Reading Montesquieu in Tehran

Amir Taheri

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Although the recent visit to Tehran by Britain’s new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt did not produce the result he had hoped for, it may have helped him get a better understanding of how things work in the Islamic Republic in Iran. According to London sources, Hunt had hoped to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual national hostage serving a five-year prison term on a vague charge of trying to overthrow the Iranian regime.

Had she been released Hunt and his boss, Prime Minister Theresa May would have scored a double win. With a “Nazanin-home-for-Christmas” number, they would have been able to divert attention from the ordeal of Brexit with at least a momentary flash of national unity at a time of deep divisions.

On a less grand scale, they would also have scored a point against Boris Johnson, the previous Foreign Secretary and Mrs. May’s principal rival for the leadership of the Conservative Party. The flamboyant but gaffe-prone Johnson had visited Tehran as Foreign Secretary and tried to snatch Nazanin from the mullahs’ claws. Not only did he fail to achieve that but he may have made Nazanin’s case more complicated by claiming that she had been involved in training Iranian journalists.

Seizing hostages has been a permanent feature of the Islamic Republic politics from its first moments of existence in 1979. Since then hardly a day has passed without the mullahs holding some foreign hostages

Amir Taheri

To be sure, Nazanin isn’t the only hostage in Tehran. At last count, there were 21 of them from six nationalities, including at least four more dual British nationals.

The use of hostages

Seizing hostages has been a permanent feature of the Islamic Republic politics from its first moments of existence in 1979. Since then hardly a day has passed without the mullahs holding some foreign hostages.

Initially, most of the hostages were Western diplomats, journalists, and businessmen. By the 1990s the number of such would-be hostages had fallen dramatically as fewer Western diplomats, journalists and businessmen traveled to Tehran. Because the regime couldn’t do without hostages it had to find a new category of victims. It was thus that a number of ordinary Western tourists, including a group that had strayed into Iran from Iraq by mistake, were seized as hostages. However, that new category had to be abandoned soon because tour companies owned by the mullahs or their front-men complained that seizing hostages was wrecking their business.

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A new category of hostages was found among individuals, including some dual nationals, who believed themselves safe because they had campaigned in favor of the Islamic Republic in Europe or North America. Soon, however, that sense of safety proved to be misplaced as a number of prominent pro-mullah campaigners, especially in the US, were seized during visits to Tehran.

When that source of hostages also dried up because many pro-mullah apologists in Europe and the US realized that going to Iran was a high-risk undertaking, the mullahs found a new trick for replenishing their supply of captives. That new trick was to actually hire people in Europe and North America, offering mouth-watering contracts, and then seize them as hostages when they came to Iran. Thus, we witnessed surrealistic scenes in which a Western or dual national employee of the Islamic Republic would arrive at Tehran Airport to a full official welcome only to be arrested a few days later and charged with espionage.

‘Not a normal state’

The need for hostages meant that even lobbyists for the Islamic Republic were not safe. Right now several founders of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), Tehran’s principal lobby group in the US, are held as hostages in Tehran on spurious charges among them 82-year old Muhammad-Baqer Namazi and his son Siamak.

In dealing with the Islamic Republic, Hunt has repeated the mistake of his predecessors by believing that he is dealing with a normal state structure in which men who act as high officials truly represents the decision-making machinery.

For example, he raised the issue of hostages with Foreign Minister Muhammad-Javad Zarif who promptly asserted that he and his office had no influence on the issue. In fact, Zarif cannot guarantee his own safety let alone help the British secure the release of any hostages.

By most accounts, the Islamic Republic has at least nine parallel security agencies separately controlled by the office of the “Supreme Guide”.

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Those agencies can operate outside the official legal framework and, at times, could even arrest each other’s agents. They also get involved in bizarre situations. For example, Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested by a security outfit based in the southeastern province of Kerman. How such a group could come to the capital to arrest a British citizen at the Tehran airport remains a mystery. The Lebanese-American hostage Nizar Zaka who had come to Iran as a technician invited by the Islamic Minister of Communication was seized by one branch of the security despite the fact that he had received “full clearance” from yet another branch.

The standard excuse used by Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani in refusing to take up the issue of hostages is that the Islamic Republic observes the principle of “separation of powers” cherished by Montesquieu.

“Our justice is independent,” Zarif reportedly told Hunt.

In a sense, Zarif is right as the presidency and the Council of Ministers have no influence in the judiciary. But what Zarif didn’t say is that the judiciary, being independent and all, also has no influence on who gets arrested and sentenced in the Islamic Republic. In the Islamic Republic, Montesquieu’s teaching is taken to the extreme to create a system in which power is divided into numerous apparently autonomous branches that are, nevertheless, all controlled from a single center. And that single center hides behind a governmental façade that includes a presidency, a Council of Ministers, a judiciary, a legislature and other paraphernalia of statehood whose task is to lead people like Jeremy Hunt up the garden path.

In their time, both Presidents Muhammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to ensure the release of various hostages in appreciation of what they believed was European Union support in the face of American sanctions. They failed to secure freedom for even a single hostage. Instead, both men now found themselves hostages in Iran because, having had their passports confiscated, they cannot travel abroad.

Instead, they have enough time to read Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters”.

This article was first publish in Asharq al-Awsat.

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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