Analysis by PMOI/MEK
Iran, January 8, 2021—On Monday, the Iranian regime seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Although authorities attempted to explain the incident as involving illegal pollution of Iranian waters, the regime quickly came under suspicion for trying to use the tanker and its crew as bargaining chips in scheduled discussions with a South Korean envoy regarding the potential release of seven billion dollars in Iranian assets that remain frozen because of potential U.S. sanctions.
Iranian authorities predictably denied the accusation yet still publicly commented on the monetary dispute and seemingly attempted to justify the seizure by suggesting that South Korea was equally guilty by virtue of holding Iranian resources hostage. The regime’s real motive was later confirmed by a state-run newspaper, but no serious observer of Iranian affairs was surprised by the admission.
Monday’s incident was immediate reminiscent of last year’s seizure of the Stena Impero, a British vessel that Iran sought to exchange for one of its own tankers which had been caught attempting to smuggle petroleum to Syria in violation of multilateral sanctions. But beyond that, there is a much broader familiarity to Iran’s effort at holding both vessels and personnel hostage. It reflects a habit of using various brands of terrorism as tools of statecraft, and it dates back to the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Revolution, when the new regime initiated a hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran which would go on to last 444 days.
Every year, the Iranian regime celebrates the anniversary of the day when the embassy was sacked. And every year, it affirms its belief in the legitimacy of these sorts of tactics for securing concessions from foreign powers. That belief is further underscored on a semi-regular basis by reports of foreign citizens and dual nationals being newly detained in Iran or being released as part of a prisoner swap or ransom arrangement initiated by the Iranian regime.
Several such hostages were already in Iranian prison facilities at the time the regime staged the seizure of the tanker Hankuk Chemi. At least one of them was ostensibly under imminent threat of death. Ahmadreza Djalali, an academic and Iranian-Swedish dual national who was unjustly arrested in 2016, has had little to no contact with his family or attorney since being abruptly transferred in late November. The Iranian judiciary noted that the transfer was intended as staging for his execution, but then proceeded to announce that the execution had been delayed.
As is often the case with capital sentences in Iran, the terms of Djalali’s sentence are unclear, and both he and his loved ones are left to constantly question whether each day might be his last. If the crisis involving the Hankuk Chemi drags out for some time, it may be reasonable to extend that same uncertainty to the ship’s crew. Although Tehran is unlikely to embrace the risk of an international incident that would come with threatening those sailors, it embraces a portion of that risk every time it employs this or a similar tactic of exerting pressure.
In June 2018, Iranian operatives even went so far as to directly threaten European territory alongside many thousands of Iranian expatriates living as citizens in the West. The mastermind of this plot, which targeted a Paris rally organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), was a high-ranking diplomat named Assadollah Assadi, and he is currently standing trial in Belgium, where a verdict and sentencing are expected before the end of the month.
In the more than two years since Assadi’s arrest, Belgium has remained at odds with longstanding European strategies of conciliation, and its assertiveness in recent weeks has arguably helped to prolong Djalali’s life. It was most likely not a coincidence that his transfer coincided very closely with the start of Assadi’s first hearing in Antwerp. Recognizing this, the Belgian parliament responded by threatening to sever all relations between Iran and Belgium in the event that Djalali was killed. Tehran, in turn, backed down.
Other Western nations could learn a great deal from Belgium’s increasingly consistent approach to all forms of Iranian regime terrorism. That approach could prove helpful in resolving the new hostage crisis without granting new concessions to the regime that initiated it. And more than that, international recognition for the value of assertiveness could also help to resolve other crises that initially seem separate but are really part of the same trends in Iranian foreign policy.
On the very same day that it detained the Hankuk Chemi, the Iranian regime also started the process of refining uranium to 20 percent fissile purity, expanding greatly upon its previous violations of the 2015 nuclear deal and putting itself only a short technical step away from having weapons-grade uranium.
The move was unmistakably intended as a threat, and while its precise nature is much different than in individual cases like Djalali’s, the underlying philosophy is very much the same. The NCRI refers to Iran’s systematic escalation of nuclear enrichment and associated activities as “nuclear blackmail,” and it draws a direct line between that particular campaign and the hostage crisis that set the stage for more than 40 years of malign activities.
Even after the U.S. embassy staff were returned home in 1980, the NCRI explained recently, “the regime continued using hostage taking and terrorism to intimidate the West and achieve its goals.” The Resistance coalition then went on to say that “the regime will continue to blackmail the West until it receives a firm response.”
Of course, that response must ultimately come from a unified Western world. But in the meantime, at least two European states have begun to model the correct approach for their allies. Belgium pressed forward with the prosecution of Assadollah Assadi and three accomplices even after the terrorist-diplomat told prosecutors that Iran-backed militant groups were watching the situation and would stage their own attacks if Europe failed to “support them.” Since then, Belgium has also completely rejected efforts to tie Assadi’s case to Djalali’s, and it has done so without abandoning advocacy for the latter.
Now, the trial of another Iranian operative is expected to begin imminently in Sweden. The defendant in that case, Hamid Nouri, is a renowned torturer of political prisoners and is believed to have played a substantial role in the regime’s massacre of 30,000 political prisoners during the summer of 1988. His prosecution is based on a legal principle that allows Swedish courts to pursue serious crimes that took place in other jurisdictions, provided that there is little prospect of the relevant authorities upholding justice on their own.
This latest move appears to be a sign that growing numbers of European policymakers are not only willing to adopt an assertive posture with the Islamic Republic but also willing to go on the offensive in their fight against the regime’s tactics of intimidating both foreign and domestic voices into silence. No doubt those policymakers are beginning to recognize that that silence has always proven to be counterproductive in the past, and has only reinforced Tehran’s every impulse toward malign activity.