Iran is desperate to extract new concessions from the international community. Toward that end, the Iranian regime engaged in two distinct acts of attempted blackmail at the start of this week. On one hand, it seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in advance of a planned visit from a South Korean envoy to discuss the possible release of seven billion dollars in frozen Iranian assets. And on the other hand, it began the process of enriching uranium to 20 percent fissile purity, just a short technical step away from weapons-grade.
These two developments fit within a much broader pattern of behavior whereby the regime has attempted, with varying degrees of success, to foster conciliatory policies among Western powers. The incident in the Strait of Hormuz on Monday was an instance of hostage-taking much like that which has been a defining feature of the Iranian regime since the immediate aftermath of the 1979 revolution. Practically the first act of the new order was to instigate the 444-day crisis at the US embassy in Tehran, which ultimately proved valuable enough for the regime that is set to work emulating it in other contexts.
Foreign and dual nationals have been held hostage more-or-less constantly in Iran for many years. Some of them have been held under threat of execution and some have actually lost their lives, while others have successfully been swapped for Iranians detained as criminals in other countries, or for cash, or for some other material reward. Unfortunately, the countries being targeted with those schemes have rarely seen fit to push back in any serious way. But Iran’s regime is doubtlessly aware of the fact that they stand to lose much more as a result of intensifying foreign pressure than they could ever acquire by threatening Western lives or Western interests.
There are hopeful signs that some European policymakers are beginning to clue themselves into this fact. And some of them have already succeeded in taking the wind out of the sails for Tehran’s strategies of blackmail and hostage-taking. In late November, the Iranian judiciary threatened the life of an Iranian-born death row inmate who holds citizenship in Sweden and has worked in Belgium. The gesture was evidently intended to discourage Belgium from moving forward with the prosecution of an Iranian diplomat-terrorist, but rather than conceding to a prisoner swap, Brussels warned that the death of Ahmadreza Djalali would result in the immediate severance of relations between the two countries.
The threat appears to have served its purpose. Though Djalali was reported transferred to solitary confinement in anticipation of his hanging, the judiciary quickly followed up by saying that the execution had been delayed. It has said nothing further about the case ever since. Meanwhile, the Belgian court case is moving toward the sentencing phase, with the case against the regime’s diplomat-terrorist Assadollah Assadi having already gone through two hearings at the end of November and the beginning of December.
In the first place, Belgium’s ultimatum simply highlighted a power differential that has been inexplicably overlooked by Western powers for many years. It emphasized the fact that Tehran cannot afford to lose any of the access it currently has to European markets or diplomatic channels. But the Belgian response to Tehran’s threats also served as a reminder that the regime would only be exposing its malign activities to closer scrutiny if it encouraged a direct comparison of the Djalali and Assadi cases.
The former has been sentenced to death on the basis of the vague charge of “spreading corruption on earth,” which in turn is based on unsubstantiated allegations that he acted as a spy on Israel’s behalf. In fact, Djalali has said that he was approached by Iranian authorities and asked to cooperate with Iranian intelligence after returning to Europe, but he refused and was targeted for severe punishment as a result.
Assadi, on the other hand, was caught red-handed in 2018 conveying an explosive device to two Iranian-Belgian terrorist operatives who were tasked with carrying out a plot for which he was the mastermind. Had the plot not been disrupted by European security services, it would have killed untold numbers of people at a conference venue near Paris, during the annual gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. For all of this, Assadi is facing a comparatively paltry 20 years in prison.
The international community stands to learn a valuable lesson from Tehran’s unsuccessful attempt to link the two cases. Belgium’s rejection of that effort demonstrates that the Iranian regime has neither practical nor moral standing to demand new concessions from the international community. It will no doubt attempt to claim both, but the entire international community must be prepared to reject those efforts with extreme prejudice.
In the wake of Tehran’s countless malign activities, South Korea does not owe the regime unfrozen assets, and the Western world certainly does not owe the regime additional financial incentives to avoid the development of a nuclear weapon. That being the case, there’s no other reason to provide the concessions Iran is looking for. Doing so might or might not prevent Iran from working toward a nuclear weapons capability. But even if it did, the concessions would not be worth it when the same end could be accomplished by choosing a firm policy.
It is no time to avoid a coalition of nations piling devastating consequences upon the regime in the form of economic sanctions, travel restrictions, diplomatic isolation, and so on. If Iran wishes to strong-arm the West, it should have to do so from a position of strength. The regime has never really occupied such a position, but European governments have typically acted as if it did.
At long last, though, Belgium has demonstrated that the opposite approach can be more effective. The entire European Union should also act decisively. The EU leaders should shut down Iran’s embassies and expel its agents from European soil. The EU should also make all economic and political relations with Iran contingent on the regime’s halt of human rights violations and spread of terrorism.