Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution ushered in the ayatollahs' strategy of reaping benefits from the taking of hostages. Since then, the mullahs have accrued billions from Western governments in the form of huge ransoms with few repercussions on the regime. Iran's hostage-taking "industry" expanded to Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon, which kidnapped Westerners during the nineteen eighties and nineties. The ransom price has ballooned with each hostage-taking iteration, as the $6 billion ransom paid by the U.S. shows. Although the administration claimed the money can only be used for humanitarian aid, it neglected to admit that the mullahs can sell the aid for cash to a third country and use the proceeds to fund their terror proxies around the globe.
The regime's hostage-taking "business model" comprises four stages: (1) Profile a target and take him hostage; (2) arrest and imprison the hostage through a sham trial; (3) either promote the hostage by marketing his profile to inflate the ransom price or, based on each individual negotiation, withhold promotion to create a veil of "ambiguity"; and (4) swap the hostage for ransom. The regime's objectives are twofold: Wrest concessions from the West; and limit Iranian society's exposure to the West's openness, which the regime believes will endanger its power. Hostage-taking is also a way to prevent foreign companies from doing business with the regime and gaining access to the Iranian people.
Zakka, a Lebanese national, personally experienced the ordeal of being taken hostage after arriving in Iran for a conference in 2015, the year the JCPOA agreement was under way. At that time, a highly educated, young generation of Iranians was "eager to interact with the world." Zakka, a technology executive who worked with major internet companies, was invited as an "official guest" of the Iranian government to lecture about technology. Zakka spoke openly about "women['s] empowerment" and advocated for internet freedom, but in its desire to "stop any openness" between Western companies and the Iranian people, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) made an example of Zakka. They arrested him on his way to the airport and imprisoned him for four years. No company from the technology sector has returned to Iran since.
The West, in its use of sanctions and diplomacy, "hasn't been very smart in [its] approach" to reining in the regime's hostage-taking industry. Thus, the IRGC is "playing the West perfectly" by kidnapping nationals from different countries, leading each country's negotiator to believe the hostages' release was a result of the negotiator's superior skills. These negotiators are oblivious to the fact that, in its power play of the West, the nabbing of each hostage enables the Iranian regime to develop new techniques and strategies. Whether the swap exacts a ransom or releases a terrorist, the ayatollahs send a "very clear message" in bringing the West to heel. By flexing its muscle in this way, the regime increases its own power within Iran.
The West fails to understand that Iran will patiently "play the game of time" and take a long view of its conflict with the West. Because of the regime's practice of targeting hostages with ever-increasing ransoms, "we need to bring all countries together with a buy-in from the stakeholders within each country, like bringing civil society, former hostages, subject matter experts, private sector and government all together in order to empower the government in order to be firm and to cooperate with other countries in order to take stand against hostaging."
Once a hostage is taken, a "global system" should be "triggered" in which countries stand firm together, showing strength in numbers rather than weakness as when they react in a piecemeal way. Negotiations can be conducted over a six-month grace period. If this time period is exhausted without a satisfactory outcome, there needs to be a global agreement to respond as one body.
In a recent example, shortly after an Irish citizen was taken hostage in Iran, the Irish government announced its intention to open an embassy there. HAW successfully campaigned against the embassy opening, explaining that, in essence, Ireland would be messaging the regime that there are no consequences for kidnapping one of its citizens. The Irish government decided "to start taking a very strong and firm stand."
In another recent example, Masoumeh Ebtekar, spokesperson for the Islamic student revolutionaries who seized American hostages during the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy, rose to prominence in the regime and became Iran's vice president for Women and Family Affairs. As her son is now a doctoral student in Los Angeles, Ebtekar suffered no consequences for her past actions. "It doesn't make sense." Ebtekar should be made to realize that her actions have consequences that should "haunt" her for the rest of her life.
Governments need to work together as one against hostage-taking and sanction every individual involved in Iran's four-phase "business model." In addition, a global system which imposes a "unified punishment" needs to be employed against the regime as a result of a "global agreement." Unless these things happen, the ransoms will continue to increase with each hostage taken.
While the Iranian government is under pressure to keep the internet open, it is currently initiating an "internet halal" [what is "permissible" according to Islamic law] by limiting Iranians' access to information in order to "disconnect people." Zakka, with his firsthand understanding as a former hostage of the regime, is committed in his fight to promote internet freedom and governance that is not controlled by any government. It is part of his campaign to reach Iran's younger generation and bring an openness that will apply pressure on the regime from within.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.