Hostages become pawns in Iran’s dealings with the West

There has hardly been any period in the four-decade history of the Iranian regime that it has not had in its custody a foreign national.

The overwhelming majority of its hostages come from Western countries, such as the US, France, Canada, Germany, the UK and Australia. It all started on the first day following the establishment of the regime, when the US Embassy in Tehran was taken over and 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

Among the current foreign citizens held in Iran is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian mother who, along with her then-22-month-old daughter, traveled to Iran in 2016 to visit her family on Nowruz, the Iranian new year, months after the nuclear deal had been reached and sanctions against Tehran were lifted. As she was about to board a plane to return home, she was surrounded by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officials and arrested. Against the backdrop of the recent nuclear talks between the Iranian regime and world powers, a court in April sentenced her to another year in prison.

American citizens held as prisoners in Iran include dual citizens Baquer and Siamak Namazi, conservationist Morad Tahbaz, and businessman Emad Shargi. Shargi’s family has pleaded with the Biden administration to get him back home.

His wife Bahareh told the “Face the Nation” television program: “Our family has been torn apart. My husband has been taken.” His daughter Hannah began to cry after saying: “The image I’m just working towards is having him walk through our front door. Like, that is all I want. And that is what I dream about… him coming home, walking through the door, like, surprising us. And then I wake up and it’s, of course, a dream.”

The authorities use foreign citizens as bargaining chips for extracting economic concessions or receiving political and financial gains.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

It is worth noting that the Iranian regime does not recognize dual citizenships, even if the person was born in another country. Imprisoning foreign nationals is generally under the control and authority of the hard-line judiciary system. The head of the judiciary, the chief justice of Iran, is directly appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In other words, the judiciary system requires Khamenei’s blessing to make decisions about foreign prisoners and hostages.

The Iranian authorities use foreign citizens as bargaining chips for extracting economic concessions or receiving political and financial gains. They also use them to negotiate the release of Iranian prisoners abroad. This has been the policy of the theocratic establishment since the revolution in 1979. The regime releases its foreign prisoners only once it has achieved its political, economic and ideological objectives. For example, the Obama administration in 2016 transferred $1.7 billion in cash to Iran in exchange for the release of several American prisoners.

Iran also uses foreign citizens to put pressure on Western countries to give it geopolitical or economic advantages, such as ignoring its military adventurism, breaches of international law and testing of ballistic missiles.

The regime considers the foreign nationals it holds to be powerful leverage that can be used to gain an upper hand in the nuclear talks. Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh in July stated that a deal was reached with the US to release the detained American citizens as part of the nuclear negotiations, but Washington denied this. He tweeted: “‘Outrageous’ = the US denying simple fact that there IS an agreed deal on the matter of the detainees. Even on how to announce it.”

The detained foreign nationals generally have no access to due process, as they are routinely denied access to a lawyer and are held in solitary confinement. According to Human Rights Watch, “Iranian courts, and particularly revolutionary courts, regularly fall far short of providing fair trials and use confessions likely obtained under torture as evidence in court. Authorities have failed to meaningfully investigate numerous allegations of torture against detainees. Authorities routinely restrict detainees’ access to legal counsel, particularly during the initial investigation period.”

It is incumbent on the West to act and pressure the Iranian regime into releasing the foreign nationals it holds merely as bargaining chips for its dealings with rival nations and as pawns to extract political and economic concessions.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh 

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