Michael White, 46, went to Iran with a U.S. passport that held a valid Iranian tourist visa in it. He had visited and left the country multiple times in recent months. As a former long-term resident of Iran who hosted multiple American guests during years, I can say with high confidence that the Iranian government conducts elaborate background checks on all applicants from the United States. Anyone who is granted entry will find that their visits are heavily scrutinized, making it extremely hard to run afoul of the law.
But White disappeared in July. His mother in Southern California filed a missing person’s report. Nothing has been heard from him since. The State Department is aware that he’s in prison and says that it is working the usual channels for release. Unfortunately, though, since President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran last May – while at least six other U.S. persons remain in prison there or unaccounted for – nearly all diplomatic contact between Washington and Tehran has been cut.
Iran has a long record of detaining foreign nationals. In most cases it turns out that the lone offense committed by those detained is that they hold a non-Iranian passport – meaning that their home country may give concessions to secure their release.
This is the stuff of pirates, terrorist groups – and the Islamic Republic of Iran, since its very inception. Hostage-taking has become a favorite Iranian method of exerting foreign policy pressure on countries – such as the United States – that show a commitment to the well-being of their citizens.
Iran has effectively admitted to taking White hostage.
Last week the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Bahram Ghasemi, announced White’s arrest. But he gave no mention of any charges or why White had not been able to contact his family for six months.
Ghasemi mentioned nothing about the status of the “case” against White, or whether he has received due process. It’s simply understood that such excessive Western concepts don’t apply to the regime in Iran’s twisted version of justice.
By now this is all very run-of-the-mill for Iran. Routine. Business as usual.
So too, though, are the propaganda efforts Tehran often resorts to in these cases, and this is the aspect of Iran’s hostage-taking that’s hardest to stomach. Not only are families ripped apart, often for years on end, but their falsely imprisoned loved ones also become the targets of Iran’s state broadcasters.
Last week they aired the most revolting one of these to date: a film about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe that included footage of her arrest.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an Iranian-British dual national who was separated from her child at the Tehran airport in April 2016 as they were set to return to London from a holiday visiting Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s parents in Tehran.
She’s been in prison for more than 1,000 days. She turned 40 in Evin prison. She hasn’t seen her husband, Richard, in all that time. Their daughter Gabriella – just a toddler at the time of her mother’s arrest on trumped-up charges that the charity worker somehow intended to topple the regime – is now 4 years old with no memory of living with either of her parents. She lives with her grandparents in Tehran and is allowed two short visits a week with her mother.
While the regime’s claims do little to convince anyone in the outside world of the supposed guilt of a particular hostage, inside Iran they destroy the lives of those people and their families living there. In a society where the fear of authorities has always loomed, the relatives of the detained become pariahs in their communities.
Denied adequate medical attention for potentially life-threatening conditions, and cut off from phone calls to her family, Zaghari-Ratcliffe is set to embark on a hunger strike this week. For a political prisoner, this is the ultimate act of defiance and desperation. No one should be put in that position, least of all the innocent mother of a small child.
But this is what Iran’s regime does again and again. Hostage-taking has been the most important factor in shaping the international perception of Iran, yet the authorities there have done little to try to change it. The message is clear: We have no problem singling out innocent people and destroying their lives to reach our goals.
Until the Iranian regime ends this treacherous practice once and for all, we must continue to do all that we can to shine a light on those wrongly imprisoned there. Without that exposure, there is little hope for their safe return.