On Monday 4th January, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the MT Hankuk Chemi in the Straits of Hormuz and detained its crewmembers for allegedly violating international pollution rules. The tanker’s parent company, DM Shipping, has rejected these claims and South Korea’s Foreign Ministry states that no technical evidence has been presented which suggests the vessel was in breach of any pollution law. This development comes after months of tension between Iran and South Korea, arising from the freezing of an estimated $7 billion worth of Iranian funds by South Korean banks since September 2019. Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei has dismissed any suggestions that this seizure is a form of hostage-taking, but Iran’s recent track record contradicts this denial.
Just two months ago, British-Australian academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released from prison after being arrested in September 2018 on espionage charges. She denied these charges and no evidence was presented by Iran to support them, leading to the Australian government labelling the charges as “baseless and politically motivated”. Indeed, Moore-Gilbert’s release was only achieved through a prisoner swap for three Iranian prisoners held in Thailand, of whom two were convicted in connection with the 2012 Bangkok bombings. Politics, then, does seem to have been the motivation behind the detention of Moore-Gilbert.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s detention is not the only case of Iran detaining a foreigner with the apparent aim of exchanging them for another prisoner. US citizens Michael White and Wang Xiyue were both separately detained on allegedly spurious evidence and were subsequently exchanged in prisoner swaps for Iranian scientists Sirous Asgari and Massoud Soleimani (themselves detained in America on seemingly spurious evidence). Moreover, even before the seizure of the MT Hankuk Chemi, it seems Iran had a record of detaining foreign nationals with financial goals in mind. Though claims that Iranian-British dual-national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ongoing detention is linked with an unpaid £400 million debt that Britain has owed Iran since the 1970s are presumably false.
The wealth of evidence suggests, then, that Iran has been systematically detaining dual-nationals and foreigners as leverage, either for prisoner swaps or financial disputes. This practice has continued for years and it seems the reason Iran persists with it is because, on the surface, it appears to work. Iran almost always gets what it wants in exchange for the release of a prisoner, and when its stock of foreign detainees runs low it can simply arrest more on charges of espionage, thus repeating the cycle. The fact that Western countries are presumed to be acting in similar arbitrary fashion (i.e. the Sirous Asgari and Massoud Soleimani detentions by the USA, neither of whom were ever convicted of any crime) is really no excuse. Iran must be aware that it stands to lose more than it stands to gain from these actions.
Belgium has already refused to cooperate with Iran in an instance of what they describe as blackmail. Last November the Iranian judiciary told Swedish-Iranian Ahmadreza Djalali that his death sentence for espionage would be carried out imminently. He alledges he was tortured to extract a confession. The Iranian-born Swede worked in Brussels and this announcement was probably an effort to force a prisoner swap with Belgium for diplomat Assadollah Assadi. Brussels, however, continued with its prosecution of Assadi and warned that Djalali’s death would result in an immediate severance of relations between Belgium and Iran. At the time of writing, Djalali is thought to still be alive and in prison.
While Iran continues to be under enormous pressure from US sanctions, it is becoming clear that Iran cannot afford to sever the relations it still has with the West, and therefore their threats no longer come from the perceived position of strength that they used to. These arrests, then, will be less likely to succeed in the future, while continuing to deter tourists from visiting Iran. Crucially, if this practise continues it will serve to further alienate Iran from the international community. If Iran wants to be taken seriously and make real progress in its relations with the wider global community, it needs to rethink its anti-diplomatic policies, starting with its detention of foreign nationals for leverage.