Last November, the Iranian judiciary moved one of its dual-national detainees into solitary confinement to suggest that the implementation of his death sentence was imminent. Ahmadreza Djalali was arrested in 2016 after traveling back to his homeland from his residence in Sweden. He was later issued a capital sentence on unsubstantiated charges of spying, which Djalali himself described as retaliation for his refusal to collaborate with the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
The move to implement that sentence in 2020 was evidently retaliation of a different kind, coming right around the time that a Belgian court was putting a high-ranking diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, on trial for his leading role in an attempted bombing on European soil. The target of that plot was a gathering of Iranian expatriates just outside Paris, but two of Assadi’s co-conspirators were arrested before leaving Belgium with the bomb he had provided, and that became the venue for their prosecution.
The relationship between Assadi’s and Djalali’s cases stems from the fact that the Iranian-Swedish dual national had previously resided and worked in Belgium, as well. Among the several Western nationals being held hostage in Iran, this made him the closest thing the regime had to a direct source of leverage over the Belgian government. Accordingly, that government did respond to the threat on Djalali’s life, albeit not in the way that Tehran would have hoped.
Far from offering to release Assadi or downgrade his prosecution, Brussels declared that if Djalali’s hanging went forward as planned, diplomatic ties between the two nations would be severed and Iran would be subjected to increased pressure and isolation for the foreseeable future. The Islamic Republic seemingly backed down soon thereafter, announcing that the execution had been delayed and casting Djalali’s case into a different kind of uncertainty.
Little has been heard from the prisoner since then, but it stands to reason that Tehran still views him as a potential source of leverage, even if it doesn’t have a precise new goal in mind. In the meantime, the regime has evidently been looking elsewhere for ways to strong-arm European governments into releasing Assadi.
Tehran’s chances of success grew especially remote on February 4 when the former third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison for plotting to commit terrorist murder. But just ahead of that sentence, the judiciary set its sights on two new Western nationals, one from Germany and another from France. At least one of these is reportedly a dual national like Djalali, but little else is known apart from the fact that the Franco-Iranian was arrested for flying a drone in the desert.
The circumstances of that arrest were reminiscent of the 2019 case of Jolie King and Mark Firkin, a pair of Australian travel bloggers who were arrested and threatened with national security charges after using a drone to take photos of the Iranian leg of a world tour. The couple was released after several months, but not before the Australian government decided to refuse an American extradition request for an Iranian scientists accused of violating sanctions to obtain sensitive materials for the Islamic Republic.
That decision gave King and Firkin’s release the appearance of a prisoner swap, thereby putting it in the same category of a number of other exchanges that have taken place over the years, such as the 2016 release of four Americans from Iranian custody at the time of implementation for the seven-party Iran nuclear deal. To secure that release, the Obama administration apparently agreed to release or drop charges for 21 Iranians, as well as to deliver 700 million dollars in cash as partial repayment for an outstanding debt for arms sales to the pre-revolutionary Iranian government.
Such incidents have the unfortunate effect of leading Tehran to believe that hostage-taking is a viable means of securing its interests. And this no doubt helped motivate the regime to try using multiple hostages as leverage against the desperate situation faced by their terrorist-diplomat. The threat on Djalali’s life was a sufficiently alarming example of this phenomenon, but the regime’s decision to proceed from that failure to the contrived arrest of two other Western nationals was a sure sign of confidence in its own impunity.
The news of the latest two arrests was only very recently broken, but it came as no surprise to serious critics of the Iranian regime. They have long recognized Western policies as tending toward conciliation and appeasement, and thereby giving rise to an Iranian mentality that lets the regime threaten the West with little fear of reprisal. Imbalanced prisoner swaps are a key example of this appeasement, but they are far from the only example.
In fact, multiple statements from European lawmakers and former government officials have made the case that the European Union’s silence on the Assadi case is a prime example of this trend. The Brussels-based NGO the International Committee in Search of Justice issued one such statement on Wednesday and described that silence as “catastrophic capitulation to the Iranian regime’s attempts to bomb and kill people on European soil.”
The statement also reiterated longstanding calls for more assertive Western policies toward the Islamic Republic, including policies that favor isolation over un-earned diplomatic engagement and potentially lead to the closure of Iranian embassies, pending serious Iranian commitments to dismantling of terrorist networks and disavowal of all terrorist activity on European soil.
Unfortunately, current trends are heading in precisely the opposite direction, as evidenced by the recent announcement that a Europe-Iran Business Forum would be going forward at the beginning of March, less than three months after it was cancelled over the Iranian judiciary’s execution of an opposition journalist, Ruhollah Zam.
None other than Josep Borrell, the EU’s head of foreign policy, is slated to deliver a keynote speech in that online conference, right alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. In agreeing to the schedule, Borrell signaled his willingness to overlook the fact that Tehran had neither atoned for Zam’s killing nor acknowledged any wrongdoing whatsoever. If he were to go forward with the speech now, he would similarly be turning a blind eye to the recently-announced arrests, which help to demonstrate that the full range of Iran’s malign activities remain as much a concern as they were several weeks ago when Zam was killed, as well as three years ago when Iranian operatives nearly set off a bomb in the heart of Europe.