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Rewarding Iran’s hostage-taking puts others at risk

An extraordinary dispute broke into the public domain last week. The UK’s Foreign Office has long prioritized the case of detained British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, since then-Foreign Secretary (and current prime ministerial candidate, God help us) Boris Johnson made some ill-informed comments that provided Tehran with a pretext for increasing her unjustifiable sentence. It was revealed that the Foreign Office has been quietly lobbying the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to release £400 million ($505 million) paid by the former shah of Iran for a tank sale that was cut short by the 1979 revolution. The MoD rightly claims that payment of these funds could be funneled toward terrorist activities by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and overseas proxies like Hezbollah.

In January 2016, then-US President Barack Obama approved the delivery of $400 million in cash to Tehran at the same moment that five American hostages were flown back to American soil. All parties denied that these unfrozen funds represented a ransom payment. Additional tens of billions of dollars in funds unfrozen in the context of the 2015 nuclear deal, instead of being used to relieve the suffering of ordinary Iranian citizens, primarily benefited paramilitary forces, and in particular Bashar Assad’s genocidal war against his own nation.

The blueprints for Iran’s abductions were laid down in the 1980s, beginning in 1981, when Washington paid $3 billion for the release of 52 of its Embassy staff kidnapped during the revolution. Then, during the so-called Iran-Contra affair, the Reagan administration illegally used Israel to deliver large quantities of arms to the Khomeini regime, with payments for the weapons transferred to Contra rebels in Nicaragua. This was in recompense for the release of US hostages held by Hezbollah, which during the 1980s kidnapped more than 100 Westerners.

In the context of the 2003 Iraq conflict, numerous foreign citizens were abducted. British IT expert Peter Moore and his four bodyguards were seized in 2007 by proxies under Quds Force direction, which attacked Iraq’s Finance Ministry in broad daylight. Moore had been due to install a computer system that could help identify millions in funds being corruptly syphoned off by Iran’s proxies. Although the bodyguards were murdered, such abductions were used to secure the release of hundreds of militants, several of whom — like Qais Al-Khazali — have today become powerful figures in Iraq’s political system, while remaining deeply embroiled in militancy.

Earlier in 2007, Al-Khazali’s militia, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, captured and murdered a number of US soldiers during a raid against the coalition’s provincial headquarters in Karbala. The same year, 15 British sailors were abducted and paraded on Iranian TV, before eventually being released. Vulnerable sailors have often been kidnapped in Gulf waters in this manner.
In December 2015, 26 Qatari hunters, including royals, were kidnapped by Iranian proxies in southern Iraq. Iran negotiated with Doha, not just for payment of around $500 million, but also for the facilitation of population transfers in Syria to alter the demographic balance in Assad’s favor. Leaked emails show precise discussions about which paramilitary groups the payments would go to, including millions specifically allotted to the Quds Force’s Qassem Soleimani and militia leader Abu-Mahdi Al-Muhandis.

For these militias, hostage-taking is a routine tool for revenue generation and terrorizing the innocent. During sectarian cleansing operations, these militias abducted thousands of Iraqi Sunnis and demanded payments for their release. Hostages were often murdered even when ransoms were paid, contributing to a climate of terror and compelling tens of thousands of families to flee. Such activities are again increasing in response to shortages of funds resulting from US sanctions. Particularly in Nineveh province, dozens of illegal checkpoints have been set up, where citizens are detained and extorted for funds.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being held on espionage charges, but her only crime is being a vulnerable dual national in the wrong place at the wrong time. Iran constantly seizes dual nationals as soft targets for applying pressure on foreign governments. Human Rights Watch recently documented 14 such cases. This heartlessness was on display a few months ago, when Zaghari-Ratcliffe was temporarily released and given a few precious hours with her baby daughter, before being returned to prison.

Millions of people who closely follow this case would be delighted to see her released, but are ransom payments for terrorist and militant groups appropriate, particularly when a principal Foreign Office motivation appears to be atonement for past mistakes?

Tehran has been harassing family members of BBC Persian TV staff in an attempt to terrorize these journalists off the air. Soleimani recently ordered Iraqi militant leaders to prepare for the abduction of foreign nationals. In recent years, Iran has also shown its readiness to stage overseas operations against oppositionists and foreign diplomats. There will always be a surplus of innocent, soft targets for the Islamic Republic, as long as it keeps discovering that crime pays.

Normal states advance their foreign objectives through diplomacy. The pariah state in Tehran has made itself so internationally hated that the only means of furthering its diplomatic goals is through hostage-taking as a formal tool of foreign policy. No other state has used this gambit so consistently and so regularly.

Britain and America have an official policy of refusing to pay ransoms to deter future bouts of hostage-taking. Yet, whatever they choose to call these funds, they are rewarding criminal behavior, making it certain that their citizens will be abducted by Iran and its proxies in the future. Furthermore, when these ill-gotten gains are invested back into regional militancy, Iran’s capacity to target the West is enhanced. Hostage-taking is exploited by criminals to put those with a heart and a conscience in a moral dilemma: Wouldn’t we be willing to do anything to free from captivity our loved ones or citizens toward whom we have a duty of care?

However, by facilitating payments to this terrorist state, the Foreign Office is only ensuring that, in the long-term, there will be hundreds more like Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

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