25th Feb 2024


Only Western unity can stop Iran hostage-diplomacy

  • Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her husband in 2011 (Photo: MrZeroPage)
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The Belgian parliament's recent decision to ratify its prisoner-exchange treaty with Iran is a grave mistake, and one which exemplifies the many downfalls of dealing with Iran's human-rights abuses on a case-by-case basis.

As many as two dozen dual-national citizens, including five Americans and 15 Europeans, remain in captivity in Iranian prisons, in total violation of international law.

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These individuals have suffered unspeakably at the hands of the Iranian regime, often being subjected to humiliating show trials, before being isolated, tortured and starved for long periods of time, for no other reason than to publicly demonstrate the power the regime holds over them.

Negotiating with Tehran on a case-by-case basis, as Belgium has here, can yield some results, although more often than not at a steep cost.

The most high profile dual national hostage of recent years, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was finally released in March, after six years of captivity and abuse, but only after the UK government agreed to repay almost £400 million [€474m] of debt to Iran.

In May, Zaghari-Ratcliffe revealed that her release had been secured only after she was also forced to sign a false confession by the Iranian government, a final act of humiliation that the UK Foreign Office was allegedly complicit in by encouraging her to capitulate.

The UK's decision to bow to the Ayatollah significantly emboldened Iran to continue its policy hostage diplomacy.

Ahmad Reza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian disaster medicine expert who taught at universities in Belgium, Sweden and Italy until he was arrested by the regime on spurious charges in April 2016, is another victim of this self-reinforcing cycle.

In October 2017, Djalali was sentenced to death on charges of "cooperation with a hostile government" following a manifestly unfair trial.

On November 24 2020, Djalali was transferred to solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison where, in May of this year, he was informed he would face imminent execution.

Djalali's imprisonment, and especially his recent treatment, is widely viewed as the Iranian regime's attempt to punish the Swedish government for daring to host the trial of alleged Iranian executioner Hamid Nouri.

Swedish trial

Nouri, a former prison official and prosecutor, faces charges including crimes against humanity and war crimes over the killing of as many as 5,000 prisoners in Iran.

The mass killings were allegedly ordered by supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution. It is the first time an Iranian official has gone on trial for these crimes.

After nearly a year of deliberation, Swedish courts finally delivered Nouri a life sentence in July.

However, what should be a watershed victory for the institutions of international justice, may now be derailed, as the Swedish government comes under increasing pressure to follow in the UK's footsteps, by bending to the Iranian regime's whims in order to save the life of one of its own citizens.

In signing this treaty, Belgium's parliament has gone a step beyond merely putting other hostages at greater risk. They are now threatening the security of all Europeans.

The practical purpose of this treaty is to allow the convicted Iranian terrorist Assadolladh Assadi to walk free from his 20 year sentence in Belgium, in order that the Belgian government might secure the freedom of an unnamed Belgian national, jailed on opaque pretences in Iran since February.

Assadolladh Assadi

Assadi, an Iranian diplomat, was convicted in 2020 for being the mastermind of a bomb plot in France.

Using the cover of his diplomatic passport, he transported a 500g "Mother of Satan" TATP explosive — the same compound that was used by the 7/7 bombers in London to kill 56 people — for a planned attack on the 'Free Iran Political Rally' in Paris.

The rally, which was attended by approximately 80,000 people, including dignitaries such as the former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and 38 UK MPs, was saved from Assadi's attack only after the last minute intervention of German and Belgian security services.

However, Assadi's network of collaborators extends far beyond the small group of agents directly implicated in the attack, raising concerns about Iranian diplomatic networks in Europe more generally.

Make no mistake, the day Assadi is allowed to walk free, as this treaty would allow him to do, every European country in which his associates have been known to reside, will be in materially greater danger.

It could all be stopped today, if Western leaders took a united stand on the issue of hostage diplomacy. The ongoing negotiations to revive the nuclear non-proliferation deal offer a perfect platform to demand of Iran that it comprehensively end its practice of hostage diplomacy.

We owe them

If the Iranian regime wants to benefit from sanctions relief, and to have an opportunity to rebuild the economy they have brought to its knees through kleptocratic mismanagement, then freeing all dual-national citizens currently locked away inside its prison system should be a prerequisite.

Until they make this concession, no further negotiations should be entertained.

We owe this much to Zaghari-Ratcliffe, for having so terribly compromised her dignity as a political shortcut.

We owe it to Djalali, for his suffering to date and the terrible fate that hangs over his head.

We owe it to every other dual national currently being used as pawns by the Iranian regime.

We owe it, finally, to ourselves. We all deserve to live within a system of law and order that is not forced to allow convicted terrorists to walk free, at the behest of a rogue regime.

Author bio

Barry Rosen is a Senior Advisor to United Against Nuclear Iran, a founding member of Hostage Aid Worldwide, and a survivor of the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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