Hostage Diplomacy Works Too Well for Iran to Stop

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP photo: Mark Wilson

Earlier this month, a US judge awarded an American journalist previously imprisoned in Iran nearly $180 million in compensation for his 18-month ordeal. Jason Rezaian was a reporter for the Washington Post in Tehran when he was arrested in 2014 and detained in Evin prison on espionage charges. He was released in 2016.

The ruling said Rezaian was held as a hostage to be  used as leverage in negotiations and that such a practice was “surely in need of deterrence.” It was for that reason – to increase the cost to Tehran of using American prisoners for diplomatic bargaining – that the judge awarded such a hefty sum.

That kind of deterrence, however, is unlikely to work. Iran will almost certainly never pay what the court demands. Nor, for now, will it stop arresting westerners for politically-motivated reasons because “hostage diplomacy” has simply been too valuable for Tehran.

Most hostages are taken for money. One of the reasons why the United States refuses to pay ransoms is because it believes that the very possibility of such a payment immediately turns US citizens into targets. Militant groups often use hostages as a way of raising large sums of money quickly and countries that refuse to pay ransoms believe they are depriving these groups of financial support.

But Iran is different. It is a state, not a militant group, and one with deep pockets. It does not want hostages for financial gain, but for political leverage. Financial penalties have almost negligible value as a deterrent.

It is hard to know definitively if Iran takes more political hostages than other countries, simply because governments can wrap their bargaining chips in a veneer of legality, jailing foreigners for crimes and later exchanging them.

At the moment, Iran is known to hold around a dozen dual-nationals on unspecified national security charges. There could be more, because families and governments often believe keeping out of the media will make negotiations easier. It was only revealed two months ago that an Australian academic, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, was in jail in Tehran, although she has been there for more than a year.

Iran has a long history of taking hostages, particularly Americans, stretching all the way back to the US embassy siege in Tehran in 1979, a historic humiliation that still resonates in Washington. There is an equally long history of Tehran releasing jailed foreigners in exchange for Iranian citizens or for political concessions. It was a prisoner exchange in 2016, on the day the nuclear deal was agreed with the international community, that finally brought Jason Rezaian home.

Iran’s political leaders also link the length of a foreign prisoner’s sentence to the particular Iranian citizens they want in exchange, thereby blatantly undermining the idea that these foreigners are being punished for crimes and that their detention has nothing to do with Iran’s foreign policy.

Earlier this year in New York, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explicitly linked the cases of Negar Ghodskani, an Iranian citizen detained in Australia and fighting extradition to the United States, and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen jailed in Tehran for espionage. “I put this offer on the table publicly now,” he said. “Exchange them.”

The fact is that Iran uses foreign prisoners as a tool of diplomacy and will not stop doing so for the simple, powerful reason that it works. Rezaian himself recognized this reality in an interview earlier this year.

“Iran has been taking prisoners for 40 years and using them to extract concessions from foreign governments, most often the United States,” he said, “So I see myself as unremarkable in that sense, on this long continuum of US hostages in Iran.”

That is the heart of the matter. Concessions do follow releases. Human bargaining chips are one of the few reliable ways a pariah nation like Iran can get powerful countries to the negotiating table.

Just last month, Iran agreed to free two Australians who had been held on spying charges, although they appeared to be a holidaying couple. Later that same day, an Iranian academic who had been detained for more than a year in Australia fighting extradition to the US was suddenly released and returned to Iran. The Australian government said the two cases were not connected, but they certainly look it from the outside.

As long as holding foreigners yields concessions, financial penalties are irrelevant, especially because they rarely fall on whoever made the arrests in the first place. The Iranian state is not monolithic; there are competing power centers. Rezaian was arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a paramilitary unit independent of both the national army and the civilian government. Any financial compensation would not be paid by them, but by the finance ministry. Nor would any financial compensation affect the Guards’ budget; they have an exemption which allows them to own businesses in Iran, giving them their own source of income.

From Iran’s point of view, there is every reason to carry on with hostage diplomacy. And unless another diplomatic tack can be found, the Americans in Tehran’s prisons will not be the last. For now, US hostages are worth more to Iran than money.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.