The “extortionist” practices of the Islamic Republic of Iran were thrown into sharp relief on Tuesday at the largest-ever meeting of former hostages of the regime and current victims’ families.
The event, organized by Hostage Aid Worldwide, saw ex-hostages share their stories of captivity in Iran over more than four decades, from the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution to summer 2020.
Chaired by Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-American citizen held in Iran from 2015 to 2019, and Amnesty International USA board member Ali Arab, the network discussed ways to stop the regime from continuing to take hostages for political gain with impunity.
Robert Malley, the United States’ former lead negotiator on the 2015 nuclear deal and now the Biden administration’s special envoy to Iran, also spoke about ongoing attempts to free arbitrarily-detained US citizens in Iran.
“There is nothing more important to us than making sure that all of our unjustly-held American detainees in Iran get home safely,” he said.
“It’s in some ways the most distasteful and unseemly thing we do because they should be released without any conditions. Getting them home is, for me, a priority. But we understand that we have to be careful what we do, so that we don’t pave the way for the next crop of detentions.”
At least five American citizens are currently jailed on trumped-up charges in Iran, including Siamak and Baquer Namazi, who were first arrested in October 2015.
Mr. Malley said the fact that the pair were not freed after the nuclear deal was “something that weighs heavily on us”. He insisted that whether a new deal was signed with Iran in Vienna or not, the US would continue to press for the release of all its citizens detained in Iran.
He added: “We have made progress in terms of coming up with the contours of a deal that would lead to the release of all our citizens. But we’re not there yet. The Iranians are being extortionist in this regard and trying to get as much as they can.”
Forty Years of Hostage-Taking by the Regime
The Islamic Republic took its first hostages in November 1979, when revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 staffers prisoner for 444 days.
But as Carole Chedid, a Hostage Aid board member and co-organizer, noted at the start of the meeting, the last few years have seen “an increase in cases of hostage-taking as a tool to build leverage in diplomatic negotiations: a dangerous trend that needs to be stopped in its tracks.”
Among those present on Tuesday were Michael White, a US Navy veteran released in a prisoner swap for an Iranian national last June, and the families of French national Benjamin Briere and German-Iranian Jamshid Sharmahd, both of whom are currently behind bars in Iran.
Barry Rosen, who was a press attaché at the US embassy in 1979, described his harrowing 14 and a half months of captivity after the Revolution, during which he was held in a solitary cell and interrogated at gunpoint.
“They didn’t know what to do with us,” he recalled. “Naively, they thought they would exchange us for the Shah [in the US]. I tried to gently tell them they were wrong; I said, ‘If you continue to do this, we’ll grow old together’.”
He added: “No-one should be treated like that... I think the more we work together, we will be able to find a solution to Iran’s demonic behavior patterns in diplomatic relations.”
Chinese-American historian Xiyue Wang, who was imprisoned alongside Nizar Zakka from 2016 to 2019 and also released in a prisoner swap, and his wife Hua Qu, said they had felt let down by the US authorities.
“A month into my arrest,” he said, “it wasn’t clear to me what Iranian intelligence was up to. I realized when the interrogator forced me into [signing] a confession.
“He told me the reason I was arrested was simply that they were going to use me as a political pawn against the US. At that moment, I understood I had been taken hostage.”
Hua Qu instantly informed the State Department but said she was warned off talking to the media about the case, and her husband was not publicly described as a hostage by US officials.
“Even after my husband was released,” she said, “for a long time, people seemed to have greater empathy for Iran and the regime than for the victims. I don’t understand this imperception.”
Americans who had been held hostage in other countries also shared their own experiences and advice. Alan Gross, a former aid worker who spent five years in a Cuban jail, said he had taken every opportunity to “embarrass” his captors.
“My mindset was to stay healthy, exercise as much as possible, and try to keep positive,” he said. “I also decided to try to make my captors worry as much as possible.”
The former hostages were also asked what their loved ones had told them, during their detention, to motivate them and lift their spirits. Sam Goodwin, an American unjustly held in Syria for 52 days in 2019, gave a simple reply. His relatives said: “We’re working on it.”
Future Sanctions for Iranian Hostage-Takers
Geoffrey Dive, the uncle of imprisoned British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, told those present it was important to understand how the business of hostage-taking in Iran worked, from surveillance through to striking a deal.
“Each one of these areas isn’t just functionaries or departments,” he said. “They are [made up of] individuals and specialist negotiators, often politicians, involved in weaponizing individuals by making it look like they are guilty of some crime, usually for domestic audiences ... In the rest of the world, we know they are hostages.”
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention is thought to be related to an historic £400 million debt Iran claims to be owed by the UK from a deal that fell apart after the Islamic Revolution.
Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and UK-based charity REDRESS are spearheading a new campaign to punish individual officials involved in hostage-taking.
REDRESS is building an evidence file based on victims’ first-hand testimonies that identify those involved in the practice of hostage-taking and other human rights abuses in Iran.
A list of these names will then be sent to the UK government with a request for the perpetrators to be subjected to Magnitsky sanctions. Under British law, and also in the EU, the US and Canada, these sanctions target individual human rights abusers with travel bans and asset freezes.
Mr. Ratcliffe said that, while largely symbolic, Magnitsky sanctions had a “naming and shaming” function as well as posing a potential inconvenience. The name of Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s former chief justice and now president-elect, is likely to be on the list.
“It’s important to challenge and disrupt this insidious practice,” Mr. Ratcliffe said, “which has become normalized.”
The Next Steps in Combatting Hostage-Taking in Iran
Hostage Aid Worldwide was established in September 2020 by a consortium of former hostages and human rights experts. It fights for the release of hostages and offers support to their loved ones while aiming to bring an end to the practice.
The latest prominent Iranian human rights advocate to join its board is Masih Alinejad, the founder of the online campaign “My Stealthy Freedom”, which opposes Iran’s mandatory hijab laws. Alinejad’s brother was sentenced to eight years in prison in July 2020 in Iran, seemingly because of her activism efforts outside Iran.
“The only difference between these dual nationals and my brother,” Alinejad told the meeting, “is that he doesn’t have a different passport.”
The group’s efforts come amid a rising awareness of the endemic practice of hostage-taking in some countries like Iran – and widespread uncertainty about how to tackle it.
Last month, US lawmakers announced the creation of the Congressional Task Force on American Hostages and Americans Wrongfully Detained Abroad, which will serve as a resource for families and victims.
In December 2020, the US also passed the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, named in memory of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who was disappeared by the Iranian authorities in 2007. The act provides specific vehicles to sanction individuals who take Americans hostage.