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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Iran's Dark Art of Hostage Diplomacy

Article by: Tara De Klerk

The Release of Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe

In March 2022, British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe’s long-awaited reunion with her daughter Gabriella and husband Richard made headlines across the globe as she finally returned home after six years in Iranian detention. Under the guise of spurious judicial proceedings and wrongful espionage charges, the Iran had sentenced Ratcliffe to a total of five years in prison and one year of house arrest. These charges accumulated sporadically over the course of her imprisonment, which began during a holiday in the country. Recent investigations into her case revealed that she endured long periods of solitary confinement and torture, suffering from extensive mental and physical distress.

Responses in the UK

Back in the UK, her husband Richard became the driving force behind the petition to #freezaghari, which attracted an astonishing 3.7 million supporters. Despite government advice to the contrary, his relentless lobbying and two hunger strikes kept Ratcliffe’s plight in the public spotlight. As a highly publicised affair, the gross impingement on the presumption of innocence, inhumane treatment, and denial of legal defence, led to British newspapers such as The Guardian claiming that this situation was a major source of embarrassment for the British government. It unveiled the workings of a highly secretive interstate power game in which governments exchanged political concessions for the freedom of individual citizens. This article will shed light on the rarely discussed practice coined ‘hostage diplomacy’.

The Origins

When individuals are imprisoned on false charges in countries other than their own, they have at times fallen victim to the technique of hostage diplomacy. In this political game civilians become puppets - entangled in the strings pulled by their imprisoners and their own national government. In other words, hostages are taken on domestic “legal” grounds for use as foreign policy leverage. This practice has been part and parcel of Iran’s diplomatic arsenal since 1979, when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after the storming of the US embassy by Iranian student protesters. Historically termed the “Iran Hostage Crisis,” the event was a catalyst for numerous future iterations of hostage-taking, which have become a normalised, and even successful, part of Iran’s foreign policy toolbox.

Hidden State Agendas

Throughout his resolute campaigning, Richard maintained that Ratcliffe was held captive to force Britain to settle a debt payment for undelivered defence equipment, dating back to 1979. The arms deal had taken place between the UK and the Shah of Iran, but following the Iranian Revolution had never been fully executed. Iran has since demanded the UK reimburse the cost for these weapons and lift Western sanctions that, according to British politicians, inhibit payment. Following the US’s lead, which has intermittently imposed sanctions against Iran since the 1979 Hostage Crisis, the UK and other European states have gradually used sanctions to limit Iran’s nuclear development. By 2013, the EU had imposed a comprehensive sanctions regime on Iran, froze assets and enacted travel bans. This resulted in a blow to the Iranian economy and has inevitably become a point of tension between Iran and the West. So, how did the British government react to Ratcliffe’s case and Richard’s assumption that Iran wanted certain sanctions to be lifted or debt for the arms deal be settled?

Pay-off or Coincidence?

Despite a recent £530 million transaction, negotiated between then British foreign secretary Liz Truss (now Prime Minister) and her Iranian counterpart, coinciding with Ratcliffe’s release, the UK government denies that this transfer constituted a ransom payment. Perhaps that denial is done in the hopes of not encouraging further hostage-taking. But it remains difficult to refute Richard Ratcliffe’s assertion that his wife was used as a pawn in UK-Iran diplomacy when the timeline of her criminal proceedings and detention was so heavily influenced by inter-state discords.

A Global Game

Cases like Ratcliffe’s are far from isolated and have reproduced plentifully across the political landscape: Human rights groups report that between 20-40 dual nationals are currently held prisoners under seemingly bogus charges in Iran alone. For example, Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian disaster medic is being held on the basis of ‘Corruption on Earth’ through espionage after a trial void of all due process. The recent Iranian reclamation of his execution was regarded by Western observers as an attempt by Tehran to secure the freedom of the alleged Iranian executioner Hamid Noury, who was delivered a life sentence in July by the Swedish courts.

Paying the Price

The fate of Iranian captives is bound by the theatrics enacted by Iranian and Western leaders. Although many Western states have proven resolute in their promise not to engage in ransom payments, state concessions seem to be the key that best fits the lock imprisoning dual nationals. In 2016, after tense negotiations with Tehran that were mostly kept hidden from mainstream media, Washington swapped several hostages for 400 billion dollars in frozen, not seized, assets. However, the use of citizens as bargaining chips is not solely practised by Iran, with China and Russia also said to be engaging in their share of murky trials and lengthy, unmerited sentences imposed upon nationals of countries they seek to get concessions from. On July 6, 2022, the Belgian parliament ratified the Provisional Prisoner Exchange Treaty providing a legal framework to allow the state to swap detainees. Although deals and laws like these provide solace for the victims and their families, they are shadowed by the critique that they play into the hands of authoritarian forces.

The Role of International Law

Victims of hostage diplomacy are notoriously hard to protect since their qualification as ‘hostage’ is overridden by their official label of ‘detainee,’ to which foreign interference is argued to be an infringement on the deciding state’s sovereign criminal justice system. These conflicting terms obscure their rights of detention and help excuse certain state behaviour. In this way, hostage diplomacy is particularly dangerous since the practice is frequently beyond the control of international law. Multilateralism can provide some insights into how states can pool together their global influence and limit that of the hostage-taking country. Scholars now start to research how international law could adapt to the evolution of hostage-taking by states themselves and secure a new protective layer for victims stuck between the duality of hostage and prisoner.

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