'Caught in a political game': British journalist reveals 7-week Iran detention

'Caught in a political game': British journalist reveals 7-week Iran detention
Economist correspondent Nicolas Pelham says he was held in Tehran for seven weeks in 2019 amid soaring tensions in the region.
3 min read
30 January, 2020
At least 11 journalists are currently imprisoned in Iran [The Economist]
A senior journalist with The Economist revealed in an article published on Wednesday that he was held for seven weeks in Iran last summer despite holding a valid press visa.

Nicolas Pelham, The Economist's Middle East correspondent, said he travelled to the country in July last year after being granted a journalist visa but was then detained as he was checking out of his Tehran hotel before his flight home.

In an article for The Economist's lifestyle magazine 1843, Pelham said he had initially been held under arrest by guards but then allowed to live in an upscale Tehran hotel and even roam around the city.

His British passport was eventually returned in September and he was allowed to leave the country and return to London.

Pelham suggested in his article that his detention was part of a high-stakes powerplay within the Iranian regime at a time when tensions were soaring between Tehran and London over the impounding of oil tankers.

He said his captors were from the elite Revolutionary Guards, which answers to the Islamic Republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"The government's own intelligence ministry would be unlikely to detain a Western journalist whose entry it had approved. My accusers were from its more powerful rival," Pelham wrote.

"I was caught in a political game involving high-seas tankers and international diplomacy that far exceeded my ability to influence it," he added.

Last year, Iran was accused by the US and several allies of committing a series of sabotage attacks on oil tankers and infrastructure in the Gulf, as well as shooting down a US drone.

As part of the crisis, Tehran seized a British-flagged tanker in response to the UK Navy impounding an Iranian vessel off the coast of Gibraltar. The Iranian tanker was suspected of ferrying oil to Syria in violation of international sanctions, which it was later pictured doing in satellite imagery after being released.

Iran is still holding numerous Westerners in prison, in what Western governments argue amounts to hostage-taking but Tehran insists is the result of due legal process. Many of those held captive are also Iranian nationals, such as British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who is serving a five-year jail term.

Asked for further comment by AFP, Pelham said in emailed remarks that he still did not understand what behind-the-scenes political moves had been behind his detention.

"You'll have to ask the Iranians," he said.

"It seems clear that they were not all on the same page. Many recognise the damage holding foreign nationals does to their foreign relations," he added.

Asked if he had drawn any final conclusion about his experience, Pelham said: "In future I would be wary of travelling alone to Iran."

In 2014, Iranian authorities arrested Jason Razaian, then-Iran correspondent for The Washington Post, and his wife, Iranian journalist Yeganeh Salehi. 

Razaian was later sentenced on espionage charges. He was released in 2016 after almost two years in captivity. The journalist's release came as part of a prison exchange instigated by the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

At least 11 journalists are currently imprisoned in Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Reporters Without Borders (RSF) last year condemned Tehran for pressuring and even detaining the family members of critical journalists.

RSF has noted at least 25 cases of pressure exerted on the Iran-based families of critical journalists living abroad. In September last year, for example, the brother and former sister-in-law of self-exiled journalist Masih Alinejad were arrested by authorities in Tehran.

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