Iran’s hostage diplomacy only makes enemies

Iran’s hostage diplomacy only makes enemies

Iran’s hostage diplomacy only makes enemies
Iranian-British aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. (Reuters)
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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kylie Moore-Gilbert are just two in a long line of innocent civilians who have been arrested and held as hostages by Iran. Such hostage taking has been part of the Islamic Republic’s “diplomatic” arsenal from its very foundation in 1979, starting with the notorious Iran hostage crisis, when the new regime in Tehran held more than 50 American diplomatic personnel for over a year.

These days, foreign citizens are not swept up in assaults on embassies. They are instead arrested as individuals on spurious charges of espionage or other threats to the regime, before being convicted in highly opaque and politically motivated trials. They are then held as bargaining chips for negotiations against the countries of origin of these hapless civilians.

News this week that Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national, has been sentenced to another year in prison just as Iran enters negotiations with the US, the UK and the other guarantors of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program reminded us of the regime’s callous use of innocent people as little more than exchange tokens for its international machinations.

Forty years on from when Tehran pioneered this technique, it is perplexing that its leaders seem to still believe this will give them leverage in a way that will help their cause. The public in Britain are broadly aware of the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and they all believe that what has and continues to happen to her is a travesty of justice. We are all demanding that the UK government secure her release, but none of us believe that the original injustice has been perpetrated by anyone other than the Iranian government, and no one is putting pressure on Downing Street to yield to Tehran’s whims or desires.

So whatever pressure this situation exerts upon London, it is certainly not in the direction of being favorable or sympathetic to Iran’s goals. If anything, the opposite is true. Even those of us who acknowledge the really dark history of British involvement in Iranian affairs — such as the deposing of the democratic government of Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953 and the subsequent British support for the brutal autocratic regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi — instantly lose sympathy with Iran when it treats innocent civilians, people like Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who are not only British but also born and raised Iranian, with this kind of inhumanity. When we call on the British government to “do something” for Zaghari-Ratcliffe or Moore-Gilbert, who was released last November after two years in custody, we are not asking that they yield anything to favor Tehran.

The regime callously uses innocent people as little more than exchange tokens for its international machinations.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

We believed that Iran was the injured party when the US walked away from the JCPOA during the Trump administration. The Obama administration had put in that deal a robust compliance regime to make sure that Iran lived up to its end of the bargain and, so far as any of us know, it did indeed honor its commitments. It is for that reason that the UK, along with its European allies, remained steadfast in favor of the deal and why they would have effectively been arguing for Iran’s side in the negotiations to reinstate the agreement under the Biden administration. London did not need any encouragement or coercion on that point from Iran. Yet Iran is now seeking to exert that kind of leverage on the British government. And all that will have achieved is anger, dismay, broken trust and more hostility toward Tehran in general. It is all shockingly counterproductive.

The JCPOA had been a welcome first step toward the normalization of relations between Iran and the West, and a promising step toward lasting peace. We continue to hope for and work toward peace. But hostage diplomacy as practiced by Iran is barbaric and inhumane. This makes even the would-be peacemakers in the West hostile to the regime, while giving more ammunition to the war hawks. What is Tehran trying to achieve here? It is certainly not making the revival of the JCPOA more likely with this kind of behavior.

• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim​

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