obscene images” at their gallery, and encouraging “corruption and debauchery by holding mixed parties.”

Vafadari is Zoroastrianism. Though Iran formally recognizes Zoroastrianism as a protected minority religion, its adherents have long faced persecution by the regime. Niasari, for her part, is Muslim. 

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) first arrested Vafadari and Niasari last July on multiple trumped-up charges, including espionage. According to Vafadari’s sister, Kateh, Tehran denied them due process, subjected them to solitary confinement, and confiscated many pieces of their artwork and destroyed others. In August, Dolatabadi called the couple “enemies of the Revolution.” 

The new charges mark the latest development in Iran’s efforts to intimidate dual citizens as part of a larger campaign to advance its Islamist values. At least six Iranian-Americans, as well as multiple other dual nationals, currently languish in Iranian jails. As a matter of policy, Tehran refuses to recognize the concept of dual citizenship, and often regards dual nationals as defectors who threaten Iran both physically and spiritually. 

The regime’s incarcerations thus serve distinct political and ideological purposes. First, under the Obama administration, Tehran sought to demonstrate that the 2015 nuclear deal would not prefigure a broader rapprochement between it and the West. Today, Iran seeks to convey the message that the Trump administration, notwithstanding its recent warning putting Iran “on notice,” cannot deter its aggression against the West.

Second, Tehran aims to stymie the infiltration of Western influence and values in Iran. Tehran likely views Vafadari and Niasari’s artistic pursuits as an act of cultural subversion that jeopardizes its revolutionary ideals. By targeting the couple as well as other dual nationals, the regime discourages travel to and from Iran, and demoralizes moderate Iranians who oppose its Islamist rule.

Third, despite its frequent claims of religious tolerance, Tehran wishes to emphasize that its own religious minorities constitute second-class citizens who must subordinate their convictions to the imperatives of Shiite Islamist governance. In this sense, the regime likely perceives Niasari’s marriage to a Zoroastrian as a betrayal of the spiritual worldview it endeavors to promulgate.

President Trump should make clear that he will not be intimidated by Iran’s persecution of dual nationals. Instead, he should designate the IRGC, which spearheads the regime’s domestic repression, as a terrorist organization. He should then increase designations of IRGC actors who support human rights abuses. Troublingly, Washington has not designated any Iranians for human rights abuses since 2014, when it sanctioned just two entities and one individual. By contrast, between 2009 and 2013, the United States designated 34 entities and individuals.

Only by increasing the costs for Iran’s misbehavior can America deter the regime from engaging in further aggression against American citizens – and send Tehran a message that Washington will no longer turn a blind eye to its revolutionary ambitions.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn


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