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EU official from Sweden has been detained in Iran for over 500 days

A Swedish national working for the European Union’s diplomatic corps has been detained in Iran for more than 500 days, making him a key negotiating tool for Tehran, which is trying to wring concessions from the West.

The arrest, which has been kept secret by Swedish and European authorities for over a year, appears to be part of a widening pattern of what has come to be known as Iran’s “hostage diplomacy”.

Tehran has opportunistically seized Iranian nationals and foreigners under false accusations to trade them for Iranians held in Europe or the United States or to use them as leverage to extort money and other concessions.

Last month, the United States struck a deal with Iran to release five Americans held there in exchange for $6 billion in withheld Iranian oil proceeds and release Iranian prisoners in America.

However, this latest case, the details of which have not been reported, is characterized by the prisoner’s professional background as a European civil servant. The man, Johan Floderus, 33, a native of Sweden, has held various positions in the institutions of the European Union and completed a civil service trainee program there. He was even featured in an advertising campaign to attract young Swedes to careers in the European Union.

Mr Floderus visited Iran last spring on a private tourist trip described by people familiar with the case, along with several Swedish friends. As he was preparing for his flight from Tehran on April 17, 2022, he was arrested at the airport.

In July last year, the Iranian government released a statement announcing that it had arrested a Swedish citizen for espionage. He is currently being held in the notorious Evin prison in the Iranian capital.

The New York Times spoke to six people who knew the case firsthand. All asked for anonymity, fearing backlash if they spoke out. They denied that Mr Floderus was involved in espionage.

Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said it would not comment on the details of the case, citing the need for secrecy. “A Swedish citizen – a man in his 30s – was arrested in Iran in April 2022,” read an email from Iran’s press department. “The Foreign Ministry and the Swedish Embassy in Tehran are working intensively on the case.”

“We understand that there is interest in this matter, but we believe it would make the case more difficult to deal with if the ministry were to discuss its actions publicly,” she added.

Mr. Floderus last worked as an advisor to EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson from 2019. In 2021 he joined the European External Action Service, the Union’s diplomatic corps.

He had previously visited Iran without incident while working for the Union’s development program on official EU business, people familiar with his background said.

The Iranian statement announcing the arrest of a Swedish citizen in 2022 noted that the person had previously visited the country and cited those visits as evidence of nefarious activities.

The European External Action Service said it was “following very closely the case of a Swedish national detained in Iran” but did not admit that the individual in question worked for the service or that Mr Floderus had previously visited Iran on official EU business.

“This case must also be seen in the context of the growing number of arbitrary detentions of EU citizens,” added Nabila Massrali, spokeswoman for the Union’s diplomatic body. “We have taken and will continue to take every opportunity to raise the issue with the Iranian authorities and secure the release of all arbitrarily detained EU citizens.”

Reached by phone, Mr Floderus’ father declined to comment.

Mr Floderus was a member of the diplomatic corps’ Afghanistan delegation but never made it to Kabul due to the Taliban takeover in August 2021. He did his work from headquarters in Brussels, where he had lived for several years, people know his background said.

“This arrest in 2022 was a real escalation,” said Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker who was held in Iran for six years on false espionage charges. “For me it is shocking that the Swedish government and the EEAS have been left behind.”

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released last year in exchange for Britain paying off a long-standing financial debt to Iran.

A Belgian aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, who was also jailed in Tehran for 455 days on espionage charges, recently appeared to pay his respects to Mr Floderus without identifying him.

After being released on a prisoner exchange in May, Mr Vandecasteele mentioned a Swedish cellmate in Evin prison at a concert held in his honor in Brussels in June.

“We became like brothers,” Mr. Vandecasteele said at the time. “We promised each other that we would do anything for each other and whoever comes out first will help each other’s family and loved ones.”

Relations between Iran and Sweden are at a low point. In July last year, a Swedish court sentenced a former senior Iranian judicial official, Hamid Noury, to life in prison for war crimes committed in Iran in 1988. He is appealing.

The landmark case against Mr Noury, which has been shown to have played a key role in the execution of thousands of Iranians, was a rare example of “universal jurisdiction”, allowing countries to arrest foreign nationals on their territory and prosecute them for atrocities, regardless of where the crimes were committed.

Shortly before Mr Noury’s sentencing in July 2022, Iran began increasing pressure on Sweden.

Mr. Floderus was arrested in April 2022. In May this year, Iran announced that it plans to execute an Iranian-Swedish scientist, Ahmadreza Djalali, on sinister charges of spying and aiding Israel in the assassination of nuclear scientists – allegations it denies.

In the same month, Iran also executed another Swedish-Iranian national, dissident Habib Chaab, who had lived in Sweden for more than a decade and was kidnapped and smuggled into Iran during a 2020 visit to Turkey.

“In my view, the silence of European governments over the past year on their new hostage-taking cases has inevitably led to further escalations by Iran,” Ratcliffe said. “It is no coincidence that they then started executing foreign nationals. Hostage diplomacy has turned into execution diplomacy.”

Governments negotiating with the Iranian authorities often urge secrecy while considering what to do, in part to avoid public scrutiny and pressure. Critics say the secrecy also allows them to pursue other political priorities in talks with Iran without being held accountable.

“Our family’s experience is that advertising keeps hostages safe by limiting the abuse inflicted on them and making everyone aware of the games being played,” Ratcliffe said. “When Western governments try to suppress these cases and silence families.” “They prioritize other concerns than the welfare of their citizens,” he said.

The European Union is in talks to revive a nuclear deal with Iran with the aim of limiting Tehran’s uranium enrichment progress to near bombproof levels.

Despite Western efforts to isolate Iran through sanctions and Tehran’s continued policy of arresting Western citizens and executing and jailing activists at home, Tehran’s isolation has been increasingly broken.

Last month, Iran was invited to join the BRICS club, the China-Russia-led club of major developing powers. It has also supported Russia in its war in Ukraine, including by providing armed drones.

Christine Anderson contributed to reporting from Stockholm, Steven Erlanger from Berlin and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.

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