Iran is a country that has increasingly gone rogue on international norms and conventions

The West must know that Iran doesn't play by the same diplomatic rules as every other state
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif looks on as he attends  a press conference on a meeting of the Syria constitution-writing committee on October 29, 2019 at the United Nations Offices in Geneva. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI

As Iran fielded questions over its human rights policies at the UN in Geneva last week it was instructive to observe the bravura of Tehran’s representatives dismissing every concern raised as a fabrication.

It was faced with a barrage of criticism over issues ranging from imprisonment and torture to forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

The country’s ambassador repeatedly asserted in response that Iranian laws prohibited many violations and that courts would punish as violations.

The whole process had an air of unreality, for Iran is a country that has increasingly gone rogue on international norms and conventions.

Jason Rezaian, a US journalist who spent 544 days locked up in Iran has launched a campaign against what he calls Tehran's hostage factory

Last week saw the 40th anniversary of the US embassy hostage crisis. It defies a kind of natural logic when a regime as well entrenched as the Iranian one goes backwards in its behaviour.

Tehran has become more and more revolutionary and anarchic. It has revived its policy of taking hostages for leverage over foreign states. It has also abandoned any pretence of operating a conventional sovereign state and instead uses an influence network across the region to bolster its standing and undermine its neighbours.

Jason Rezaian, a US journalist, who spent 544 days locked up in Iran, has launched a campaign against what he calls Tehran’s hostage factory.

In the last 12 years he believes that 57 people, mostly dual nationals or Iranians with foreign residency, have been caught up in the policy and that least 13 are currently held by the regime.

There can be no doubt that the detentions are deliberate. Most of those involved have faced the same judge, Abolghasem Salavati, on vague charges of endangering the country’s national security. The detainees are usually held in section 2A of Evin prison, a wing that is under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The closed door trial is inevitably marred by lack of adequate legal defence or failures in due process.

The bargaining power that Iran derives from the hostages is rarely concealed. In the case of a British hostage the Iranians are quite clear that they want payment of half a billion pounds tied up in a legal dispute before she will be handed over.

As the lawyer Jared Genser told Mr Rezaian when the pool of countries affected by the policy has widened in recent months, including Australia, Lebanon and France, that Iran has started to encounter push back. “It has only been with the expansion of the regime’s hostage taking to nationals of a much broader group of countries in the last few years that governments around the world are now calling these shakedowns the hostage taking that it is,” said Mr Genser, who represents two of those held.

There is little doubt this agenda is driven by the IRGC, which is favoured by the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the government. In fact it has become so powerful the government is now acting as its auxiliary in international affairs. What is less appreciated is how all parts of the state are part of the project.

There is an effective double act between IRGC commander Qassem Suleimani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that acts as the hammer and anvil of this policy.

Mr Zarif is better known as a Twitter warrior who delivers sophisticated defences of Iran in polished English. Strip away the niceties and the US-educated foreign minister is working hand in glove with Mr Suleimani to defend and protect the system.

There is a shared narrative of “revolutionary resistance” deeply embedded in both men that is masked by their very different public personas.

“Both represent Iran’s incoming generation of leaders: assertive, pragmatic and committed to the revolution’s principles,” according to a landmark 205 page dossier from the International Institute of Strategic Studies released last week. “They are unwilling to compromise on Iran’s claimed role as a regional hegemon and are committed to the sustenance of the Axis of Resistance.”

The IISS dossier amounts to a warning to Western diplomats to stop colluding with the idea that Iran plays by the same diplomatic rules as every other state, barring the most rogue.

It points out that both men have used openings with their Western interlocutors to engage and learn about the other side but rarely make concessions. Even at low points for Iran the appearance of talks and openness to dialogue can be enough to ease the worst of the pressure the country is under. Conversely they are both happy to lap up Western concessions when the big powers need help.

It concludes that Iran is unlikely to curtail its regional meddling to achieve international rehabilitation and warns that ultimately Iran cannot be both “revolutionary and part of the international order”.

There is a bleak prognosis when the pattern of Iranian behaviour, not only within its own borders but in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, is put under close scrutiny.

In the absence of powerful countries taking a stand against the thuggish nature of the regime, it has been left to the people on the streets of Beirut, Baghdad and elsewhere to reject the consequences of Tehran’s power plays.