Hostage-taking as an instrument of foreign policy

There is no substantive difference between the hostage-taking and Iran’s tendency to detain foreign nationals on flimsy charges of spying

Baria Alamuddin
Baria Alamuddin
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The manner in which detained U.S. naval personnel were paraded on state TV and across the global media, making "coerced apologies," speaks volumes of the mindset of the Islamic Republic’s leadership.

The waters of the Arabian Gulf are encircled by eight nations, so the issue of maritime borders is a complex one. In such scenarios, majority of civilized nations seek to amicably and discreetly resolve such situations.

No nation routinely exploits such incidents deliberately and systematically. However, Iran chose to parade the individuals concerned on broadcast media in the country and around the world, bound, humiliated and in a distressed state. Undisclosed forms of coercion were used to force them to say sorry for allegedly straying into international waters.

As John Kerry publicly thanked Iran’s leaders for their ‘cooperation’ over the issue, they responded by clarifying that they were keeping the boat and the equipment. America’s humiliation was complete.

In the context of months of talks and deals between the U.S. and Iran over the nuclear issue, it was particularly significant that Iran chose to blow this up into a major crisis. Let’s be very clear, this was a calculated attempt to humiliate and belittle the world’s most powerful nation. Whatever Kerry said, he and Obama have been made to look weak and indecisive. Is this the manner in which you treat those you want to do business with?

There is always a lot of debate about who are the relative hardliners and moderates in Iran. President Rouhani often appears to be saying one thing, while Supreme Leader Khamenei says precisely the opposite. These apparent disparities matter little when it is the hardliners pulling all the strings.

Khamenei needed the moderate face of Rouhani to reach an agreement in the nuclear deal and end Iran’s diplomatic isolation; and so that the country could enrich itself once again as sanctions come to an end. The nuclear agreement was a means to an end and Iran has not changed its behavior one bit.

Since the nuclear deal, Iran’s interference in the Arab world has become even more blatant and aggressive – arming the Houthis so as to destroy Yemen; allowing Assad and Hezbollah to starve Syrian cities into submission; bringing the remnants of the Iraqi state even more under its control; and arming militants in Bahrain. This is not a state which wants to play according to the rules of the international system.

There is no substantive difference between the hostage-taking and Iran’s tendency to detain foreign nationals on flimsy charges of spying

Baria Alamuddin

American diplomats will be patting their backs for resolving this latest diplomatic crisis relatively quickly. However, the Islamic Republic has learned all the wrong lessons from the incident.

Numerous such incidents have taken place in recent times. Republican Guards have interfered with U.S. freighters on several occasions. Similar crises have involved several other nations, most notably the British sailors who were held for 13 days in 2007 and another group of British naval personnel detained in 2004.

There is no substantive difference between this and Iran’s tendency to detain foreign nationals on flimsy charges of spying.

The Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian, who was recently sentenced to a prison term of undisclosed duration, is only the most recent and high profile example. Former U.S. marine Amir Hekmati remains in an Iranian jail and had even faced a death sentence for trumped up charges of espionage. We should also not forget the American hikers who spent 14 months in detention until 2011 for inadvertently crossing into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Against Geneva Convention

Iranian citizens of joint nationality are the most vulnerable to such propaganda trials. Since signing the nuclear deal, Iran has shown no less inclination to treat every U.S. citizens who comes within its grasp in a similar manner – show trials, televised confession, parading them before the public for maximum humiliation and allegations which are a figment of the paranoid imaginations of Iran’s leadership. The Geneva Conventions prohibit the practice of parading prisoners for purposes of insults and propaganda. Iranian citizens of joint nationality are the most vulnerable to such propaganda trials and accusations of spying.

There is also something distasteful about America’s leaders thanking Iran for its efforts to humiliate and undermine them. Many states make it very clear that they don’t make substantive concessions to hostage-takers. But this is what Iran is – a major tenet of its foreign policy is based on systematically capturing hostages from other nations in order to force diplomatic concessions.

Iran will always ensure that it has a number of American and Western nationals languishing in its jails so that when diplomatic tensions increase it can play this card and force them to adopt a softer approach. Obama and Kerry would be wise to acknowledge that they have once again demonstrated to the Islamic Republic that this is one of its strongest cards. For Iran’s leaders, hostage-taking pays.


Baria Alamuddin is a journalist and commentator on Middle East current affairs.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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