Biden’s Hostage Diplomacy, Explained
This commentary was originally published in Good Authority on September 20, 2023.
Five hostages are coming home. In recent weeks, the Biden administration finalized a complicated deal to recover five U.S. citizens the U.S. government deemed wrongfully detained in Iran. On Monday, after years of imprisonment and high-stakes negotiations, they were finally released.
Prisoners Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz were held in Iran’s Evin Prison for more than five years, accused of what the United States considers completely false espionage charges. (As of Monday, the other two prisoners have not been named publicly.) Namazi’s mother and Tahbaz’s wife, whom the Iranian government had previously prohibited from leaving the country, were also on the flight.
In exchange for their release, the Biden administration issued a waiver to facilitate the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues held in restricted accounts in South Korea. These funds have now been transferred to a bank in Qatar, to be disbursed for strictly humanitarian purposes. As part of the deal, the Biden administration has also agreed to grant clemency to five unnamed Iranians imprisoned in the United States and charged with crimes ranging from sanctions violations to theft. (Only two of the released Iranians opted to return to Iran, reportedly.)
In the weeks leading up to the swap, Republicans slammed the Biden administration for paying too high a price to bring the prisoners home. The criticism is reminiscent of the partisan backlash to the deal that exchanged Viktor Bout—a convicted Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death”—for WNBA star Brittney Griner last year.
This deal is the latest example of hostage diplomacy: when countries use their criminal justice systems to hold foreigners hostage. My research on the dynamics of hostage taking can shed light on the context and criticism of this latest prisoner deal.
Iranian Hostage Diplomacy Is Nothing New
Iran is arguably the progenitor of hostage diplomacy. In 1979, a group of Iranian students laid siege to the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding 52 American diplomats and other citizens hostage for 444 days. Failed rescue attempts, intense international negotiations, and partisan scheming in the United States all played a role in the hostages’ eventual return. Since then, successive Iranian regimes have used hostage taking to coerce payments and prisoner swaps from the United States and from U.S. allies.
For example, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal also included the release of four prisoners from Iran, including Jason Rezaian, the former Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post. In 2022, Iran released two British-Iranian dual citizens after the U.K. government agreed to settle a £400 million ($522 million) debt dispute going back to the 1970s.
The prisoners released this week were detained by Iran long before President Biden entered office. Siamak Namazi—who had held the distinction of being the longest-held American hostage in Iran—had been detained since 2015. Morad Tahbaz was initially part of the 2022 British negotiations, but at the last minute was returned to custody. In other words, prior U.S. administrations had failed to bring these wrongfully detained prisoners home.
Hostage Takers Vary in Their Targeting and Demands
Hostage diplomacy is a rare but growing problem. While (thankfully) there aren’t enough cases to identify causal patterns, some trends seem to be emerging. In particular, Iranian hostage diplomacy looks quite different from the Russian cases—Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan, Evan Gershkovich—that have gained attention over the last two years.
For example, Iran—unlike Russia—tends to detain dual nationals. And Iran tends to accuse its hostages of espionage, while Russia has wrongfully imprisoned U.S. citizens on a wider range of drug, assault, and espionage charges.
Moreover, the deals to resolve Iranian and Russian hostage diplomacy cases differ dramatically: the U.S. has resolved Russian cases with one-for-one prisoner exchanges, while Iran seems to require much broader deals, trading prisoners but also demanding money and other concessions. In this case, the Biden administration claims the prisoner deal isn’t connected to nuclear diplomacy, and nuclear talks with Iran remain stalled. At the same time, the administration has also communicated that nuclear talks cannot advance as long as Iran is wrongfully detaining Americans, so it’s possible this week’s prisoner release may help the two sides move back to the negotiating table.
Ultimately, hostage taking is about creating leverage. As my new research and work by others has shown, perpetrators might seek that leverage for many different reasons—and the motives of hostage takers shape whom they target, and what they demand.
The controversy around this deal stems not only from the high price tag, but from the perceived violation of a U.S. prohibition on making concessions to hostage takers.
Though the United States does not actually have a “no concession” policy, a majority of Americans believe that we do. Policy reports from the New America Foundation and the RAND Corporation, as well as an Obama-era executive order, all presume (incorrectly) that the narrow prohibition on paying ransoms to designated terrorist organizations applies to all international hostage scenarios.
This misconception has an impact on public support for hostage recovery. In my ongoing work with Lauren Prather, we find that—perhaps owing to the pervasiveness of the “no concessions” myth—Americans are less supportive of ransom payments than other methods of bringing hostages home.
What’s the Price for an American Life?
The fact that there’s so much partisanship in the ostensibly bipartisan arena of hostage recovery highlights several concerns about hostage recovery policy. As hostage diplomacy appears to be on the rise, governments must grapple with how to bring their citizens home while curbing future attacks—two imperatives seemingly at odds. What’s important for understanding this policy debate?
First, concessions work. Hostage taking is conditional violence; when the hostage takers’ demands are satisfied, the hostage is almost always released. Around the world and across various forms of hostage-taking violence, the vast majority of hostages are released once their captors’ demands have been met.
Second, concessions give our adversaries things they want. It’s perhaps obvious that policymakers oppose giving our adversaries anything that will make them stronger. It is less obvious how to think about returning to our adversaries people and money that were originally theirs. Across the Biden administration’s 35 hostage recoveries to date, concessions have aligned within this latter category. In the Iran case, the U.S. government also used its sanctions leverage over Iranian funds to secure the Americans’ release. In contrast, traditional ransom payments require targets to provide their own money to the hostage taker.
Third, we simply don’t know whether concessions incentivize future hostage taking. While existing research suggests that concessions may correlate with increased kidnapping by transnational terrorist groups, we don’t yet know whether government hostage takers behave the same way. On the flip side, we know that refusing to consider concessions has never stopped hostage taking. So while it’s definitely unsavory—and possibly risky—to give our adversaries what they want, denying them concessions has not kept Americans safe.
The Biden administration has made clear that they’re willing to weather criticism if it means bringing American captives home. At the same time, they have imposed additional sanctions on former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for their role in wrongfully detaining Americans. From increasing costs on hostage takers to decreasing risky travel by Americans, the administration is supplementing hostage recovery with efforts to stop future attacks.
Danielle Gilbert is an assistant professor at Northwestern University and a fellow with the Bridging the Gap Project. She is a commissioner for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention.