Foreign academics risk arrest in Iran
Tehran's new hostage policy

Political hostage takings are nothing new in Iran. But the detention of several western academics represents a new dimension. There are grounds for suspecting that hardliners in the judiciary, intelligence service and Revolutionary Guard Corps are intent on scuppering talks to salvage the nuclear accord. By Ulrich von Schwerin

Kylie Moore-Gilbert had been invited to attend an academic conference in Iran. She was arrested after remaining in the country for several days as a tourist. The British-Australian political scientist from the University of Melbourne had been conducting research into Shia opposition in the Gulf Emirate of Bahrain and published articles on the relationship between Arab Gulf states and Iran. The young academic has in the meantime been detained at Tehran's Evin prison for over a year. Unconfirmed reports say she has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for spying.

Also held at Evin is the U.S.-Chinese historian Xiyue Wang. The PhD student at Princeton University was researching Iranian archives for information on the administrative practices of the Qajars in the late 19th century and was also studying Persian at the Dekhoda Institute in Tehran when he was arrested in August 2016. In April 2017, the 38-year-old was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was refused an appeal.

Wang and Moore-Gilbert are not the only western academics incarcerated at the notorious Evin prison in the mountains north of Tehran. On 5 July, the French-Iranian anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah was also arrested as she conducted research into Iranian society. The very same day, her friend and colleague Roland Marchal arrived in Iran to visit her and was arrested upon arrival at the airport.

French-Iranian anthropologist Fariba Abdelkhah and her Sciences Po colleague Roland Marchal, both detained by Iran in July 2019 (photo: Sciences Po)
A new dimension to the hostage-taking: "an increase in cases has been observed affecting academics who are not dual nationals and in addition come from countries that are actually on good terms with Iran, such as France and Australia," says a German scholar of Islam who was in Iran to conduct research in September and who wishes to remain anonymous

Sixty year-old Adelkhah is a well-known expert on Shia Islam in Iran and Afghanistan and has researched extensively on the subject of women and young people in Iran. Her friend Marchal, who also works at the Centre de Recherches Internationales at the Sciences Po university in Paris, was however not working in Iran at all. His specialist subject is African civil wars and he was travelling to the country as a private individual. But this did not safeguard him against arrest.

Critical research tantamount to espionage

The Islamic Republic has always eyed western academics with mistrust. Just as in other autocratically-governed countries in the region where research and media are subject to stringent controls and censorship, critical research can quickly be interpreted as espionage. Western reporters and researchers face considerable restrictions when working in Iran, with many not even receiving a visa to enter the country in the first place.

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