Since the Islamic Revolution, many Iranians fled Iran and emigrated to countries where they could continue to enjoy the basic freedoms that were stolen from them by the oppressive regime. For many of them, Iran remains their home and family and they long for the chance to fly back, to visit their families and friends, to relive some of their cherished memories and to be a part of the economic boom that was meant to follow the nuclear deal. Other Iranians left Iran for the purpose of studying abroad but statistics show that 89% of Iranian doctoral students didn’t return after finishing their studies, increasing the growing level of the “brain-drain” raging in Iran.
Up until three years ago, most of these Iranians talked about revisiting their homeland only in theory knowing all too well that once they landed back in Tehran, the nightmares of the past would become painful realities of the present and the future. But then, Hassan Rouhani won the elections and in the spirit of moderateness, he called on all Iranians living abroad as immigrants or as dissidents, to come back to Iran without fears of repercussions form the regime – he called this their “incontrovertible right”. It’s estimated that there are 7 million Iranians living outside of Iran and that they manage assets worth $2 trillion – perhaps that’s why Rouhani called them “assets” and he ordered the embassies to facilitate procedures for them to visit Iran.
Some Iranians must have been overjoyed by Rouhani’s statements because they boarded planes and flew out to Tehran. They didn’t listen to Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, the Spokesperson for the Iranian Judiciary who unequivocally stated that “we do not ban people from entering the country or say they do not have the right to enter the country… but when they enter they will be charged and prosecuted“. For most, the decision to visit was rewarded with a nostalgic holiday and more wonderful memories and some even decided to move back to Iran. But for some, listening to Rouhani led them straight to arrests, interrogations and jail time, away from their work, friends and families back home in the West.
Their stories should be heard by the Iranian diaspora as a warning that Iran may be on the path of returning to the global community following the signing of the JCPoA, but the regime there remains antagonistic to anyone who criticizes it in the past, present or near future.
Returning Back to Jail
- Serajeddin Mirdamadi: Mirdamadi left Iran in 2009 and emigrated to France where he received his MA in communications and worked as a journalist for Radio Zamaneh and BBC Persian. He also happens to be a close relative of Khamenei and his family is extremely well-connected politically. He returned to Iran in June 2013, following Rouhani’s victory and was arrested in May 2014. In July, he was sentenced to six years in jail for “propaganda against the state” and “conspiracy against national security”.
- Esmail Gerami Moghadam: Moghadam, a senior adviser to Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi, fled Iran in 2009 to India and Malaysia. He is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war in which he lost 95% of his eye-sight. He too returned to Iran in 2015 only to be arrested at the airport and within three months to 6 years in jail for “collusion against the state” and “propaganda against the state”.
- Hossein Nouraninejad: Nouraninejad is a journalist who left Iran in 2010 and moved to Australia. In 2014, he returned to Iran to be with his wife who wanted to give birth in Iran and was subsequently arrested and after spending nearly a year in jail, he was convicted in 2015 to serve one year in jail for “propaganda against the state”.
- Saeed Razavi Faghih: Faghih is a journalist who was imprisoned following his writing articles in support of the Green Movement in 2009. He travelled to France and returned to Iran in 2011 only to be arrested and to have his passport confiscated. He remained in Iran and was then arrested again in 2014 and sentenced to a year in jail for “propaganda against the state”. As he finished his sentence, the judiciary added, out of the blue, a sentence of three and half more years for “insulting the Leader and the Assembly of Experts”. He remains in prison in poor health to this day.
- Mostafa Azizi: Azizi is a filmmaker who fled Iran in 2008 and moved to Canada. He returned to visit Iran in 2015, thinking of moving back, and was immediately arrested. After languishing six months in jail, he was finally sentenced to eight years in jail for “acting against national security”, “insulting the Supreme Leader” and “propaganda against the state”. He suffers from a serious and painful skin disorder which is not being treated while in jail.
- Sajedeh Arabsorkhi: Arabsorkhi is an Iranian journalist who fled Iran to live in France. In 2013, she returned to Iran to visit her ailing father and was arrested for “propaganda against the state” and sentenced to one year in jail. She has since been released after fulfilling her time in jail.
- Kazem Barjesteh: Barjesteh was an activist who fled Iran following the 2009 elections. In 2013, he travelled to Tehran and was arrested at the airport. He was charged with “assembly and collusion with intent to act against national security” and sentenced to five years in prison where he remains to this date.
- Hamid Babaei: Babaei was smart enough to receive a scholarship for his PhD in University of Liege in Belgium in 2009. In 2013, he returned home on a visit and was picked up by Iranian Intelligence officials who demanded that he divulge information regarding Iranians in Belgium. After refusing to do so, Babaei was charged with “communicating with hostile foreign governments and spying” and was sentenced to six years in jail. Babaei was not allowed contact with his lawyer and his trial lasted only ten minutes.
- Masoumeh Gholizadeh: Gholizadeh is former student activist who moved to Turkey to continue her She visited Iran in 2014 and was immediately arrested. She was sentenced to ten months in jail for “propaganda against the regime”.
- Siamak Namazi: Namazi is an American-Iranian businessman who went to Iran to visit family in October 2015. He was arrested for unknown charges and rumors abounded that the Iranian regime wanted to charge him for being a spy. His 80 year old father, Bacquer Namazi, flew out to Iran to try to free his son only to be sent to jail as well. Both father and son remain in jail to this date without even being tried or formally convicted.
- Jason Rezaian: Probably the highest profile example of foreign Iranians sent to jail, Rezaian is an international American Iranian journalist who was arrested, with his wife, in Iran in 2014. After more than nine months in jail, the charges against him were finally shared with the world and they included “espionage” and “propaganda against the state”. He remained in jail until January 2016 when he was released as part of a prisoner swap following the implementation of the JCPoA.
Most of these prisoners underwent bogus trials in which they had limited access to their lawyers and families and most suffered humiliations and didn’t receive proper medical treatment while in jail. There are probably many more examples but these should suffice: Iranians living abroad should be aware that returning to Iran may be a great idea in theory but could lead them to jail.
Waiting to Return
Other Iranians are being much more cautious and are waiting for more positive signs from Tehran before they fly out to visit. They are homesick for their country, they miss their families and they want to develop careers in Iran but they don’t want to end up in jail. It’s worth watching this movie which highlights the dilemma of a few prominent Iranian artists (Nikzad Nojoomi and Melody Safavi), and journalists (Masih Alinejad and Roozbeh Mirebrahimi) living abroad:
Furthermore, Western businesses who want to capitalize on the potential of the Iranian economy post-JCPoA are finding it hard to convince Iranians living in the West to return back to Iran to help establish their businesses there. These people can easily earn $15,000 a month working in Iran – local Iranians would earn only $5,000 a month for the same job. These Westernized Iranians understand fully the potential of moving to Iran as far as money is concerned but they are weary of losing their freedom.