By Arresting Foreigners and Detaining Ships, Iran Reverts to Its Favorite Method of Diplomacy

July 23, 2019 | Bobby Ghosh

On Friday, Iranian naval vessels seized an oil tanker flying the British flag, along with its crew. Taking foreigners hostage has long been a preferred tactic of the Islamic Republic, as Bobby Ghosh writes:

When Iranian authorities imprison American or European citizens, they’re saying: give us what we want, or we’ll do to your people what we do to ours. Iran sent that message to France and Britain [last] week. On Tuesday, a regime spokesman confirmed the arrest of Fariba Adelkhah, a French-Iranian anthropologist. The announcement coincided with the news that prison authorities in Tehran have moved a British-Iranian hostage, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, to a psychiatric ward.

The timing of the announcements in Tehran leave little doubt about their true purpose. The Islamic Republic has a long history of using—and celebrating the use of—hostages as leverage, a commodity it desperately needs right now. The regime has been trying to ward off pressure from European governments to honor the uranium-enrichment limits agreed to in the 2015 nuclear deal. It has, in turn, been pressing the Europeans to deliver the economic benefits promised in the deal.

The timing of Adelkhah’s arrest is interesting, [as the] French president Emmanuel Macron has recently taken the lead in European diplomacy with Iran, sending a top adviser to Tehran only last week, to persuade the regime to return to the agreed enrichment limits. Macron now has his answer; . . . for anyone familiar with the parlance of Iranian diplomacy, the message is clear enough.

With Zaghari-Ratcliffe, there may be yet another consideration. Her transfer to the psychiatric ward comes just after British marines seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar; it was apparently carrying oil to Syria. Iranian officials have been demanding the ship be released, calling the seizure “piracy, pure and simple.” It is entirely in character for the regime to lash out brazenly when caught in wrongdoing.

Seizing a British ship was just the next step.

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