Anxious families await end to Iran "hostage" ordeal
Mixing hope with fears of more disappointment, families of Western nationals held in Iran are anxiously following intense diplomatic contacts and recent rumours for signs their loved ones could be allowed home.
Iran is holding over a dozen Western nationals – almost all of whom also hold Iranian passports – in prison or house arrest on charges their families say are absurd and in what activists say is a brazen act of hostage-taking to extract concessions.
Frustration has mounted among families over the failure of Western governments to bring home their loved ones, many of whom have spent several years behind bars and have been exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic in detention.
Iran's female political prisoners
Iran is holding numerous women in jail on political charges. They include human rights activists, journalists, artists and simply engaged citizens. By Shabnam von Hein
Bahareh Hedayat: A women's rights activist and prominent figure in the student movement in Iran. In 2010, shortly before her wedding, she was arrested and ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison. She was head of an organisation fighting for political reforms and against human rights violations
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: An employee of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, she has been in jail since April, 2016. She has both British and Iranian citizenship, and wanted to visit family in Iran with her two-year-old daughter. She is accused of participating in efforts "to cause the soft toppling of the Islamic Republic." Her foundation, which educates journalists worldwide, has called the allegations groundless
Zahra Rahnavard: Wife of opposition politician Mir Hossein Mousavi, she is perhaps the most well-known of Iran's female political prisoners. After the disputed presidential elections in 2009, she backed her husband. The sculptor and academic has been under house arrest with her husband since February 2011 without charges
Narges Mohammadi: A human rights activist, she was sentenced to 16 years in prison in May 2016, although her work is seen as peaceful. At the end of June, she began a hunger strike after authorities restricted telephone contact with her young son and daughter. After 20 days on hunger strike, she was granted permission to speak once a week with her children
Homa Hoodfar: The Canadan-Irish-Iranian anthropologist has been jailed at Tehran's Evin Prison since 6 June 2016. The renowned academic was arrested during a private visit to Iran. She had planned to research women in Iranian politics. She was accused of creating security problems in the Islamic Republic by taking part in feminist activities
Reyhaneh Tabatabaei: The political journalist has been arrested many times, most recently in January 2016. Reyhaneh Tabatabaei was accused of "propaganda against the state." She supported reform activists. Tabatabaei was sentenced to a year in prison and was handed a two-year employment ban. The Revolutionary Court also prohibited her from participating in any political activities for two years
Fariba Kamalabadi: After eight years behind bars, Fariba Kamalabadi (third from right) was granted temporary release in May. Until 2008, she was one of Iran's leading Baha'i figures. She was sentenced to 20 years for her religious beliefs. While on release she visited Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. Several grand ayatollahs denounced the visit as a "betrayal of Islam"
Iran has always expressed willingness to swap the prisoners for Iranians it believes are wrongfully held in the West. The resumption of talks between world powers in Vienna on Tehran's nuclear programme prompted activists to urge the linking of the two issues.
"We have come to learn to take every day as it comes. We cannot look too far ahead. Things like rumours give us some hope but we have learned not to be too hopeful," said Elika Ashoori, whose 67-year-old-father, Anoosheh, a British citizen, has been held in Iran since 2017.
She said unconfirmed talk of possible deals and swaps are a source of anxiety not only for the family but also her father, who is able to follow news developments while in Tehran's Evin prison.
"It is a mind game that is not pleasant for us and especially for him," she said.
Ashoori said her father has complained of symptoms of COVID-19 during a recent phone call with the family.
"You wake up every day with this dread of thinking what am I going to see (in the news) today."
Those held in similar situations include at least three other Britons and four Americans, as well as two Germans, two French, two Swedes and two Austrians, according to families who have spoken to journalists.
Among the Britons is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose family has linked her plight to a British debt of £400 million ($550 million, 460 million euros) for army tanks paid for by the shah of Iran in the 1970s.
Germany's Nahid Taghavi, 66, has now been held in prison for 200 days and is in a "very bad condition" after being moved back to solitary confinement last month, according to her daughter Mariam Claren.
"The limbo is very difficult for her and for us," Claren told journalists, saying that as well as being alone, her mother was only exposed to daylight for half an hour a day and did not even have a pillow to sleep on.
"Our people are suffering under torture. I try not to think too much about Vienna. I try to protect myself," she said, expressing fear that talks over prisoners could become a "game" for both sides.
Germany, France and the UK are the European powers negotiating over the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which former U.S. president Donald Trump walked out of but his successor Joe Biden is keen to re-enter if Tehran meets certain conditions.
"There are active negotiations underway in Vienna, through the Europeans, about striking a deal on a prisoners' exchange in both ways," a person familiar with the status of the negotiations told journalists, asking not to be named and emphasising that "no deal" had been reached.
The United States has had no diplomatic relations with Tehran since the hostage-taking of U.S. embassy staff in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The talks in Vienna are taking place with the Europeans as intermediaries.
"I have no higher priority than bringing arbitrarily detained Americans - American hostages - home to the United States," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
The U.S. denied a report on Iranian television over the weekend that Washington had agreed to release $7 billion in frozen Iranian funds and free four Iranians in exchange for the release of four Americans.
Speculation of swaps was also heightened by news from Belgium that a 20-year prison sentence for diplomat Assadollah Assadi for plotting to bomb an opposition rally outside Paris was confirmed after he dropped plans to appeal.
Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, said the U.S. and EU had to show a "united front" and prioritise winning the release of the detainees "in tandem" with the nuclear talks.
"Failure to effectively address Iran's hostage-taking green lights the practice and leaves other dual nationals at risk of being nabbed to be used as political pawns," he said.
For Elika Ashoori, whose retired engineer father was given a 10-year sentence for spying that the family regards as absurd, the only option is to carry on campaigning every day for his release.
"This is how we keep sane. It helps us channel our frustration. This is the only thing that gives us hope," she said. "If there are any deals made, my role is to make sure my dad is included."
Nahid Taghavi's daughter Mariam Claren added: "From the day my mum was arrested I decided not to rely on miracles. I will do my thing and carry on with our campaign." (AFP)