Responsible governments hold criminals and criminal enterprises accountable, and actively work to prevent recidivism. Except when it comes to foreign governments that take hostages. The Iranian regime that gave the world its first taste of so-called hostage diplomacy in 1979 has taken foreign and dual nationals hostage with impunity and at no cost for more than 40 years. This laissez-faire approach threatens the safety of civilians to travel and, for at least one current hostage, may soon lead to execution.
Tehran sentenced Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian dual national and expert in emergency disaster medicine, to death on bogus charges of espionage, and has threatened to execute him on or before May 21. I, too, was once threatened with execution. I was forced to admit to espionage against the Islamic Republic with a cocked rifle pressed against my head. That is how the Iranian regime operates.
Ahmadreza was taken hostage six years ago, while on an academic visit to Iran, as insurance for the regime, which had just inked a nuclear deal with world powers. Should the country ever need to use Ahmadreza as leverage, it could, and it has determined that the moment is now. Sweden – an EU member state – just concluded a trial in which a former Iranian official, Hamid Nouri, was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the slaughter of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Sweden can prosecute on the internationally recognized legal principle of universal jurisdiction; Nouri’s sentencing is expected in July.
Not at all coincidentally, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi participated in a four-man “death commission,” which ordered those same extrajudicial executions. These crimes were an element of the US Treasury Department’s decision to sanction Raisi in 2019, before he was declared the winner of the 2021 presidential election rigged by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Treasury further justified the move, by virtue of Raisi’s decades-long record of supporting the execution of juveniles and torture of prisoners, including amputations, as a leader of Iran’s judiciary system.
Faced with this international embarrassment, Iran doubled down on its hostage-taking strategy. Days before the deputy secretary-general of the EU’s European External Action Service, Enrique Mora, flew to Tehran to meet with regime leaders about their nuclear program, three more European nationals were taken hostage, one of whom is Swedish. Mora showed up, despite this extortion. He says he asked the regime to release Ahmadreza on humanitarian grounds. Tehran predictably said no, although it has signaled that it may postpone his execution, as the regime already did on a previous occasion.
The threat of Ahmadreza’s execution is incredibly distressing and should be cause for significant alarm in European capitals and at the White House. It would set a grave precedent— as, to date, Tehran has retained hostages as human bargaining chips, but has not executed them. There are at least five Americans currently held by the Iranian regime: Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, Baquer Namazi, Siamak Namazi, and Shahab Dalili. Unless Iranian strategy shifts, President Joe Biden and his diplomatic and national security teams should brace for the possibility of similar execution threats any time the regime feels slighted or threatened. It is well past time to deal with Iran’s hostage-taking as a multilateral challenge, rather than something for individual nations to address.
With one voice, the US, UK, EU, and E3 should state that a party that targets its civilians cannot be regarded as a good faith partner in negotiations. All current and future discussions on nuclear and non-nuclear sanctions relief should freeze until all the hostages (including the remains of Robert Levinson, who is believed to have been the longest-held hostage in American history) are released. That would strengthen the likelihood of their release and decouple their fate from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
To prevent future hostage-taking by Iran, the US, UK, EU, and E3 should insist that any and all agreements for sanctions relief include an automatic snapback provision if their citizens are taken hostage in the future. Just as Iranian negotiators have red lines, this should be a non-negotiable red line for the West.
If the first duty of government is to protect its citizens, nothing less will do.