Iran’s hidden diplomacy: hostage-taking, kidnapping and murder

Militant students supporting Iran's Islamic Revolution stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took scores of hostages. Ultimately, 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. Image: Getty.
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Dual Iranian citizens who speak about abuses are being abducted from third-party countries and taken to Iran to face jail and sometimes death. The West has an opportunity now to stand up to Iran, Alireza Mohebbi writes.

On July 13, 2021, the US Department of Justice issued a statement announcing the unsuccessful attempt by the Islamic Republic of Iran intelligence service to abduct an Iranian-American journalist and human rights activist from New York City and transfer her to Iran.

Masih Alinejad is an Iranian-American journalist, women’s rights activist, and founder of the My Stealthy Freedom online movement against compulsory hijab law. She has been repeatedly threatened and intimidated by the Iranian regime for her activities. Ms Alinejad’s attempted abduction is not an isolated incident.

Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian refugee living in France and the director of the Telegram channel Amad News, was abducted by security agents of the Islamic Republic during a trip to Iraq in October 2019 and extradited to Iran.

As a journalist and political activist critical of the Islamic Republic, Mr Zam was found guilty of “corruption on earth” for running a popular anti-government forum and sentenced to death by the Tehran Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office. Mr Zam was hanged on December 12, 2020.

 Hostage policy and kidnapping in Iran

Hostage-taking and kidnapping of foreign nationals and those with dual nationality is not a new issue in Iran and dates back to the early years of the Islamic Revolution. Iran does not recognise dual nationality and considers dual citizens as Iranian citizens only. During its 42 years of existence, Iran has taken foreign nationals and dual nationals hostage based on accusations such as espionage and intending to extort political and economic ransom from other countries.

The Iran hostage crisis in 1979 can be considered one of the first of these measures. The ordeal began when Iranian students belonging to the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line attacked the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979.

After 444 days, on January 20, 1981, the crisis ended with the release of American diplomats following the signing of the Algiers Accords. Iran demanded about $8 billion to release the hostages in this diplomatic ransom, which eventually reached $3 billion in Iran’s net ransom.

Since then, dual nationals and citizens of France, Britain, Germany, Sweden, and Australia have fallen prey to the Islamic Republic’s hostage policy. The policy is even traceable in the statements Iranian officials.

In July 2015, former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander-in-chief Mohsen Reza’i  said: “If the Americans want to have a bad eye on Iran and think of a military strike, they can be sure that we will capture at least 1000 Americans in the first week, and then they will have to pay billions of dollars to free each of them, and we will solve the economic problem of the country.”

Some of the high-profile hostages taken by Iran’s regime

Iran's hidden diplomacy: hostage-taking, kidnapping and murder

Robert Levinson, a former US Federal Police officer, disappeared in March 2007 on the island of Kish in southern Iran while investigating cigarette smuggling. Officials of the Islamic Republic have always maintained they are unaware of the fate of the American citizen. Iran claims Mr Levinson left the country years ago, denying allegations by Mr Levinson’s family that he died during his detention in Iran.

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Clotilde Reiss, a French citizen, was arrested during the unrest in Iran after the controversial 2009 presidential election. Ms Reiss was accused of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran after taking and sharing photos from a demonstration she attended.

Ms Reiss left Iran for France on Sunday morning, May 16, 2010, after her sentence was commuted to fines. Two days after Ms Reiss was released, Ali Vakili Rad was released from prison and welcomed back by Islamic Republic authorities in Iran. Vakili Rad had been sentenced to 18 years to life in prison by a 1994 Paris criminal court for the assassination of Shapour Bakhtiar—Iran’s last prime minister before the Islamic Revolution.

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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British citizen, was arrested at the end of her trip to Iran by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard at Imam Khomeini Airport in April 2016 on espionage charges and plotting to topple the regime. She previously worked for the charities BBC Media Action and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has repeatedly stated his wife was a hostage, used as a bargaining chip over a long-standing debt for a failed tank deal. The Islamic Republic of Iran claims the British government owes Iran about £400 million for failing to deliver 1500 Chieftain tanks and 250 armoured vehicles, a contract signed more than four decades ago between the shah of Iran and the 1970s British government. However, neither Tehran nor London has formally made the lawsuit and the payment of the British debt to Iran conditional on Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.

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Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American journalist and director of the Tehran bureau of The Washington Post, was arrested on espionage charges on July 22, 2014, with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi.

Ms Salehi was released on October 6, 2014, but Mr Rezaian was sentenced to espionage and propaganda activities against the regime in May 2015. Mr Rezaian was released on January 16, 2016, along with three other Americans, as part of a prisoner exchange.

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Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American doctoral history student at Princeton University, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges.  He was arrested in August 2016 after travelling to Iran for research on his doctoral dissertation.

After three years in an Iranian prison, Mr Wang was released in December 2019 in a prisoner exchange with the United States for Massoud Soleimani, a stem cell researcher arrested at a Chicago airport last year charged with violating US trade sanctions against Iran.

Iran's hidden diplomacy: hostage-taking, kidnapping and murder

Kylie Moore-Gilbert (pictured above), an Australian-British citizen and a lecturer at Melbourne University, was arrested by Revolutionary Guards in September 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison on an espionage charge. Dr Moore-Gilbert was released on November 26, 2020, during an exchange for three Iranians who planned to bomb Israeli diplomats in Thailand in 2012. The Australian government did not officially approve the exchange of this Middle East researcher with three Iranians imprisoned in Thailand.

Iran's hidden diplomacy: hostage-taking, kidnapping and murder
Dual nationalities imprisoned in Tehran Image: Iran International.

Numerous dual citizens are being held in Iranian prisons on charges such as espionage, acting against national security and collaborating with hostile governments: Siamak Namazi (Iranian-American), Fariba Adelkhah (Iranian-French), Ahmad Reza Jalali (Iranian-French), Masoud Mosaheb and Kamran Ghaderi (Iranian-Austrian), Anousheh Ashouri (Iranian-British), and Nahid Taghavi and Jamshid Sharmahd, (Iranian-German).

Despite this, five international negotiators are on the verge of engaging with Iran in the seventh round of talks in Vienna to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Iran’s new ultraconservative president Ebrahim Raisi has a dark history of human rights abuses. Mr Raisi was credentialed by Iran’s supreme leader on Tuesday, August 3, 2021. 

Is the West missing an opportunity to use their nuclear negotiations as leverage to stop or slow abductions of dual citizens? Similar tactics previously worked when Iran bowed to Western pressure to cease assassinations of their political opponents outside Iran.

With US President Joe Biden announcing the importance of tackling human rights abuses as a priority, the West now has the opportunity to lead the international community in guaranteeing the safety of its dual citizens.

Hostage-taking, kidnapping, and murder are unacceptable. The international community must stand up to Iran’s dangerous behaviours and pressure the Iranian government to prevent such behaviours from being repeated by this country.

Alireza Mohebbi is a HDR candidate in Media and Communications at Swinburne University.