By: Alejo Vidal Quadras
Last week, naval forces belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Practically every independent observer of this development was quick to recognize that Iranian authorities intended it as a means of securing leverage over a South Korean delegation that was already scheduled to visit Iran and discuss the possible release of seven billion dollars in Iranian oil revenues that remain frozen in accordance with US sanctions.
Naturally, this week the regime set to work denying the obvious connection between the two events. Regime’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the South Korean visitors that the release of the ship and its crew was a matter for Iranian courts and that the government would have no role in the outcome. This is a familiar line of argument employed by Zarif and other so-called moderate officials to deny responsibility for provocative measures while simultaneously allowing the regime to pursue the benefit of those measures and blackmail.
Over the years, the supposed independence of the Iranian judiciary has been cited as a reason for government officials to avoid intervening in a wide range of politically sensitive cases. But this has not stopped those same cases from ultimately being resolved through prisoner swaps, ransom payments, and other arrangements that seemed to confirm the political intentions underlying the arrests or the charges that Iranian authorities filed in the first place.
In early 2016, for instance, as the newly-signed Iran nuclear deal was going into effect, then-US President Barack Obama arranged for 21 Iranian nationals to be released from American prisons or to have criminal charges against them dropped in exchange for Iran releasing four Americans who had been detained on the basis of plainly trumped-up national security charges. In addition, Iran received 700 million dollars in cash as the first installment in repayment of a decades-old debt between the two countries.
It was not long before other Iranian-American dual nationals were similarly detained in Iran, replacing those who had been set free. And this is to say nothing of those residents of other Western nations who have received the same treatment, often being accused of spying or attempting to overthrow Iran’s theocratic regime, apparently based solely on the “evidence” of their connections to Western friends and colleagues. Presently, at least one such individual, Ahmadreza Djalali, sits on death row in an Iranian prison, where he is believed to be at imminent risk of execution.
There was likely no set objective in holding him hostage in the first place, but one presented itself this past year, and Tehran seemingly made an effort to seize upon it. The danger of Djalali’s execution became especially pronounced in late November when he was abruptly transferred into solitary confinement, which often serves as a sort of staging ground for hangings. This closely coincided with the start of a criminal trial in Europe which involved a high-ranking Iranian diplomat accused of masterminding a plot to set off explosives at a rally of Iranian expatriates just outside of Paris. Tehran had put considerable effort toward compelling the Europeans to release him, but to no avail. The threat to Djalali’s life was seemingly meant to amplify these efforts since he had previously held an academic position in Belgium, where the trial of the terrorist-diplomat Assadollah Assadi is taking place.
The regime follows the same policy of blackmail in its nuclear activities. “The clerical regime’s actions over the past year, especially 20% enrichment, violate almost all the provisions of the 2015 nuclear agreement and leaves no doubt that it has never stopped its project for building an atomic bomb” said NCRI in a statement, adding: “At the same time, it has taken advantage of all the assistance and concessions the nuclear agreement provided to step up the export of terrorism, warmongering, and domestic repression. Simultaneously, the clerical regime is exploiting the political situation in the United States to blackmail its Western counterparts into lifting the sanctions and turning a blind eye on its ballistic missile program, the export of terrorism, and meddling in the region.”
This became apparent last Monday when European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reacted to Iran’s blackmail. “At this critical juncture, Iran’s action also risks undermining efforts aimed at building upon the existing diplomatic process. We urge Iran to refrain from further escalation and reverse this course of action without delay,” Borrell said in his statement.
Borrell added that the EU looks “forward to working with the incoming U.S. administration.”
Overall, Western policies toward the regime have often been influenced by a belief in the value of relationships with these moderate figures. But the four-decade history of the regime shows that those relationships have never paid off in any meaningful way. Furthermore, many of the relevant hostage-taking incidents underscore the fact that there is no real separation between the “moderate” faction and the “hardliners” associated with the IRGC anyway. Friendly dealings with one are effectively the same as useless appeasement of the other.
This is something that South Korea and the entire international community must keep in mind as they work toward the resolution of the latest large-scale hostage-taking incident. They must understand that when Iranian officials like Foreign Minister Zarif refuse to intervene on behalf of the victims in that incident, it is not because they are powerless to stop the IRGC, it is because they were coordinating with those “hardliners” in the first place and are allowing them to do the dirty work of pursuing leverage while the Foreign Ministry negotiates from behind the shield of plausible deniability.
This is not mere speculation about Tehran’s intentions. At various times and in various situations, the “moderates” have straightforwardly acknowledged that their role is to prosecute a charm offensive that serves familiar, hardline objectives.
Although the regime’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, was eagerly embraced as a herald of potential reform after his election in 2013, he had previously boasted to fellow officials that while serving as the country’s main nuclear negotiator, he helped to create a “calm environment” that others could exploit by advancing certain aspects of the Iranian nuclear program.
More recently, both Rouhani and Zarif have staked their legacies on praise for some of the regime’s most hardline figures like the eliminated commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani. Just months before Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike after returning from terrorist planning operations in Iraq, the Iranian Foreign Minister proudly told state media that he and Soleimani “never felt they had any differences,” in part because they held weekly meetings to discuss foreign policy strategies. But in absence of that admission, Zarif’s Western interlocutors probably would have never suspected that the two were consistently working toward the same aims.
But this is how it always has been in the Iranian regime, and how it always will be, as long as it remains in power. Thus, when the international community sets policy toward that regime, it must always do so on the understanding that its only objectives are hardline objectives and that no single entity is truly independent of any other. All efforts to tame an untamable enemy are a waste of time and the direct way to defeat.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)