Iran’s Hostages-for-Cash Scheme Continues—How Should the West Respond?

U.S. hostage Amir Hekmati
Former U.S. marine Amir Hekmati arrives at an airport in Flint, Michigan, January 21, after being released from an Iranian prison. Reuters/Rebecca Cook

Iran is currently holding Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe hostage to pressure London to pay back hundreds of million pounds it allegedly owes the Islamic Republic.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in April and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison on trumped-up charges of trying to overthrow the regime. Authorities also took away the passport of her two-year-old daughter, Gabriella, keeping her away from both her father (in Britain) and her mother (in jail).

Tehran, having leveraged U.S. hostages to secure a $1.7 billion payment in January, is trying this same cynical game again. This time, the incoming U.S. administration and its European allies must stand firm against Iran’s latest cynical attempt to use innocent civilians as bargaining chips.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) arrested Zaghari-Ratcliffe at Tehran’s airport as she prepared to return to the U.K. after a short trip to visit family. She was accused of participation in the “soft war” against the regime, a term favored by the supreme leader and IRGC.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has spent her whole career in the NGO world, and at the time of arrest was a project manager at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. From 2009 to 2011, she worked for the BBC, where she also coordinated a journalism-training course for Iranian and other journalists—a position which the IRGC apparently used as an excuse to arrest her.

The restoration of Iranian-British diplomatic relations in September has not improved Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s situation, nor that of the other two British hostages, Kamal Foroughi and Roya Saberi, held in the Islamic Republic. Instead, one day after relations were restored, a revolutionary court judge—known as the hanging judge for his fondness of capital punishment—sentenced her to five years in prison.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband recently claimed that Iran had arrested his wife in order to force the U.K. to settle an outstanding debt of £400 million for undelivered military equipment dating before the 1979 revolution. Between 1971 and 1976, Iran paid London £650 million to buy 1,500 Chieftain battle tanks and 250 repair vehicles. By 1979, Tehran had received only 185 of the tanks, and after the revolution, the U.K. refused to deliver the rest. A European court in 2010 ordered Britain to pay Iran £400 million, and London agreed, but negotiations over the repayment stalled in 2011. Now Tehran has settled on a new tactic—the same one it successfully deployed against the United States earlier this year: using hostages to wring payments from foreign capitals.

In January, Iran released five American citizens it had unjustly detained for periods ranging from a few weeks to more than four years. Simultaneously, the Obama administration paid $1.7 billion in cash to settle outstanding military sales disputes dating from before the revolution, in what the Wall Street Journal called a “tightly scripted exchange timed to the release of American hostages.”

After denying any link between the payment and the hostage release, the White House admitted that the cash had indeed provided it “leverage” to cement the deal. But since January, Iran has continued to detain foreign and dual citizens, and is demanding billions in ransom. Whatever leverage the cash-for-hostages situation provided, it appears to have gone not to Washington but to Tehran.

The West must respond decisively. The U.S., U.K., and EU should announce that they will no longer pay ransoms for hostages. They should also sanction broad swathes of the Iranian judicial system and those members of the Iranian leadership responsible for these cynical hostage-taking policies.

These efforts should then be followed by a public campaign to isolate Tehran diplomatically, particularly by drawing attention to cases of detained dual and foreign nationals. Only when the regime pays a price for this rogue behavior will the unjust detention of dual and foreign nationals like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe come to an end.

Saeed Ghasseminejad is an associate fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Annie Fixler is a policy analyst at FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance.

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