Nuclear talks should also aim to end Iran’s hostage diplomacy
The Iranian authorities last week detained a US-Iranian dual national, the first such arrest since President Joe Biden took office. This escalation could be related to Iran’s efforts to strengthen its position in any prospective nuclear negotiations and to gain another bargaining chip in defiance of Washington, so that it can avoid making concessions on the more important files.
In fact, the arrest of dual nationals is part of what is known as “hostage diplomacy” — a strategy adopted by the Iranian regime ever since it took power in 1979, beginning with the kidnapping of 52 American citizens at the US Embassy in Tehran during the early days of its reign. Since then, dozens of foreigners and dual nationals have faced baseless charges and been deprived of their basic rights, including the right to a fair trial. It is paradoxical that Iran grants citizenship to mercenaries, militias and fighters who are recruited to serve its regional and global projects, while Iranian law fails to recognize dual nationals or offer them privileges or immunity, in direct violation of international law.
This strategy of systematically targeting dual nationals stems from the Iranian regime’s worldview, which is fundamentally based on hostility. As time has passed, this strategy has turned into one of Iran’s favored foreign policy tools, instead of the customary positive diplomacy seen elsewhere in the world, which is based on cooperation and mutual respect.
The facts surrounding some of these dual national cases reveal that Tehran has tirelessly exploited them. Iran has used dual nationals as bargaining chips and blackmail tools to gain leverage with international parties in an effort to make various gains, including: Prisoner exchanges; the release of agents apprehended while carrying out the regime’s malign projects abroad; the release of overseas assets frozen due to sanctions; protecting individuals who aid the regime in circumventing sanctions; and calming mounting tensions and keeping a channel for dialogue open with certain countries.
In December 2019, Iran freed the US-Chinese researcher Xiyue Wang in return for Washington releasing Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani, who was accused of attempting to export biological materials from the US to Iran without a license. Similarly, British-Australian lecturer Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released from an Iranian prison last November in exchange for three Iranians who had been convicted in Thailand for their involvement in an operation targeting Israeli diplomats in 2012. Iran has also attempted to exert pressure on the British government to pay off arms debts worth £450 million ($616 million) that date back to the 1970s in exchange for releasing dual UK-Iranian nationals.
It should be noted, however, that targeting dual nationals also has domestic objectives. Iran opposes dual nationals carrying out any activities, whether social, political, cultural or environmental, under the pretext of protecting Iranian society from infiltration.
The regime also exploits the dual nationality issue to justify tightening its security services’ grip on society, constantly repeating the narrative of external conspiracies hatched against Iran. Media outlets aligned with the regime spread defamatory reports and conspiracy theories about dual nationals, claiming that these individuals are part of Western plans to infiltrate Iran. This is designed to shape public opinion, further reducing the likelihood of dual nationals receiving a fair trial.
Iran’s hostage diplomacy has long been a source of concern for Western governments. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Iran’s crackdown on dual nationals as cruel, calling for it to be halted immediately. Then-British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said while visiting Iran in 2018: “Putting innocent people in prison cannot and must not be used as a tool of diplomatic leverage.” The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has also criticized Iran’s systematic use of this strategy.
As always, Iran has paid no heed to any UN or international criticisms of its practices. This has led to the US, UK and Germany warning dual nationals and citizens against visiting Iran.
Some may believe that the regime’s escalation in targeting dual nationals only occurs during times of rising tensions with the West, but crackdowns also increase during phases of advanced diplomacy and negotiations too. For example, Iran stepped up its detention of dual nationals following the 2015 nuclear agreement. Two years after the deal was signed, Reuters reported that 30 dual nationals had been arrested in Iran. This followed a September 2015 statement by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in which he expressed concern about foreigners influencing Iran’s decision-making. He said: “The gravest threats are the attempts of enemies to infiltrate and influence the decision-making centers.”
It is also possible to understand the latest escalation in dual national arrests in the context of concerns and internal disputes among different regime factions. The regime’s security and military wings expressed increasing national security concerns post-2015, as Iran witnessed an influx of dual nationals, while reformist factions gained prominence in Iran’s political landscape.
The regime’s ideological wing shared similar security, as well as cultural and political, concerns, with the two sides cooperating to maintain their own positions and gains. This was added to their shared desire to win back their legitimacy and popularity, which declined in the wake of the nuclear deal, with the reformists taking center stage in the country. This decline might again be seen in the coming period in the case of an agreement with the Biden administration before President Hassan Rouhani leaves office in mid-2021.
All in all, those who wish to capitalize on the openness in Iran during Rouhani’s remaining time in office and those within the Biden administration wanting to rejoin the nuclear deal without conditions should pay heed to this latest dual national case. It is not improbable that Iran will step up its targeting of dual nationals as part of a broader strategy to gain leverage and bargaining chips.
In addition to targeting dual nationals, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recently hijacked a South Korean oil tanker to pressure the Seoul government into unblocking Iranian oil payments withheld due to US sanctions. Iran also decided to ratchet up its nuclear activities, including enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. All these moves come in the context of the Iranian regime’s efforts to gain a better position at the negotiating table or make gains at the expense of its foes.
Iran has used dual nationals as bargaining chips and blackmail tools to gain leverage with international parties.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
The way in which the Iranian regime has adopted hostage diplomacy as a foreign policy strategy is extremely dangerous, and it might be adopted even more enthusiastically as a large-scale strategy to pressure rival states and gain more bargaining chips in the future. Therefore, it is essential to resist this strategy collectively, in line with a comprehensive vision of the threat posed by Iran. There should also be a multilateral approach to imposing political and economic pressure on Iran, especially since Donald Trump’s legacy provides an opportunity to do this.
This opportunity should not be shunned. Any upcoming negotiations with Iran should include putting an end to this gruesome Iranian hostage diplomacy, and the Biden administration must take this into consideration. If it fails to do so, dual nationals and foreigners in Iran will continue to face arbitrary detention and be viewed as nothing more than bargaining chips in Tehran’s political games.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami