One of the women, a British-Australian academic who has been teaching at a university in Australia, was arrested several months ago, sources confirmed to the Guardian.
In an unrelated arrest several weeks ago, a female British-Australian blogger and her male Australian partner were detained while travelling across the country. It is believed they were camping in a military area around Jajrood in Tehran province.
The two women have reportedly been detained in Tehran’s Evin jail, where 41-year-old British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been incarcerated on spying charges since 2016. The whereabouts of the man is unknown.
While two of those arrested hold dual citizenships, the Australian government is leading negotiations with Tehran over the conditions and potential release of all three arrested.
A spokesperson for the department of foreign affairs and trade confirmed the department was “providing consular assistance to the families of three Australians detained in Iran”.
“Due to our privacy obligations, we will not comment further.”
The arrests come amid increasing tensions between Iran and a small US-led coalition – whose only other members are the UK, Australia and Bahrain – which will send naval warships to patrol the Strait of Hormuz.
In August, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison committed to the US-led mission, saying “destabilising behaviour” – a thinly-veiled reference to Iran capturing foreign-flagged ships – was a threat to Australian interests one of the world’s most vital oil arteries.
The Times reported that the academic had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and was being held in solitary confinement, according to a source familiar with the case. The source also told the Times that the blogger had been told by the Iranian authorities that she was being held in order to facilitate a prisoner swap with Australia.
The Australian government updated its travel advice for Iran on Monday. The overall advice suggests “reconsider your need to travel” and says “do not travel” to border areas with Afghanistan and Iran.
The travel advice warns: “There is a risk that foreigners, including Australians, could be arbitrarily detained or arrested in Iran. We can’t guarantee consular access if you are detained or arrested. We also can’t guarantee access to legal representation.”
The advice also specifically urges travellers not to visit military or nuclear sites, which, it says, “are not always clearly marked”.
According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, at least 12 dual and foreign nationals or Iranian citizens with foreign permanent residences were known to be imprisoned in Iran as of July 2019. Most hold Iranian citizenship alongside another nationality, but Tehran does not recognise dual citizenship and these prisoners are routinely denied access to embassy officials from their other country of nationality.
The centre said there was a pattern to the arrest of foreign nationals, involving prolonged solitary confinement and interrogations, a lack of due legal process and access to counsel, and a denial of consular access or visits by the UN or humanitarian organisations. It is understood that at least one of the British-Australian women currently detained has had meetings with Australian consular officials.
Typically, foreign nationals are brought before secretive trials and sentenced to long prison terms based on vague “national security” or “espionage” charges, the centre said.
An increasingly unpredictable brinkmanship has emerged between the US (and, by association, its allies) and Iran since the US withdrew from the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in May 2018.
Washington has pursued its “maximum pressure” strategy through economic and trade sanctions, while Tehran has responded by stepping up its nuclear program beyond the limits of the deal.
In July off the coast of Gibraltar, British marines working with Gibraltan police seized an Iranian supertanker suspected of carrying 2m barrels of oil to Syria in breach of sanctions. Spain said the interception had been conducted at the request of the US.
The oil was released on the condition that Iran would not sell oil to the “murderous regime” of Bashar al-Assad, however, over the weekend Tehran confirmed that the oil had been sold after the tanker reached its final destination. It was photographed off the coast of Syria but Iran did not formally confirm that the oil had been sold to Syria.
The British foreign office said in a statement: “Iran’s actions represent an unacceptable violation of international norms and the UK will raise the issue at the United Nations later this month.”
The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab said Iran had shown “complete disregard” for the commitments it had made over the oil. “This sale of oil to Assad’s brutal regime is part of a pattern of behaviour by the government of Iran designed to disrupt regional security… We want Iran to come in from the cold, but the only way to do that is to keep its word and comply with the rules-based international system.”
In apparent retaliation for the oil seizure, later in July, Iran seized two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, claiming the British and Liberian-flagged ships had breached maritime regulations.
The British MP Tulip Siddiq said: “Iran have raised the stakes again and shown the UK’s soft diplomatic responses to Iran’s illegal and inhumane treatment of British prisoners has not worked. This is a wake-up call for the prime minister and the government to act urgently to bring our innocent citizens home.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held in Iran since being arrested while visiting relatives in April 2016. The regime accused her of working to “spread propaganda against Iran”, a charge she has strenuously and consistently denied.
Boris Johnson, then the foreign secretary, was severely criticised over his handling of the case after he erroneously told the Commons that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was teaching journalism while in Iran.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was accused by Tehran’s prosecutor general of running a “BBC Persian online journalism course, which was aimed at recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran”.
She briefly worked for BBC Media Action, the corporation’s international development charity, but had left more than five years before her arrest. At that time, she was working as a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the news agency’s charitable arm, which has made clear she is not employed as a journalist and was in the country solely in a personal capacity.
Johnson later corrected his mistake but it was used against her in court. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison and has suffered from mental and physical health problems during her incarceration.
Last month her relatives said she and her fellow inmates in the notorious Evin prison had been placed under a strict new regime, meaning their visiting rights were restricted and they were no longer allowed to make international calls.
Another person made the object of the harsh new restrictions was Aras Amiri, an Iranian who has permanent-resident status in Britain. She lost her appeal against a 10-year jail sentence in Tehran after being accused of spying for the UK while she was visiting a sick relative year.