The regime in Iran has a long history of antagonism toward the international community, but now, its fraught relationship with the Iranian diaspora is becoming even more contentious. This is a dynamic the United States and other powers in negotiations with Iran should pay closer attention to.
Some observers think the portal is a ploy to gather information and perhaps entrap potential hostages, but that doesn’t seem necessary. More likely, this is another clear acknowledgment that Iran’s leaders view the assets of Iranians living abroad as a major source of revenue that is drying up.
The new portal comes online as Iran’s highest officials, including President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have called for creative ways to lure expatriate Iranians — and their money — back to the country.
This latest government effort to convince expatriate Iranians they are safe to return was widely ridiculed, for good reason. But it is worth exploring why authorities believe they need to ease such concerns. In fact, this should be recognized as an area in which Iran’s hand is particularly weak.
The regime’s targeted harassment of its expats and its hostage industry are strategic failures that have been devastating not only to the country’s image but also its economy. As the millions of Iranians living abroad increasingly feel returning home isn’t safe, Iran is losing an important cash lifeline for its battered economy.
The regime has been quick to point fingers. “Hostile and Iranophobic media outlets have focused on spreading false reports among Iranian expatriates. Iranian expatriates can travel to Iran without worrying and then return to the countries where they are living now,” Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, ludicrously said in November.
Yet it only has itself to blame. Tehran’s calculation is that, in the face of a crumbling economy, it needs access to the wealth that Iran’s educated and successful diaspora has amassed over the past 43 years. The message it is trying to send to Iranians abroad is that, when it comes to spending on travel and investing, there’s no place like home.
But, though sentimental ties to one’s country of origin can be a powerful inducement, the risks are too great.
Jan. 8 marked two years since the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ shot down a passenger jet, moments after it departed Tehran’s international airport. All 176 people aboard were killed, 85 citizens and permanent residents of Canada were among the victims, as were citizens of Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sweden and Britain. Last week, a court in Canada found Tehran liable for the deaths of six Canadians who died when the plane was shot down. The judge’s opinion called the shoot-down an act of “terrorism.”
In addition, the four democratic nations that are parties to the nuclear negotiations — the United States, Britain, France and Germany — along with host country Austria all have Iranian-born citizens held hostage in Iran. Numerous cases in U.S. courts brought against Iran for killing or taking Americans hostage have ended with judges deciding the Islamic Republic had committed recognized acts of terror. My family received one such judgment.
None of these trends instill any confidence in Iranian expatriates that their rights will be respected if they return.
Western negotiators have long insisted on keeping issues pertaining to the rights of Iranians out of conversations with Tehran, in large part because the Iranian regime has demanded it. Separate negotiating tracks, they argue, prevent Iranian officials from using these human issues as leverage. But that approach has become imprudent and increasingly ineffective.
If there is to be a return to the nuclear deal, the international community must use all tools available to alter the regime’s other destructive activities.
Publicly, Western governments should make clear that legal judgments against the Islamic Republic for terror crimes will be enforced, and that they are aligned in support of ending the practice of state hostage-taking in Iran and around the world. This must be a pillar in all conversations.
Privately, diplomats must also engage Iran on the human issue. If there are even some figures in the regime who understand the strategic failures that have driven expatriates away, Western negotiators should emphasize the short- and long-term advantages to ending Iran’s illegal practices targeting ordinary people.
If the regime in Iran truly wants to change its relationship with the diaspora, it must acknowledge that its people leave precisely because of its treatment of Iranians and its disregard for their lives and liberty. Unless it does so, these new overtures are merely one more series of false promises — promises that would be laughable if they weren’t so destructive.