By Pooya Stone
It was reported on Wednesday that Iran’s Guardian Council had approved legislation that would allow children to become Iranian citizens if they have been born to an Iranian mother and a father with another nationality.
The decision was welcomed in some circles as an improvement on at least one small aspect of the Iranian regime’s wide-ranging gender discrimination. But the conditions for the law’s approval underscored the regime’s persistent paranoia regarding foreign identities and “infiltration.” And the law itself could have implications for what has been recognized as an accelerating trend of hostage-taking involving dual nationals.
A version of the law in question was passed four months earlier, but as with all legislation in the Islamic Republic it was then passed onto the Guardian Council, a body half-comprised of clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and tasked with making sure that all new laws reflect his will and the regime’s hardline interpretation of Islam. In June, the Council rejected the expanded citizenship rules on security grounds, leading to parliamentary revisions that provided the Intelligence Ministry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with the authority to approve or reject applications on the basis of any information uncovered about non-citizen fathers.
It was this revised version of the law that was announced to the public on Wednesday. It now remains to be seen how the law will be implemented. In theory, any foreign affiliations or minority identities could be used as grounds for the Intelligence Ministry or the IRGC to declare an applicant’s father a security risk. But the greater risk may entail those authorities providing approval, only to assert sole legal authority in cases involving children who have been granted citizenship.
The Guardian Council’s successful demand for revisions has not prevented women’s rights and human rights activists from embracing this new law as a long-overdue answer to complaints about discrimination. But that modest triumph does little to distract from the activism surrounding even more pervasive abuses by the Iranian judiciary and the clerical regime. Among these issues are the denial of due process to all manner of accused criminals, and the denial of consular assistance to those who hold citizenship in other countries.
Iran famously does not recognize the legitimacy of dual citizenship, and this fact has been repeated frequently in recent years as authorities such as the IRGC continued the practice of accusing people of espionage on the basis of little more than their connections with “hostile states” like the US and Britain. Whenever a person who is arrested on this basis holds citizenship in Iran and another country, the Iranian authorities have rejected all efforts by that other government to intervene on the arrestee’s behalf. In Tehran’s view, legal matters involving Iranian citizens are purely domestic matters, regardless of any foreign affiliation.
The new law concerning the children of parents with different nationalities could allow those same authorities to apply this concept to people who might otherwise have had a legitimate claim to foreign consular assistance under Iranian law. To cite one very prominent example, the daughter of the Iranian-British political prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe would never have been considered an Iranian citizen under the old law, given that her father is solely a British citizen. As such, Tehran would arguably recognize her as the responsibility of the British government, even if she was never permitted to leave the Islamic Republic.
As it stands, the new law is unlikely to have any impact on Gabriella Ratcliffe in particular. Apart from the fact that citizenship is to be granted to the children of mixed parents only after an application has been made, it has recently been reported that Gabriella is finally expected to leave Iran for the first time since her passport was seized at the time of her mother’s arrest in April 2016. Now five years old, the child, is scheduled to begin attending kindergarten in the United Kingdom, and her pending relocation prompted Nazanin to write an open letter pleading for the judiciary to allow mother and daughter to be reunited.
Though it remains to be seen how the authorities respond to that letter, the outlook does not look good for Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe in light of how she and her daughter have been treated over the past three years. Widely regarded as one of several Western national being held by Iran as a form of leverage over Western governments, the 40-year-old charity worker has been subjected to regular mistreatment and extrajudicial punishment including the denial of access to medical care. And early reports of her detention indicated that authorities used her daughter as a tool of psychological torture, as by stating that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband planned to take the little girl away while leaving his wife behind.
More recently, officials at Evin Prison dramatically reduced the frequency of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s visits with her daughter, apparently in retaliation for a hunger strike that she had undertaken to draw attention to her plight.
To whatever extent the new citizenship laws might be used to assert greater legal authority over the children of dual and foreign nationals, that authority might also be leveraged as a form of pressure on foreign relatives of those children who are considered to be threats to the clerical regime.