close button
Switch to Iranwire Light?
It looks like you’re having trouble loading the content on this page. Switch to Iranwire Light instead.

'Negotiating to Free Your Own Citizens is Not a Weakness but a Strength'

April 25, 2024
Susanne Berger
5 min read
Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali
Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali
Johan Floderus
Johan Floderus
Saeed Azizi
Saeed Azizi

Confronting a vicious bully is never easy. As tensions with the Islamic Republic of Iran continue to rise, the Swedish government finds itself in a thoroughly unenviable position. Pressure is growing daily on Swedish officials to secure the release of as many as four Swedish citizens wrongfully imprisoned in Iran while keeping potential concessions to the Iranian government to a minimum.

The imprisoned Swedes include Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali, who was detained in 2016 after attending a medical conference in Tehran, and Johan Floderus, a Swedish EU diplomat arrested by Iranian security agents two years ago following a private visit to the country. Both Floderus and Djalali have been charged with espionage for a foreign power, specifically Israel. An Iranian court imposed the death penalty on Djalali in 2017, and he has been living under the constant threat of execution ever since. Floderus has not yet been sentenced but also faces the death penalty. Additionally, Saeed Azizi, a 60-year-old Swedish-Iranian dual national, was sentenced earlier this year to five years in prison for 'collusion against national security.' Like Floderus and Djalali, Azizi has strenuously denied all charges against him. Azizi suffers from several serious medical conditions, including prostate cancer.

Iran is currently holding as many as seven other EU citizens as hostages, though the exact number is unclear. These individuals serve as bargaining chips in the Iranian leadership’s efforts to pressure Western governments into granting crucial political concessions. Regarding the Swedish prisoners, Iran hopes to secure the release of Hamid Noury, a former Iranian official who was sentenced to life in Sweden last year for the murder of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.

Ahmadreza Djalali’s fellow prisoner for seven years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, Siamak Namazi, worries that time is running out for his friend, whose health is rapidly declining and who suffers from chronic anxiety and depression. Namazi, a US-Iranian dual national, was released last September in a deal that also freed four other American hostages. It included the highly controversial transfer of $6 billion in Iranian assets that had been frozen in the U.S.

The mere idea of striking any type of deal with a murderous regime is revolting, whether it involves paying a ransom (directly or indirectly) or releasing a mass murderer like Hamid Noury. Beyond potentially violating Swedish laws and principles, the Swedish government also understandably fears that acceding to Iranian demands could project weakness or, worse, encourage future hostage-taking. Swedish officials insist that the prisoners should be freed immediately and unconditionally. However, Sweden’s options are almost certainly limited. "Once a hostage is taken, we are left with no good solutions," Siamak Namazi says. "The only thing that is clear at that point is that leaving a hostage for dead is unconscionable."

However, Namazi argues that Sweden should realize that fighting and negotiating for its own citizens is not a sign of weakness. Instead it serves to underline one of democratic societies’ greatest strengths.

Namazi has a point. The Swedish authorities handled the situation impeccably. They detained Mr Noury under the principle of universal jurisdiction upon his arrival in Stockholm in November 2019, charging him with the murder of Iranian political prisoners. In 2022, a Swedish court sentenced him to life in prison, a verdict confirmed by an appellate court later that year. Now, if a ruthless and cruel Iranian regime forces Sweden to choose between adhering strictly to its official rules and laws or saving its own citizens, the choice is extremely unpleasant yet clear. Unlike the leaders of Iran, who wage war on the best and brightest of their people, Sweden considers its citizens its greatest assets. Individuals like Ahmadreza Djalali, Johan Floderus, and Saeed Azizi not only contribute to the fabric of Swedish society but also embody the values all Swedes share.

The international community must confront the scourge of hostage diplomacy more determinedly and effectively. Exactly how this can be achieved remains to be seen. For now, the priority is rescuing those who have fallen victim to this cruel practice.

Perhaps it's helpful to remember that this is not the first time Sweden has felt bullied by a foreign power—and has chosen to consider the greater good to protect its citizens from potentially serious harm.

On the evening of February 22, 1944, four unidentified foreign planes appeared over the Swedish capital of Stockholm and dropped bombs. The main target was the Eriksdal area in Södermalm within the center of Stockholm. One of the bombs destroyed a new open-air theater and left a huge crater. The small town of Strängnäs, about fifty-five miles to the west of Stockholm, also was attacked.

An examination of the shells with Cyrillic lettering revealed that the raid on Stockholm had been carried out by a Soviet aircraft. Swedish officials diplomatically concluded that the raid was a mistake, resulting from Soviet bombers losing their way on a dark winter night. In response, the Soviet side denied that their planes had flown over Stockholm.

For the Swedish authorities, it was clear that the attack served as a stark warning. Firstly, it seemed that the Soviet government was displeased with Sweden’s assistance to Finland. Secondly, it appeared to be an attempt to pressure Stockholm into releasing the imprisoned Soviet military intelligence agent, Vasily Aleksandrovich Sidorenko.

Back in September 1942, the Swedish Security Police arrested Vasily Aleksandrovich Sidorenko, head of the Intourist Office in Stockholm, on charges of espionage. For over a year, Soviet officials in Stockholm sought Sidorenko’s release. On September 18, 1943, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, personally raised the issue with Vilhelm Assarsson, the Swedish Envoy in Moscow, but to no avail. Assarsson maintained that Sidorenko had indeed received intelligence information from several Swedish citizens. However, four days after the bombings of Stockholm and Strängnäs, Sidorenko was released. Clearly, Sweden had received the Soviet message and decided to err on the side of caution—prioritizing the lives of its citizens. This remains the choice today, and for the Swedish hostages held in Iran, the realization of their value cannot come soon enough.

Susanne Berger -  Senior Fellow, The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR), Montreal


Society & Culture

Iranian Rapper Toomaj Salehi Sentenced to Death

April 24, 2024
1 min read
Iranian Rapper Toomaj Salehi Sentenced to Death