Iran can't keep using foreign nationals as bargaining chips

It has little chance of establishing a constructive relationship with the outside world

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The release of an Australian-British academic who had been jailed by Iran on spying charges highlights the Iranian regime’s willingness to play politics with the lives of foreign nationals to achieve its own ends – as it does with its own people.

While the precise details surrounding the release of Middle East scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert may never be known, all indicators suggest it was part of a prisoner swap for three Iranians being held in Thailand on terrorism-related offences.

Many Western governments, including the US and UK, refuse to negotiate deals with Tehran over nationals held on spurious spying charges.

But although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to comment on the circumstances surrounding the academic’s release, Iranian state television claimed that Dr Moore-Gilbert was exchanged for the three Iranian terrorists.

“A businessman and two (other) Iranian citizens detained abroad on the basis of false accusations were freed in exchange for a spy with dual nationality working for Israel,” Iran’s state-run Iribnews reported, repeating Iran’s unfounded allegation that Dr Moore-Gilbert was a foreign spy.

One of the three men released in exchange is believed to be Saeid Moradi, who was jailed in connection with a failed bomb plot against Israeli diplomats in Bangkok in 2012.

The two other men were detained after homemade explosives destroyed the roof of the Thai house in which they were staying.

In this frame grab from Iranian state television video aired Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, is seen in Tehran, Iran. Iran has freed Moore-Gilbert, who has been detained in Iran for more than two years, in exchange for three Iranians held abroad, state TV reported Wednesday. (Iranian State Television via AP)
British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert in Tehran. Iran has freed Dr Moore-Gilbert, who has been detained in Iran for more than two years, in exchange for three Iranians held abroad. Iranian State Television via AP

The three returned to a hero’s welcome in Iran, with Iranian media showing them draped in Iranian flags and being met by officials including Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.

And judging by Iran’s response thus far, Tehran will conclude that by subjecting Dr Moore-Gilbert to an ordeal in which she spent 800 days in prison, it has ultimately succeeded in its political objective of securing the release of the Iranian prisoners.

Taking foreign nationals captive has become a familiar feature of Iranian policy since the 1979 revolution, when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days.

On that occasion the regime was seeking, among other aims, to put pressure on the US government to repatriate the Shah and his family, who had fled into exile.

Iran also resorted to hostage-taking during the latter stages of the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, when scores of foreign nationals, including British hostages John McCarthy and Terry Waite, were seized as part of Tehran’s campaign to end Western intervention in the conflict.

And Tehran continues to employ this tactic to this day, with a number of foreign nationals currently being held by the Iranian authorities so that they can be used as bargaining chips to help the regime achieve its policy goals.

The detention of British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been held in Iran since 2016 and at one point shared a prison cell with Dr Moore-Gilbert, is another example.

Tehran holds foreign nationals to intimidate its enemies

While the Iranian authorities have accused Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe of being a spy, it appears their main objective in holding her has been to put pressure on the British government to release funds seized at the time of the Iranian revolution.

According to the Iranian authorities, Britain owes Iran about £400 million ($534m) for an order placed under the Shah for 1,000 tanks and armoured vehicles. The order was cancelled following his overthrow and has been the subject of a long-running legal dispute between Tehran and London ever since.

The link between Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention and the outstanding debt was demonstrated clearly earlier this year, when Iranian officials threatened to bring fresh charges against her after a UK court case about the debt was postponed. Since then, she has remained under house arrest with her parents until a new date for her hearing has been fixed.

Apart from using detained nationals as a bargaining chip to negotiate deals that served their interests, on other occasions Tehran holds foreign nationals to intimidate its enemies.

The plight of Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish professor who has been sentenced to death on spying charges, has been linked to the assassination of a number of high-ranking Iranian scientists said to be working on Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

Prof Djalali, who formerly worked in Stockholm at the Karolinska Institute, a medical university, was arrested during a visit to Iran in April 2016.

He was sentenced to death the following year after being found guilty of passing information about two Iranian nuclear scientists to Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.

There are now fears that his execution is imminent, after he was recently transferred to solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. But the fact that he has been granted Swedish citizenship while in prison threatens to create a major diplomatic row with Stockholm if the death sentence is carried out.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde has already contacted her Iranian counterpart to raise concerns about the planned execution, writing on Twitter: “Sweden denounces the death penalty and is working to not have the sentence carried out.”

The prospects of Sweden's last-minute intervention on Prof Djalali's behalf, though, do not look promising if Tehran's response to previous Western appeals are anything to go by. In September, Iran executed a wrestler Navid Afkari Sangari accused of murder despite international calls for clemency, including an appeal from US President Donald Trump.

Even so, Iran needs to understand that so long as it continues using foreign nationals as bargaining chips for its wider strategic goals, it has little chance of establishing a more constructive relationship with the outside world.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National