/Opinion | Iran has reinvented the hostage crisis, 40 years later

Opinion | Iran has reinvented the hostage crisis, 40 years later


In 2016, British national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with her daughter Gabriella, traveled to her native Iran to spend the holidays with relatives. She planned to stay for two weeks. Instead, her vacation turned into a nightmare in an Iranian prison that has already robbed her of more than three years of her life.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker, was arrested at the airport, blocked from flying home to London, and eventually charged with plotting to overthrow the Iranian government. She is one of at least 50 foreign nationals — many of them with Iranian citizenship — arrested in Iran on unsubstantiated charges over the past decade.



Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, left, on a trip she took to Iran with her husband, Richard, and daughter, Gabriella, a year before her arrest.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an example of the latest iteration of a foreign policy tactic that began on Nov. 4, 1979, when radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking dozens of Americans captive. The episode ended after 444 days, when the hostages were released in 1981. But the seeds were already planted: using hostages to achieve political goals. Now these cases are growing in frequency.

Arbitrary arrests reported

Arrests of foreigners, dual nationals or Iranian citizens with permanent residence abroad

Sources: PobleteTamargo; Center for Human

Rights in Iran; news reports.

Arbitrary arrests reported each year

Arrests of foreigners, dual nationals or Iranian citizens with permanent residence abroad

Sources: PobleteTamargo; Center for Human Rights in Iran;

news reports.

Arbitrary arrests

reported each year

Arrests of foreigners, dual nationals or Iranian citizens with permanent residence abroad

Sources: PobleteTamargo LLP; Center for Human Rights in Iran; news reports.

“It’s an asymmetric tool of diplomacy that the Iranian regime has been using since its inception,” Robert O’Brien, national security adviser and former special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, told me. “Sadly, the Iran regime is proud of this stain on their history.”

The Islamic republic has honed state-sponsored hostage-taking into a key foreign policy weapon, with business people, tourists, journalists, academics, information technology specialists and even travel vloggers among those who have been swept up in this phenomenon. In most cases, Iran accuses and convicts the prisoners of fabricated crimes against the state, to later gain concessions from their home countries.

Without proof interrogators accused Zaghari-Ratcliffe of everything from being a spy, to marrying a spy, to training journalists. Three years into a five-year sentence, she is extremely fragile, according to her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, an accountant.

Ratcliffe says an Iranian judge told his wife she would be released if Britain paid a half-billion-dollar debt related to a pre-1979 arms deal. The British and Iranian governments publicly deny that the debt is linked to her case.

There are two urgent imperatives: freeing those innocent individuals who are paying a price for political battles to which they have no connection. And ending the practice before it becomes widely used around the world.

It is impossible to determine exactly how many people Iran is holding because many families don’t speak openly about their ordeal. But since 2007, at least 57 cases have been made public either by Iranian authorities or the hostages’ families. Currently, at least 13 people are known to be held under circumstances that follow the same pattern.

Why Iran takes hostages

Iran uses the arrests to accomplish a range of political goals.

In some cases, it initiates a prisoner swap. Other instances are tied to attempts to recover Iranian assets frozen abroad. Sometimes it’s a combination of both. I was arrested in 2014 and charged with spying while covering Iran for The Post. I was released along with other Americans on the same day world powers implemented a nuclear deal with Iran. The United States also freed Iranian prisoners, lifted sanctions on the Islamic republic and returned Iranian assets.

Hostage-taking more recently has been used by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful paramilitary branch that answers to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to deter contact between the outside world and Iranian society. This is particularly apparent in the uptick in the number of academic scholars from Western nations who have been arrested while doing research in Iran. Among them is Xiyue Wang, a U.S. citizen who was doing PhD research.



Hua Qu, the wife of Princeton University researcher Xiyue Wang, held in Iran since 2016. Wang is a U.S. citizen. (Matt Rourke/AP)

In Iran, an elected president runs the day-to day-government operations and international relations. Khamenei, however, can intervene in all state matters, acting as a one-man veto. This dynamic in recent years has led to sometimes tense relations between the civilian government and the Revolutionary Guard. The civilian government has courted foreign investment and greater openness, while the Guard seeks to keep Iran closed.

During the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear activities, these internal political divisions began to manifest through hostage-taking. My arrest, followed by the 2015 arrests of Siamak Namazi, another Iranian American, and Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese legal permanent resident of the United States, were all carried out by the intelligence wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. This began the era of detentions seemingly designed to astound and complicate the work of Iran’s international negotiators.

In each of our cases we were either officially permitted or invited by Iranian authorities to be in the country for the activities we were ultimately arrested for doing.

