The Hamas Hostage Strategy Comes Straight From Their Mentors' Playbook In Tehran
The kidnapping of more 200 Israelis by Hamas suggests that its patron, the Islamic Republic of Iran, is exporting its terrifying and lucrative methods at home to the rest of the Middle East.
As Western states advise their nationals against traveling to the Middle East, and Iran in particular, many dual-national Iranians are already fearful of traveling back to their homeland where they could be detained on trumped-up charges. It's an extortion ploy — immeasurably traumatic for those who wind up as pawns — which the regime in Tehran has honed to perfection.
Kidnapping foreigners and charging big money for their release is a method the regime has been testing in different arenas, with some success it should be said, for decades. It did it in Beirut, through Hezbollah, in the 1980s and more recently in Iran itself.
Now, other regional gangs want in: Hamas has resorted to the practice, kidnapping more than 200 Israelis in its attack on southern Israel and still holding an indeterminate number inside Gaza. Kidnapping principally helps the criminal cash-flow, though in the current situation, Hamas is likely using it to try to buy time and a break from Israeli airstrikes and coming ground invasion.
Inside Iran, both for dual nationals and foreign travelers, the situation passed the risky point a while back. Typically accused of espionage, they may disappear for open-ended periods or turn up dead down the line. Examples of sinister lockups include, among a good many more, the U.S. civil servant Robert Levinson or the dual-national Faramarz Javidzad. Six detainees were recently released however, in a deal with the United States involving the unblocking of billions of frozen Iranian cash. The Gaza attack may have put that deal on hold, for now.
If they are not harassed at Tehran's airport and do manage to keep their passports, dual-nationals will likely face other, unfamiliar problems inside Iran, which they may mishandle, like being arrested for their attire, for attending (mixed-sex) house parties, drinking alcohol or, well, being female.
And there is no telling what each detention entails there, how long it will take and which charges may emerge. Indeed, the latest happened Monday, when Iranian authorities arrested Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent lawyer and human rights defender, who was attending the funeral of a teenage girl who died after being injured weeks in a disputed incident on Tehran’s Metro. Sotoudeh, who was awarded the 2012 Sakharov prize for her human rights work, was reportedly detained on charges of violating Iran’s mandatory hijab law.
Role of Revolutionary Guard
Who is carrying out these detentions? Most likely Iran's Revolutionary Guards and its intelligence arm, usually aided by a docile judiciary, whose independent powers have waxed and waned in past decades. Yet in spite of the dangers, officials insist, the country is open for business and tourism.
Perhaps of greater concern is the possibility of Iranians or dual-nationals being nabbed and taken to Iran while in a Middle Eastern country, as has happened with increased frequency. Cases include those of the late journalist Ruhollah Zam and Jamshid Sharmahd.
What's gained more attention over the past few weeks is the readiness of regional militants to emulate Tehran and actively collaborate with its agencies. London-based news channel Iran International recently reported the kidnapping near Kirkuk of several individuals including an Anglo-Iranian national by the Kataib Hizbullah, one of Iraq's main Shia militias.
August 2, 2023, Iran: The head of IRGC, general Hossein Salami, addressing troops during a massive military drill on the island of Abu Musa.
A winning card?
It is not unreasonable to suppose that the regime in Tehran, in addition to giving these groups arms and money, trains them in kidnapping and extortion. Iran makes no secret of its skills here. In July 2012, a former Revolutionary Guards chief, Muhsin Rezai, vowed that if the United States were to "try anything" with Iran, the regime would take 1,000 American hostages in the first week, "and they'll have to pay us a few billion dollars" to have them freed.
Iranian officials have also said Hamas holds the "winning card" with its hostages, to be used to force an end to Israel's punitive actions. This murky business meanwhile provides several, highly interested parties like Qatar with a mediating role between the West and the "Axis" powers. Qatar has shown it is ready to play both sides. It hosts the Hamas politburo, has backed Islamists in Syria, and conveniently offers itself every time there is talking to be done with pariahs like the Taliban.
Most protests held in Western capitals these past weeks were against Israel.
Such dealings serve its policy of projecting itself as an indispensable international actor. Alongside Oman, a broadly neutral state, it may be said to enjoy the best relations among the Arab monarchies with Iran's revolutionary regime.
But this raises the inevitable question: should the West play along?
As a firm step in fighting state terrorism, Western states could choose to back Iran's democracy movement, unequivocally, before it is snuffed out for good. The victims of Hamas's attack on Israel included nationals of dozens of Western and Latin American countries, yet most protests held in Western capitals these past weeks were against Israel. Today might be the time for the West to determine its stance against international banditry — and that starts with the veteran masterminds in Tehran.
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