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
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
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.