Benjamin Briere is a French tourist who was arrested last May while visiting Iran with his drone and minivan. Still detained, he was charged with espionage and “spreading propaganda against the system.” His lawyers deny the charges.
If found guilty, he could be sentenced to death.
Briere’s case is the latest in a series against foreigners at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Iran’s nuclear activities.
Bernard Hourcade is a geographer and Iran specialist.
He thinks that the cases against this French tourist and the 2019 arrest of the French Iranian academic, Fariba Adelkhah, are separate issues which would have no impact on the JCPOA talks or other negotiations between the two countries.
France, along with Britain, Germany and the European Union, are trying to bring the United States and Iran to the table for informal talks as a first step toward reviving Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal — also known as JCPOA — which lifted international sanctions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program.
However, tensions are growing over Teheran’s nuclear activities, and U.S Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last month said Iran is “heading in the wrong direction.”
Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Foreign minister, echoed those concerns.
Le Drian recently told a French Senate hearing that Iran’s nuclear activities were developing in violation of the Vienna agreement. The minister also added that Iran conducted attacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia to destabilize those countries. So, it is crucial to start de-escalation to ease tensions, he added.
A source with the French Foreign ministry told VOA the French government has been in regular contact with Briere. But French officials have stuck to their regular strategy of maintaining discretion when dealing with Iran in order to increase the chances of obtaining the release of their citizens.
Analysts point to Iranian leaders’ history of using hostages to get what they want.
Mohammad Reza Djalili is an honorary professor of international relations at the Geneva Graduate Institute.
He describes the hostage situation in the U.S Embassy in Teheran in 1979 as the founding act for Iranian Islamic diplomacy. Djalili presents an Iranian policy to take Western hostages as a diplomatic weapon to release their own pro-regime citizens sentenced in France, Belgium and other countries. Iran seems very interested in dual citizens to gain leverage, according to Djalili.
The most recent high-profile releases of foreign prisoners in Iran — of American Xiyue Wang in December 2019, American Michael White in March 2020 and Frenchman Roland Marchal, also in March — were all accompanied by the release of Iranians held abroad on sanctions-busting charges.
The case highlights for Western countries the complexity of dealing with Iran. Analysts say European countries appear to have less leverage than the United States does.
Hourcade said France has tried several times to bring together Iran and the United States and resume talks, but overall France and Europe are weak partners if neither Washington nor Teheran has the political will to act. Therefore, Europeans are waiting to see how the situation will evolve.
The presidential election is scheduled for June 18 in Iran and many observers believe that no major negotiations could resume before the poll.