Some of the foreign nationals

currently held by Iran

American-

Iranian businessman, arrested in 2015

British-Iranian retired civil engineer, arrested in 2017

British-Australian researcher, arrested in 2018

British-Iranian-

American environmentalist, arrested in 2018

French-

Iranian anthropologist, arrested in June

British-Iranian anthropologist, arrested in August

Some of the foreign nationals

currently held by Iran

British-Iranian-Americanenvironmentalist, arrested in 2018

American-

Iranian businessman, arrested in 2015

British-Iranian retired civil engineer, arrested in 2017

British-

Australian researcher, arrested in 2018

French-

Iranian anthropologist, arrested in June

British-Iranian anthropologist, arrested in August

Some of the foreign nationals currently held by Iran

American-

Iranian businessman, arrested in 2015

British-Iranian retired civil engineer, arrested in 2017

British-Iranian-American environmentalist, arrested in 2018

British-a

Australian researcher, arrested in 2018

French-

Iranian anthropologist, arrested in June

Some of the foreign nationals currently held by Iran

American-

Iranian businessman, arrested in 2015

British-Iranian retired civil engineer, arrested in 2017

British-Iranian-American environmentalist, arrested in 2018

British-

Australian researcher, arrested in 2018

French-

Iranian anthropologist, arrested in June

British-Iranian anthropologist, arrested in August

Some of the foreign nationals currently held by Iran

American-Iranian businessman, arrested in 2015

British-Iranian retired civil engineer, arrested in 2017

British-Iranian-American environmentalist, arrested in 2018

British-Australian researcher, arrested in 2018

French-Iranian anthropologist, arrested in June

British-Iranian anthropologist, arrested in August

Zakka, an information technology expert and Internet freedom advocate, was invited to Iran by the regime’s vice president of women’s affairs to participate in a conference on how technology can uplift women. After it was over, he was arrested while driving to the airport and taken to Evin prison for interrogation.

As evidence, the Iranian Revolutionary Court used photos Zakka posted of himself on Facebook at a reunion of his former military high school and another with former secretary of state Colin Powell.



(Personal archive, Nizar Zakka)

Iran freed Zakka in June after intense negotiations with Lebanon, his country of birth. Some observers argue his release was a goodwill gesture from Iran to the United States that might open the door for further hostage negotiations. Zakka served nearly four years of a 10-year prison sentence.

“Over the years, Iran has regularly demanded concessions of all kinds — money, arms or other policy actions — in exchange for hostages it held or were held by its proxies like Hezbollah,” said Jared Genser, a Washington-based human rights lawyer who represents the family of two Americans currently being held in Iran.

A factory at work

The similarities between my experience as a hostage in Evin prison and others who were detained for purportedly the same reasons are striking.

In nearly every case, a hostage is accused on opaque charges of threatening Iran’s national security, often times of plotting with foreign governments against the regime.

The hostage is taken to Evin prison, usually to section 2A, which is run by the Revolutionary Guard. He or she is placed in solitary confinement and subjected to long hours of interrogations without legal counsel. This can continue for months. If the person’s family or employers have not done so, the Revolutionary Guard announces the detention through domestic media outlets it controls.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family, including her toddler, Gabriella, was unable to see her for more than a month after her arrest.

Iran then raises the stakes by leaking reports of the hostages’ supposed wrongdoings to domestic media and airing television documentaries, sometimes with forced confessions. This serves the dual purpose of sowing suspicion within Iranian society while simultaneously creating a flashy story in Western media.

Once the case is internationally known, a closed-door trial is held in which the hostage is denied due process and adequate legal representation. Almost all of these cases are heard by the same judge, Abolghasem Salavati, who invariably convicts them with a harsh sentence, adding to global outrage.

Despite the use of individuals as negotiating chips with foreign powers, when it comes to dual Iranian nationals the process is even more precarious as Iranian law does not recognize the second nationality of its citizens.

“Arresting dual nationals is a useful way to send a message to domestic opponents. It’s a function of internal politics and factionalism,” Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said.

These hostages are denied consular visits from diplomats representing the governments of their other nationality. Prisoners must navigate the ordeal, feeding a sense of isolation and hopelessness. The prolonged detentions and the traumatic experiences that come with them have resulted in severe depression for many people whom I spoke with. The effects can last for years.

Call it what it is

Until recently, the United States, Britain and other countries refused to call these arrests hostage cases, referring to them instead as unjust detentions. The detentions are considered consular cases, lending the charges an air of legitimacy and inadvertently insinuating that the accused might be guilty of something. This classification is inaccurate. Iran is kidnapping foreign nationals more frequently than ever, and the home governments are taking longer and longer to free their detained citizens.

“What is lacking is not law or policy,” said Jason Poblete, a Washington-based lawyer who has represented U.S. citizens held hostage abroad, including current and former hostages of the Iranian regime. “It’s political will to make resolution of these cases a global priority among affected stakeholders.”

As nationals of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and France are increasingly targeted, the hesitation around labeling the phenomenon appears to be fading.

“It has only been with the expansion of the regime’s hostage taking to nationals of a much broader group of countries in the last few years that governments around the world are now calling these shakedowns the hostage taking that it is,” Genser said.

Until 2018, the cases of Americans held in Iran were handled by the section of the State Department that provides support for all U.S. citizens abroad. In a major policy shift, the responsibility moved to the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs when O’Brien took the helm.

“The president’s position and I think the view of the American people, is that, like the diplomats who were taken hostage in 1979, Americans currently wrongfully detained in Iran are innocents being held captive as bargaining chips. That is against all international law, customs and norms,” O’Brien, now the national security adviser, told me. He brought the crest from his previous office as hostage envoy to his new one in the West Wing, as a symbol of just how important this issue remains to him.

Regardless of how international officialdom refers to it, there is no question to the victims of this terrible practice that they were hostages.

For Tehran, this is normal operating behavior. Iran’s leaders have become so comfortable with their own antics that they now brazenly use their annual attendance at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to announce their willingness to trade hostages.

The United States and its allies are starting to individually acknowledge the severity of the problem. On the sidelines of the General Assembly this year, American families met with top Trump administration officials. Nearby, a British delegation held a similar meeting with Richard Ratcliffe and others.

This is a good step, but not enough. A collective approach is needed to end this 40-year menace. Without one, we risk other governments using hostage-taking as an acceptable tool of diplomacy.

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