Iran wants to expand its ruthless model throughout region

A French tourist by the name of Benjamin Briere, who has been held in an Iranian prison for the past year, is set to be prosecuted for espionage and propaganda against the regime, along with other charges.
Briere had been on the adventure of a lifetime. He fitted out his van and in 2018 began a long journey across Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, Iraq’s Kurdistan, and Iran. This adventure came to a brutal end in May 2020. While he was in a desert area close to the Turkmenistan border, the Iranian authorities arrested him and he has since then been held in a prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad. The court filed the charges against him this week.

The Frenchman was documenting his journey via social media and is accused of filming with a recreational drone in a restricted area. He also questioned on social media the mandatory wearing of a veil for women in Iran. Both actions reveal clumsiness and a lack of knowledge about the region, but certainly do not deserve jail time. When I saw the videos on a recent news report, my initial reaction was to remark on what a beautiful country it was — the greenery and the landscape were just breathtaking.

People who share such sights on social media do not mean harm. In fact, it is quite the opposite: Briere was sharing beautiful scenery from a country people know little about. This should, in theory, not be banned but rather encouraged, especially for the tourism economy. Regarding the post about the veil, the authorities could have reached out to inform him that this goes against the beliefs of their country and is not permitted, leaving him to continue his journey with a harsh warning. I agree that ignorance of the law is no excuse, and one should respect the laws and customs of any country one visits, but this did not need to go so far. We have seen similar examples across the world that have been solved within months; yet, for Iran, the promotion of tourism and good relations is not a concern.

The reason it goes so far is because the Iranian regime’s strategy is different: It is a hostage-taking strategy. This includes Briere, UK charity executive Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and US citizen Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer, who have been in jail for years, as well as many others. It has been the same ever since the regime’s inaugural hostage-taking operation at the US Embassy in Tehran, which lasted from 1979 — when President Jimmy Carter was in office — until Jan. 20, 1981: The first day of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The date of the end of this 40-year-old crisis tells you a lot about how the regime sees leverage and the messages it sends.

Iran has been good at holding Western citizens like Briere as bargaining chips. For each hostage’s country, one can think of many reasons and files for negotiation. When it comes to the UK, for example, there is the $530 million debt owed to Iran by London, which was a payment made for military equipment by the late shah, prior to him abandoning the throne, and which was never delivered. As the nuclear deal is about to be revived, Tehran will likely need these bargaining chips to negotiate an advantageous agreement.

It is interesting to see the humiliation Western countries are willing to go through to push ahead with the nuclear deal. I cannot help but see the fact that Europe is expecting a sharp increase in trade with Iran as one of the reasons. In an age of pragmatism over principles, this leaves many of the prisoners in a tough situation. In 2016, less than a year after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal came into effect, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the Obama administration had secretly organized an airlift of $400 million-worth of cash on wooden pallets to Iran to coincide with the release of four Americans. Now, as Tehran is suffering from a sclerotic and corrupt economy, the only fresh money its leaders can find relates to a deal negotiated by the shah they toppled more than 40 years ago. Talk about irony.

It is interesting to see the humiliation Western countries are willing to go through to push ahead with the nuclear deal.

Khaled Abou Zahr

But this shows how long this strategy has been working for the regime. It has worked so well that it has even moved from taking people hostage to entire countries. Indeed, if the West is willing to trade hundreds of millions of dollars for their citizens, what would they be willing to offer for stability in a key region? The Iranian regime expects a full mandate to run and control the entire region. Nothing else. And so today the only difference between Briere being held by wardens in a jail in Mashhad and Lebanon being held hostage by Hezbollah is the price. French President Emmanuel Macron tries to help, but goes back to pragmatism.

The same applies to the regime’s interference in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Tehran has been extremely efficient at benefiting from others’ mistakes to push for these hostage-taking and bargaining situations. Hence, the Iranian regime sees JCPOA 2.0 not as pallets of cash but as power over these countries. It also understands the West’s eagerness to negotiate.

This is unfortunate, as the international community is rewarding misconduct and malign activities. The Iranian regime is not acting this way to protect itself, as it might have done in the 1980s. Today, it is attempting to gain control and expand its ruthless model throughout the region. The coming years will determine how the region will move forward. The ball, as so often, is in the hands of the Iranian regime. Will it choose appeasement and enhanced bilateral relations as the JCPOA 2.0 sponsors imagine, or will it continue on its path of violent expansionism?

This is all taking place amid the backdrop of the current US administration re-examining historical pacts, especially with Israel. Regional powers understand this new dynamic and are willing to face both options. Yet, this time around, the second option, which would mean a continuous need to contain Iran’s malign activities, will lead to the unknown. The early signs of what happens to all Iran’s hostages will reveal this.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr 

Related Articles

Back to top button