The COVID-19 pandemic has beamed a spotlight on Iran’s barbaric practice of hostage diplomacy. In this dirty game, U.S. and Australian citizens along with dual Iranian-European nationals are jailed in Tehran on trumped-up charges in hope of bargaining for some political gain.
With COVID-19 running rampant in Iran, news reports claim that Tehran may be set to release U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, 48, a cancer survivor who contracted the virus in an Iranian prison. Arrested while visiting his Iranian girlfriend, he had been serving a 10-year sentence since 2018 for “insulting Iran’s supreme leader” before being furloughed to the Swiss Embassy, and Iran has indicated they want a swap for Iranian prisoners held in the U.S.
Yet, the White case is just a reminder that there are also three other Americans being held, and at least eight dual nationals from the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Austria, and Sweden. Just last week, a French-Iranian female academic was sentenced to six years for “conspiracy.”
“They are just hostages to be used for political negotiations,” says Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
But now is the moment, as Tehran’s lifting of inadequate COVID-19 restrictions propels a resurgence, for an international campaign demanding that Tehran release these hostages — before any of them perishes from the disease.
I have been especially moved by the cases of two women, one from Britain and the second from Australia. Their stories give me a “there but for fortune” feeling, recollecting a drive on an Iranian mountain road in 2003, on my way back to Tehran, when I was held and threatened for three hours at a remote Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps checkpoint. I was in Iran legally as a journalist but were it not for my Iranian translator and his frantic calls to officials in Tehran, I might have wound up where they are now.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an aid worker with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London, was arrested with her 22-month-old daughter in April 2016 on her way home from visiting her parents in Tehran. She was sentenced to five years on vague “security” charges.
I met her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, in London in August 2019, as he waged a tireless campaign for his wife’s freedom, including a hunger strike in front of the Iranian Embassy.
He was deeply worried about his wife’s physical and psychological condition, especially as her then-5-year-old daughter, staying with her grandparents, would be coming back to Britain to start school that September and would no longer be able to visit her mother in prison. At one point, Iranian officials chained his wife to a bed in a psychiatric hospital.
She was furloughed to her parent’s home in March, after a coronavirus outbreak in Iran’s jails. But the British foreign office has rejected her plea for the British ambassador to Iran to visit her in an act of solidarity, in hopes it might dissuade Tehran from returning her to jail or lengthening her sentence.
Surely Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government owes her such a gesture — to show that hostage diplomacy will not be accepted as the new norm.
And then there is Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian scholar and Melbourne University professor who has been sentenced to 10 years for “espionage.” She has spent nearly two years in solitary in a bathroom-like cell in the secretive Ward 2-A in Evin prison, run by Iran’s hardline Revolutionary Guard Corps — even though Iranian law states that prisoners should be transferred to long-term wards after they’ve been sentenced.
“I feel like I am abandoned and forgotten … I am an innocent victim,” she wrote, in one of a series of emotional letters smuggled out of the prison about the horror of her conditions. Ghaemi says her treatment raises fears she could be killed by her interrogators, as were two Canadian-Iranian prisoners.
So what is to be done for these two women, along with the other U.S. and Western hostages? There have been hostage exchanges in the past between Iran and Washington. If there is a way to quietly exchange Iranians held on visa or sanctions violations for U.S. hostages, it is worthwhile to save lives. Ditto for sending more humanitarian aid in exchange.
But ransom begets ransom, and the COVID-19 crisis offers the opportunity to take a more principled stand.
“The biggest mistake of Western governments,” says Ghaemi, “is that they never come together in a united front against Iran’s machinations.” He believes it is time for such a coalition to activate the United Nations’ international convention against hostage-taking to show this is an unacceptable game.