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Cash-Strapped Iran Ramps Up A Favorite Old Business: Taking Hostages For Ransom

Is the Biden administration following President Obama's counterproductive recipe of handing Tehran large sums of cash hoping for good conduct and a tepid détente?

Photograph of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visiting an exhibit  celebrating the achievements of the country's defence industry.

August 22, 2023, Tehran: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visits an exhibit celebrating the achievements of the country's defense industry

Iranian Presidency Office/ZUMA
Hamed Mohammadi


With the mediation of states like Switzerland, Qatar and Oman, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden have provisionally agreed on the liberation of five U.S.-Iranian dual nationals held in Iran in exchange for the release of $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds.

Three of the detainees, Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Sharqi, have already served about half of their prison sentences for spying. The other two detainees have not been named, with both sides refusing to divulge their identities.

The unwritten deal has yet to be finalized. Provisionally, the prisoners have been taken from the Evin prison in Tehran to a hotel, where they are staying under guard. A U.S. State Department spokesman, Vedant Patel, said he hoped the deal would come through as part of wider, diplomatic moves to defuse tensions between the United States and Islamic Iran.

The two sides are believed to be talking through some bigger issues like an end to rocket attacks on U.S. forces in the region, and Iran keeping uranium enrichment to below 60%, or steering clear of a nuclear bomb. It is part of a grand — if under-the-table — bargain which President Biden hopes to reach with the Iranian ayatollahs, preferably before the next U.S. election.

Humanitarian hostages

Iranian officials say the prisoners were released as a humanitarian gesture, even if public opinion in Iran and abroad may not likely associate this regime with humanitarianism. Iran began dabbling in hostage-taking for extortion in Lebanon, soon after the 1979 revolution in Iran.

That would also solve Iran's economic problems.

A former Iranian Revolutionary guards chief, Muhsin Rezai, warned during talks leading to the first nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S. and allied countries in mid-2015, that if the U.S. were to attack, Iran would take 1,000 Americans hostage the very first week, and ask for a few billion dollars for each. That, he said, would also solve Iran's economic problems.

Vox describes the new hostage deal as a money-making enterprise for cash-strapped Iran. As the analyst Aaron David Miller observed in Foreign Policy on August 14, there are no good deals with Iran while the Islamic Republic is in power.

Seven years ago, when the government of President Hasan Rouhani held similar, secret talks with U.S. officials, just the rumors around them had a positive effect on Iran's currency and money markets. Not so today, amid a generalized despondency among Iranians and their deep-seated distrust of anything said by the regime and the Biden administration. So how much of an economic break can this deal give Iran?

Close up photograph of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visiting an exhibit  celebrating the achievements of the country's defence industry.

August 22, 2023, Tehran: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visits an exhibit celebrating the achievements of the country's defence industry

Iranian Presidency Office/ZUMA

Funds unfrozen, then wasted

A week after the prisoners were moved to a hotel, the German central bank became involved as its branch in Switzerland is to be the first place to receive the $6 billion blocked in South Korea. These must be converted from won to euro, then sent to banks in Qatar or Oman.

That means, part of the money, possibly as much as one billion dollars, will be lost in the exchange — South Korea's currency has recently lost value — and transfers. Some Iranian officials have said Iran can then access the money, though U.S. officials insist Iran will not be handling its cash, which can only be spent on essential consumer goods and under U.S. supervision.

Few people in Iran are giving the deal a thought as they expect no benefits and trust neither side in the deal. They already feel the funds will just melt away, like those Iran recovered on the back of the 2015 nuclear pact. This may be why Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi recently insisted this money would be used to boost production in Iran.

Photograph of United States President Joe Biden speaking at a podium during Trilateral Summit held at Camp David.

Joe Biden attends a joint press conference at the Trilateral Summit held at Camp David on Aug. 18

Nathan Howard - Pool via CNP/ZUMA

Not Even 'Magic Funds' Could Help

It is not clear how much money Iran has frozen in foreign banks. Iranian officials say it is $23 billion, and are hailing the deal, if it goes through, as a diplomatic victory and sign of Iran's clout.

But even official and semi-official economists in Iran doubt this could aid an economy battered by decades of "revolutionary" interventionism and hostility to the free market, electoral fraud, confiscations, cronyism and likely massive thefts and embezzlement.

The problem of Iran's economy is rooted in politics and ideology.

And that is even if the entire $23 billion or four times as much were unfrozen and duly spent inside Iran, and not to finance terrorists, rockets and regional militias.

The problem of Iran's economy is rooted in politics and ideology. Its debts and needs are off the charts. Iran owes the IMF around U.S. $112 billion. The parliamentary research office says the oil and gas sector needs $100 billion's worth of upgrading and investments. The head of the state railways is asking for $25 billion. The electricity grid needs its own $25 billion, according to a deputy-energy minister. The government owes the state forex reserves fund $74 billion. Astronomical sums have been cited as the amount of money Iran has sunk into Syria's civil war. No amount of hostage-taking could fix this.

Iranian activists and exiles have repeatedly warned Western states that secretive deals with the Islamic Republic only embolden it to intensify repression at home and spread its tentacles abroad.

The Biden administration has sought to balance its appeasement of Tehran with a firm gesture — sending 3,000 Marines to the region — which is meant to be taken as a warning in Tehran over its good conduct. The administration thus wants to send a signal to baffled observers: that it knows what it is doing. It has the situation in hand.

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Not Just Paris! Mongolia Is Also Battling Bedbugs (And Cockroaches... And Centipedes...)

Public extermination services were halted during the pandemic. Residents have embraced cheaper DIY solutions — but there are risks.

Photo of a bed bug

A bed bug photographed in the Biology Institute at the Technical University (TU) in Dresden, Germany

Khorloo Khukhnokhoi

ERDENET, ORKHON PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Oyuka dresses for domestic battle. Mask. Gloves. Hair shrouded under a black hood. A disposable white gown reminiscent of a surgeon. It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday; her husband is at work and their two young children are at school. She shoves the oven, freezer and washing machine away from the kitchen walls and grabs a lime-green spray can from behind the bathtub, where it’s out of the children’s reach. “Magic Cleaner,” the bottle says in Chinese. A pesticide.

Oyuka — who asked to be referred to only by her nickname, out of fear of being criticized by her neighbors — lives on the eighth floor of a 10-story building in Erdenet, Mongolia’s second-largest city, where towering apartments cram together like subway riders. Lots of people means lots of trash, which means lots and lots of bugs. Cockroaches. Bedbugs. Centipedes. And what Mongolians call black bugs, speck-like insects that Oyuka fears will bite her children and make them sick.

Over the past year, Oyuka started noticing them in corners, under furniture, on windowsills. She increased how often she sprayed Magic Cleaner, from occasionally to every three months — even though the smell makes her stomach lurch. “Because I don’t know any other good poison, I use this poison often,” she says.

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