Foreign Affairs

Iran’s hostage diplomacy must be confronted

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On Sunday 14 March, British-Iranian dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was back in an Iranian court facing more charges. This time relating to a protest long ago outside the Iranian embassy and an interview with BBC Persia.

Legally, the judge had to give his verdict by Sunday. But he still hasn’t, prolonging the uncertainty for Nazanin.

Only the previous weekend Nazanin’s five-year sentence for alleged espionage concluded. She could remove her ankle tag – having been under house arrest since last year – and visit her grandmother.

The chances are you will have heard of Nazanin – her husband Richard Ratcliffe has tirelessly campaigned for her release, including going on hunger strike. They also have a young daughter, Gabriella, separated from her Mum.

But have you heard of British-Iranian retired engineer Anoosheh Ashoori? Arrested in 2017 and sentenced in 2019 to twelve years imprisonment, ten years of his sentence are for spying for Israel, yet he has never visited the country.

How about British permanent resident and British Council worker Aras Amiri, who also has a British fiancé, and is serving a ten-year sentence for alleged spying? Or Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation co-founder and British passport holder Morad Tahbaz, sentenced to ten-years in prison in 2019 for ‘contacts with the US enemy government’?

They are just some of the estimated 30+ individuals currently caught up in Iran’s hostage diplomacy. Such tactics must be more directly confronted by countries, including the UK.

Hostage diplomacy

Hostage diplomacy is where a government detains foreign nationals to use as leverage to influence relations with more hostile countries. Dual citizens are targets as Iranian law refuses to recognise their status, and only allows them to enter the country with their Iranian passport.

British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released in November after secret trilateral negotiations between Iran, Australia, and Thailand.  Just as a bewildered Kylie returned home after two years detained on espionage charges, three Iranians convicted of a bomb plot in Thailand were released. With results like this, the cost-benefit analysis for Iran in engaging in hostage diplomacy pays off.

The Economist’s Nicholas Pelham was briefly detained in Iran in 2019. He detailed his exhausting and surreal detainment and the internal Iranian power struggles at play too. At one point, he gained more freedoms within Tehran than as a journalist with a required minder.

Foreign nationals, especially dual Iranian citizens, become pawns in Iran’s hostage diplomacy and internal political infighting.

Pelham’s extended stay was brief – others like Nazanin and Anoosheh, haven’t been so fortunate. Recent independent expert evaluation of Nazanin’s mental state concluded she had PTSD and was ‘in urgent need of psychiatric support’.

Just last month, Anoosheh Ashoori was deprived of his ability to call his wife, Sherry, and two grown-up children, Elika and Aryan. Anoosheh’s family run a Twitter account campaigning for his release, @FreeAnoosheh. Through this account it was confirmed that Anoosheh still hasn’t had his phone privileges restored.

Quiet diplomacy and the Iran nuclear deal

Governments, including the UK in Nazanin’s case, preach to the families of the hostages ‘quiet diplomacy’. Basically, don’t make much of a public fuss, it’ll get sorted through secret diplomatic channels.

Quiet diplomacy did not see Nazanin released early. Nor has it seen Iran stop its hostage diplomacy. Meanwhile, outspoken international pressure possibly influenced German citizen Nahid Taghavi’s transfer from isolation to the women’s wing of Evin Prison this week.

In summary, Iran’s hostage diplomacy presents a very bleak picture with governments, usually western, struggling to secretly obtain the swift release of their wrongfully detained citizens.

The situation is complicated further by ever-deteriorating relations over the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), reached in 2015 between Iran, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and the EU.

President Biden’s election presents a short window to rectify the deal, but the US and Iran are squabbling though over who will blink first. Either the US, by easing sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, or Iran, by showing initial signs of returning to within the uranium enrichment limits of the deal.

Perhaps linking the end of Iran’s hostage diplomacy and the immediate release of all foreign nationals to US sanctions relief could enable both sides to claim the other moved first.

Such sanctions relief would make it easier for the UK to find a way to pay, as it owes under international law, its £400mn arms deal debt to Iran. This is viewed by both Nazanin and Anoosheh’s families as inextricably linked to their internment.

Direct payment to Iran’s military is out of the question, so a humanitarian means to pay the debt has to be the answer. Paying for a substantial portion of Iran’s COVID vaccine supply, or funding non-nuclear Iranian climate action and mitigation, would work well with the UK’s immediate foreign policy priorities.

On the reverse side, if such possible linkages were unsuccessful, it should be made clear to Iran a tougher approach would follow. Hardline measures range from economic sanctions, to potentially withdrawing direct diplomatic relations, to turning a blind eye to likely Israeli-led proactive military strikes on nuclear enrichment facilities.

These are quite radical carrot and stick suggestions for how the West, particularly the UK, can prompt Iran to resume its commitment to the JCPOA and abandon hostage diplomacy. Perhaps too radical.

Though, they at least recognise what should be blindingly obvious to the JCPOA signatories and countries who have citizens detained by Iran. The status quo is unacceptable. Worst of all for the innocent people who are victims of Iran’s hostage diplomacy, separated from family and friends for weeks, months or even years.

In the most extreme cases, they may even lose their lives. Arrested in 2016, Iranian-Swedish disaster medicine doctor Ahmad Reza Jalali is accused of espionage and collaboration with Israel. He was sentenced to death last year, though his life may yet be spared.

For the sake of the foreign nationals detained in Iran, and their families and friends, a new approach is required.

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