WASHINGTON, D.C.: More than a dozen Western nationals are being held in Iran under what many believe is a calculated hostage strategy aimed at extracting concessions from the West.
Multiple accounts by former Western hostages tell of routine physical and psychological abuse, and denial of medical treatment while being held in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
In the words of one former Australian hostage: “Every day is a day of suffering.”
During talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iranian negotiators have sought to use Western nationals held in the regime’s prisons as bargaining chips.
Senior British, French and German diplomats (a grouping known as the E3) and their US counterparts are reportedly negotiating the hostages’ release in exchange for Iranians held in Western jails, sanctions relief and the unlocking of billions in frozen assets.
Iran is known to be holding four Americans in custody. Among them is Siamak Namazi, who was arrested by Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in October 2015 while visiting the country on business.
When his father, Mohammad Baquer Namazi, traveled to Iran in February 2016 to visit his son in jail, he, too, was detained. Both were charged in October 2016, sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $4.8 million for “collusion with an enemy state.”
Emad Shargi, a 56-year-old US businessman, was first imprisoned in Iran in April 2018 on charges of espionage. Although he was released on bail that December, Iranian authorities refused to let him leave the country. He was rearrested in November 2020 and returned to Evin prison.
Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American businessman and conservationist, who also holds British citizenship, was arrested in January 2018 and sentenced in November 2019 to 10 years in prison for fostering “contacts with the US enemy government.” He is now being held in Evin prison, where he has reportedly been denied medical attention.
At least one US hostage, retired FBI Special Agent Bob Levinson, is believed to have died in Iranian custody after mysteriously vanishing from Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007.
Photographic evidence of his incarceration emerged in 2011, but given his age, health condition and the duration of his imprisonment, US officials determined he had likely died in jail.
It is not just those with US citizenship who have been singled out. French tourist Benjamin Briere has been held in Iran for over a year on charges of espionage and “propaganda against the system” after being arrested for flying a drone near the Iran-Turkmenistan border and for comments on social media.
Fariba Adelkhah, a French-Iranian anthropologist and academic at Sciences Po, was detained in June 2019. Because Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, she has been denied access to French consular services.
In May 2020, Adelkhah was sentenced to five years' jail for conspiring against national security, and one year for propaganda against the state.
Another dual citizen, British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, is now staying at her parents’ home in Tehran while on bail pending appeal after being found guilty of acting to undermine the Iranian state by attending a demonstration outside the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was first arrested in Iran in 2016 and handed a five-year jail sentence for espionage, which she has now served. If she loses her appeal against the new conviction, she could face another year in jail and a further 12-month ban on leaving the country.
However much Washington and the E3 would like to separate the two issues, experts argue the matter of Western hostages held by Tehran is entwined with the nuclear issue.
“While both sides, Washington and Tehran, have repeatedly emphasized that the negotiations over the release of the US hostages are on a separate track from the nuclear negotiations in theory, in practice they are linked,” Jason Brodsky, a senior Middle East analyst and former policy director at United Against a Nuclear Iran, told Arab News.
“From the perspective of the US, it would cause political problems for the Biden administration in Washington if they were to conclude a revived nuclear deal with Tehran without any progress on the plight of US nationals languishing in Iranian prisons.
“Tehran uses these dual nationals and foreigners as leverage to exert pressure on the US and Europe to provide even more concessions to the Islamic Republic during negotiations on a range of issues.”
Under one exchange deal in 2016, Iran released five American hostages in return for seven Iranian operatives convicted by US counts and the unlocking of nearly $2 billion in frozen assets. Xiyue Wang, who was detained from 2016 to 2019 while conducting academic research in Iran, condemns the Obama administration strategy.
“Obama’s prisoner exchange in 2016, with $1.7 billion frozen assets released back to Iran in addition to Iranian prisoners released from US jails, encouraged the Iranian regime to take more hostages,” he told Arab News.
“The Ministry of Intelligence interrogators boasted that they got me because they wanted America to release more Iranian prisoners and assets.
“Under the Trump administration, through pressure and tactical compromises, the US released two Americans (including me) and a US permanent resident on the basis of one-for-one and without money changing hands.
“According to what a number of former State Department officials told me, the release of more American hostages was hammered out, but when Trump lost the election, the Iranians called off the exchange and wanted to deal with the Biden administration on the matter.”
The recent attempted kidnapping of Masih Alinejad, a US citizen and a prominent activist and journalist, underscored the risks Tehran is willing to take to seize more Western hostages.
“The US and the E3 all have nationals trapped in Iran. They should be spearheading a multilateral framework to increase the costs to Iran of engaging in these practices,” Brodsky told Arab News.
“To date, the efforts are mostly piecemeal and on a bilateral basis, with Tehran making arrangements with each nation individually. Joining together in refusing meetings with Iranian diplomats, isolating Tehran in international organizations, and other such efforts until the hostages are released could contribute to changing the Iranian calculus.
“Exchanging hostages for funds only incentivizes Iran to engage in more hostage taking. This should be avoided.”
Richard Ratcliffe, husband of British-Iranian hostage Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, takes a similar view. He recently told UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab that his wife’s ordeal will likely continue “unless the UK and international community take a much firmer stand against state hostage-taking and call it out as a crime.”
Ensuring that at least some Western captives remain in its possession has offered Iran significant long-term leverage. In other words, detainee exchanges or cash-for-hostage deals have not curbed the regime’s appetite for filing spurious spy charges against foreign citizens.
The practice has also lowered the cost for Iran when greenlighting terror attacks abroad. Tehran has used its leverage to secure the release of several of its operatives caught in the wake of terrorist attacks abroad.
In 2020, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian-British academic held by Iran on espionage charges, was released in exchange for three Iranians convicted over the 2012 Bangkok bombings, a botched attempt to assassinate Israeli diplomats.
“Given that dual nationals from Western countries are routinely detained by Tehran, a collective Western response and stance is needed,” Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a German-Iranian political scientist, told Arab News.
“The US and EU should make clear that such detentions for political purposes have immediate political consequences, such as imposing targeted sanctions against Iranian authorities, including their foreign assets, and restricting freedom of movement for their families abroad, as well as diplomatic costs, such as recalling their diplomats from Tehran, and putting on hold political and/or economic cooperation.
“One could add taking legal action at an international level, as such detentions contravene human and civil rights conventions. If such a collective Western response to Tehran’s hostage-taking policy doesn’t emerge, it will only embolden the latter’s continuation.”
For Wang, securing the release of foreign hostages will require a fundamental shift in the White House’s geopolitical strategy toward Iran, including a rethink of the nuclear deal.
“The hostage issue is clearly a JCPOA problem, even though the Biden administration denies it. It is very difficult to see a breakthrough in the hostage issue without a breakthrough in JCPOA negotiation,” he told Arab News.
“But the Biden administration’s eagerness to go back to the deal, no matter what, is doing the administration a disservice and it prolongs the suffering of foreign, especially American, hostages in Iran.”