The hostage exchange in Iran: a brief history

Iran and Sweden exchanged prisoners on Saturday. The exchange looked like any two countries engaged in diplomatic negotiations to free their citizens. The families were elated; governments were relieved.

But the exchange was only the latest chapter in Iran's long history of what is known in world affairs as hostage diplomacy.

For more than four decades, starting with the 1979 revolution that established a conservative theocracy, the country has made the detention of foreigners and dual citizens a central element of its foreign policy. For Iran, the approach has paid off. This was a worrying trend for the world.

Iran's demands have evolved along with its tactics. In exchange for the release of the foreigners he asked for prisoners, assassins, cash and frozen funds. He designed complex deals involving multiple countries. And on Saturday, Iran secured the release of its most prized target: the first Iranian official to be convicted of crimes against humanity.

In the exchange, Sweden released Hamid Nouri, a former judicial official who was serving a life sentence in Sweden for his role in the mass execution of 5,000 dissidents in 1988.

In exchange, Iran released two Swedish citizens: Johan Floderus, a European Union diplomat, and Saeed Azizi, an Iranian with dual nationality. Left behind was a third, a Swedish scientist with dual citizenship, Ahmadreza Djalali, who was jailed in Iran and sentenced to execution on murky charges of treason.

“Iran is perfecting the art of hostage diplomacy and fooling everyone,” said Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen who lives in the United States and was held captive in Iran from 2015 to 2019. He is the president of Hostage Aid Worldwide, an advocacy group that helps secure the release of hostages. “The West is making it easy for them because there is no unified policy against hostage-taking.”

Iran's hostage-taking began almost immediately after the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, when a revolution overthrew the monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

A group of students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage, a 444-day standoff that permanently severed diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran. The Iranians wanted the United States to send the deposed Shah, who had advanced cancer, back to Iran. (The United States did not do so, and the hostages were finally released through negotiations mediated by Algeria.)

Over the following decades, Iran would continue to arrest foreigners and dual nationals, including scholars, journalists, businessmen, aid workers, and environmentalists. And with each arrest he asked for and received more in return.

In 2016, the Obama administration paid Iran $400 million in cash. The payment, which included a freeze on Iranian assets, coincided with the release of four Americans, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian.

In 2020, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian academic detained in Iran for two years, was released in a transnational exchange involving three Iranians detained in Thailand on charges of planning an attack.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British Iranian aid worker, was freed after serving six years in prison only after Britain agreed to pay its $530 million debt to Iran. These negotiations extended to multiple British governments.

And last year in September, Iran released several Americans with dual Iranian citizenship, including businessmen Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Sharghi, in exchange for several jailed Iranians. Iran also had access to $6 billion in frozen oil revenues with which it was allowed to make humanitarian purchases of goods such as food and medicine.

“Iran has constantly pushed the envelope and learned to defraud governments to get what it wants,” said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, an independent rights advocacy and documentation organization with based in New York. “The danger is that other authoritarian governments could learn from Iran and make hostage-taking the norm.”

News of Saturday's exchange was a gut punch to victims of human rights abuses in Iran and rights groups more generally.

Many feared that Nouri's trial, conviction and sudden exchange could affect the prospects for accountability and justice for war crimes in countries such as Russia, Syria and Sudan.

A news channel affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the powerful elite unit of Iran's military, offered a brazen online assessment of Saturday's deal. Referring to the two Swedish citizens exchanged with Mr Nouri, it reads: “These two were arrested only for the purpose of an exchange.”

The post, on the Telegram messaging app, goes on to comment approvingly that Iran managed to manage the deal without having to give up the third Swedish prisoner, Djalali, in the negotiations.

Zakka, of Hostage Aid Worldwide, called it “simply evil” for Sweden to leave Mr Djalali behind, and said his group wrote to the Swedish prime minister about two weeks ago urging the country to secure his release.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *