It’s clear that Iran needs help and the United States and other developed countries could provide it. The Iranian regime is not known for being receptive to aid or advice from the international community — it has stubbornly stuck to its ideological guns through war, earthquakes, etc. — but the coronavirus has shocked Iran’s leadership, with dozens of lawmakers and members of President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet contracting the virus. The Post reported that mass graves were being dug near the epicenter of Iran’s outbreak, indicating that the authorities are bracing for a death toll many times larger than previously acknowledged. They are now concerned about their survival — political and literal — and that could provide an opening.
Which brings us to the foreign nationals Iran is holding hostage. This criminal policy is exposing them to great risk and could potentially squander an opportunity to receive lifesaving assistance. Whether Iranian authorities recognize it yet, holding hostages is now one of their worst public health threats.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spelled it out in a statement on Tuesday. “Any nation considering whether to provide Iran with humanitarian assistance because of COVID-19 should seek a reciprocal humanitarian gesture by the regime: release all wrongly detained dual and foreign national citizens. This request is well within the regime’s power to grant,” Pompeo said.
We could debate whether it’s morally justified to make lifesaving aid conditional, but the goal of the Islamic republic’s long practice of taking foreign nationals hostage is unquestionably immoral and it’s used for political leverage. Pompeo has given Tehran a relatively simple choice: Release American hostages and potentially save the lives of many of your own citizens.
I rarely agree with this State Department’s policies or messaging toward Iran, but here is one instance when I don’t think it is completely wrong.
The current push to bring Americans home coincides with the decision by Iran’s judiciary to temporarily release 70,000 prisoners over fears that the virus might spread rapidly through the country’s detention centers.
Despite signals that some of Iran’s foreign hostages — including U.K. citizen Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, who has displayed all the symptoms of the coronavirus — would be among those furloughed, none have been so far.
American veteran Michael White, who is battling cancer, is in a particularly precarious state, as are Morad Tahbaz, a citizen of the U.S and U.K. who was among a group of environmentalists arrested in 2018 and is also suffering from cancer; Siamak Namazi, the longest-held U.S.-Iranian dual national; and Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran 13 years ago this week. He is considered the American who has been held for the longest time as a hostage in U.S. history.
“The United States will hold the Iranian regime directly responsible for any American deaths. Our response will be decisive,” Pompeo’s statement said, adding that the prolonged detention of Americans during the current crisis “defies basic human decency.”
The State Department’s Iran envoy, Brian Hook, was in Europe last week to discuss the issue with his counterparts there. In addition to the Americans detained, Iran is also holding citizens of France, Austria, Sweden, Australia and the United Kingdom. All on the flimsiest of charges.
On Tuesday, Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University graduate student who was freed in December after being held hostage for more than three years, was welcomed by U.S. officials, including Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
Bringing American hostages home has been a priority of the Trump administration, and no one can deny it is an important cause. Now international pressure to end Iranian hostage-taking once and for all is growing.
“A number of dual and foreign nationals are at real risk” of contracting the coronavirus, Javaid Rehman, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday. “I have recommended to the state of the Islamic Republic of Iran to release all prisoners on temporary release.”
Iran has never faced such a dilemma over its hostage-taking. The international condemnation should any of the hostages die in custody would be severe and would, at the same time, render them worthless as political bargaining chips. It has taken a pandemic to show Tehran that these innocent and vulnerable individuals are more of a liability than an asset. Desperate times can be clarifying.
“Iran wants to end this crisis. It’s not paying off for them anymore. In a way it’s actually working in the West’s favor in that hostage-taking is an act that helps to justify the sanctions. Letting people go would be a good way for Iran to save face,” Nizar Zakka, a U.S. resident who spent nearly four years as a hostage of the Iranian regime and was released last year, told me. “Iran can turn this tragedy into an opportunity to open a new path with the West. They shouldn’t wait, because time is not on the side of this regime.”
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