‘I fear I will never see him again’: Irish ‘hostage’ in Iran caught in French diplomatic tangle

Tipperary man Bernard Phelan is one of seven French passport holders held in Iran

At the G20 summit in Indonesia last month, Emmanuel Macron accused Iran of “unacceptable hostage taking” in response to western criticism of the regime’s human rights policies.

The French president was referring to the imprisonment of seven French citizens, some of whom Tehran claims were sent by France to stir up the antigovernment protests which have rocked the country since September.

What was not publicly known at the time was that one of those seven was an Irish man who, in the words of his sister, was “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and now finds himself caught up in a complex diplomatic tangle.

Bernard Phelan, a 64-year-old tourism consultant from Tipperary, was arrested by Iranian police on October 3rd. He has since been locked up in dire conditions in the notorious Vakilabad prison where he shares a cell with 15 others. He faces multiple charges including spreading propaganda against Iran and taking photos of police officers, all of which he denies.


Mr Phelan lives in Paris and was travelling on a French passport during his most recent trip to the country as part of his tourism business. Irish security sources believe he was detained on trumped-up charges in order to send a message to the French government: “Stay out of our business.”

The arrest occurred days after France’s foreign minister summoned Iran’s ambassador in Paris to protest against the regime’s brutal suppression of protests which broke out following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in September.

France was also pushing for increased European Union sanctions on the Iranian regime. Tensions between the two governments were already strained over the stalled Iran nuclear deal.

Three days after Mr Phelan’s arrest temperatures rose further when the Iranian authorities broadcast a tape of two other French citizens “confessing” to spying for French intelligence and planning the overthrow of the regime. This drew a furious response from Paris, which denied the pair were spies and accused Tehran of taking its citizens hostage.

Back in Dublin, then minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney summoned Iran’s ambassador to Ireland, Dr Masoud Eslami, to air Irish concerns over the protests and Iran’s supply of drones to Russia.

It was not said at the time, but it is almost certain that Mr Phelan’s arrest was also raised. Since then, Irish diplomatic officials have been working quietly in the background to secure Mr Phelan’s release.

They hope the fact that Mr Phelan is an Irish citizen and passport holder, and someone born in this country, may convince Tehran there is little political benefit to keeping him prisoner.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs is aware of the case and has been providing consular assistance, in close co-ordination with France, since the outset. The case has also been raised directly with the Iranian authorities,” a spokeswoman said yesterday in the department’s first public comments on the case.

So far, they have met with little success, despite what the Phelan family says are Trojan efforts by the Irish and French officials. Since October, more charges have been laid against Mr Phelan, while at the same time his health and morale have been deteriorating. He said he was told by one court translator: “You will die in prison.”

He only has to look across at one of his cellmates for a reminder of what the future may hold. French travel blogger Benjamin Brière is currently serving an eight-year sentence in Vakilabad for “spying” after Iranian authorities claimed he was illegally using a drone near the near the Turkmenistan border.

The Phelan family has also been quietly campaigning for his release. Mr Phelan’s father, Vincent, has written to Iran’s ambassador in Ireland pleading for his son to be freed. The ambassador asked the senior Mr Phelan to be patient and wait for judicial proceedings to take their course.

“Please be assured that authorities on both sides are in contact and working on solving this problem,” Dr Eslami wrote.

For the Phelan family, which has had just one phone call with Bernard during his 84 days of imprisonment, patience is not something which comes easily.

“Bernard was supposed to be with me for my 97th birthday in November and also with me for Christmas,” Vincent Phelan said on Tuesday. “I fear that I will never see him again.”