Jason Rezaian: The Rise of Hostage Taking

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Jon Alterman: Jason Rezaian is a columnist for the Washington Post. He was held hostage in Iran for 544 days, and he's a partner with me on the CSIS Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention. Jason, welcome back to Babel.

Jason Rezaian: It's good to be back.

Jon Alterman: Why do governments take hostages?

Jason Rezaian: The short answer is because they can. Although the taking of hostages has been prohibited by various conventions that most countries are signers on, including Iran, they still do it, and they use their supposed independent judiciaries as a front for taking hostages. Iran then uses hostages in a bilateral context to try and extract concessions from the governments of the citizens that they're holding. The real problem is that there isn't enough being done in the international context to make it harder or more expensive for governments to do this, which is why you and I think this is a subject worth exploring. While Western governments, meaning the United States and our allies, are quick to condemn the use of hostage-taking or wrongful detention as a foreign policy tool, they don't have a lot of ideas about how to remedy the situation.

Jon Alterman: Well, this has been going on for years. The Barbary pirates held Americans hostage as soon as the Americans weren't protected by the British Empire. Then the Barbary pirates in North Africa went to U.S. government, imprisoned ships, and demanded payments to protect American shipping.

Jason Rezaian: The U.S. government did pay them. Even at that time, the public narrative was "we don't pay for our prisoners.” However, the United States did pay. Ultimately, we always pay. We say we're not going to, and in the end, when it becomes too politically costly not to bring people home, we end up paying. My hope is that we can come up with ideas on how to make hostage-taking more costly.

Jon Alterman: Before we get into some of the solutions, I want to talk a little bit more about the problems. How has this hostage-taking practice been changing over the last 30 or 40 years? I certainly remember when I was working on Capitol Hill in the late 1980s, there were a number of hostages being held in Lebanon, and the Regan administration was negotiating for their freedom. It's part of what got the Regan administration into the Iran-Contra scandal.

Jason Rezaian: The biggest shift from the '80s and '90s, and even in the last decade or so, to now is that governments are taking hostages more openly than they did before. In the Lebanon context, it was often a proxy group for Iran taking hostages. Now, the Iranian government is doing it themselves when a foreign national enters their country. It used to be an American problem. Now, it's a problem that affects really all of our European allies, the UK, and Canada. Governments are really weaponizing their law enforcement, judiciary, and diplomatic resources against the individuals of countries that they have issues with, and it is sort of an easy and cheap way to put a wedge in relations and get something out of another country.

Jon Alterman: How common is this?

Jason Rezaian: It's not incredibly common, but it is much more common than it was a decade ago. From what is publicly available, we see that Americans being held hostage by states has risen in the last eight by more than 500%.

We're talking about dozens of people. There's anywhere between 45 and 60 individuals being held right now that we are aware of. I give that range because the State Department and the U.S. government have different ideas about who is wrongfully detained, so some institutions may not have designated individuals who are being detained as wrongfully detained.

Jon Alterman: What does wrongfully detained mean in your mind?

Jason Rezaian: To me, it means a U.S. citizen is being used as leverage against America by a foreign state, which is essentially what hostage taking is. The reason that the United States hasn’t called it hostage taking when it comes to the states is because there's this idea that there is a toolkit of diplomatic resources that you can use when you're dealing with a government rather than a terrorist or a criminal organization. The thinking is that calling a wrongfully detained person a hostage will upset the foreign government. I think, however, that that is a moot point because these states are taking Americans hostage to upset America, so I think we need to be honest and get to the root of the problem.

Jon Alterman: Journalists seem especially targeted. Why do you think that is?

Jason Rezaian: I think it's for two reasons. One, there is an audacity factor that these governments want to have a high public impact. So, in my case, when I was taken in 2014 there were several other Americans being held in Iran, one was a former Marine and another was a Christian pastor. There would be intermittent stories about their ordeals, but not to the extent that there was about me because my colleagues in the media sounded a massive alarm.

Another kind of bonus effect for these governments is it has a chilling effect on journalism generally. If you look at Iran, there's almost no foreign media presence there at this point. If you look at China and Russia, two of the other countries that are most egregious in their use of hostage-taking, you see no American presence in those countries. Evan Gershkovich might have been the last US citizen working on the ground in Russia.

Jon Alterman: You said that ultimately the U.S. government has paid off the hostage takers for hundreds of years. It's just what we do. Has that changed?

Jason Rezaian: It has not changed at all. Understandably, Americans want to know that their government will be there to help them. You and I both grew up in an era of film where we said, “You can’t do that to me, I’m an American.” Now, that's kind of a hokey idea that doesn't seem to match up with reality. We have targets on our backs, and as journalists, we have a second target on our backs.

Jon Alterman: When you talk about that sense of, "You can't touch me, I'm an American," what was the US government doing then that it doesn't do now?

Jason Rezaian: Unfortunately, a big part of it is walking the walk as we talk the talk. The rule of law and due process have been fundamental to our democracy, parts of which were suspended during the war on terror following 9/11, particularly in terms of our treatment of certain individuals accused of potential terrorist activity. There were some who were clearly involved in that activity and others who weren't—some of them are still languishing in Guantanamo Bay. The Iranian security forces who captured me used Guantanamo Bay as an excuse for them arresting me. I don’t agree with that argument, but something like Guantanamo Bay chips away at our respectability and legitimacy when it comes to talking about these issues.

The idea that we stand for something different is wonderful, in theory, but when people do not get fair trials and are not given the opportunity to defend themselves, other countries just start to believe they can take people hostage and prevent them from having a fair trial. I do think we've done a better job in the last few years of managing how we approach foreign actors whom we arrest, whether they're Iranian or Russian, but the situation has seismically shifted in the last couple of decades.

Jon Alterman: What tools do you think the U.S. government needs to develop that it doesn't currently have?

Jason Rezaian: First and foremost, more coordination between the U.S. government and various agencies. The National Security Council, the State Department, the FBI, CIA, other law enforcement, and Congress all want to solve this problem. Everybody has a different idea of how to do it, and oftentimes those ideas are not only at odds with one another, but they directly attack one another. Following the policy review that was done during the Obama administration and the passage of the Levinson Act in 2020, our approach is improving but it is still in the works.

The other thing is that there is no one-size-fits-all set of deterrence policies. For every case, we need to consider what the states’ relations are and what the hostage-taking state’s motivations are. Often, we don’t know those motivations in the beginning.

My personal theory, and what I hope we can unpack with this commission, is that deterrence needs to be baked into the motivation. Whatever motivation a country has for doing this, the deterrents should help undercut that motivation. While I don't have the final answer yet, I think we're going to come up with it.

Jon Alterman: One of the paradoxes is that the more you talk about caring about freeing hostages, the higher you make the price, because your adversary sees your focus and intention, and feels that the more focus there is, the greater the upside is and rewards will follow.

Jason Rezaian: This is a legitimate concern. It is a two-track problem. The immediate one is how we bring citizens home as quickly and safely as possible. Until we have deterrents, we will have to make choices between bringing hostages home or leaving them behind.

If you have this second track of developing a long-term set of tools that will necessarily evolve and adjust over time, then you're in business. At this point, I don't think we can choose to stop making deals because that equates to throwing people under the bus.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask you a hard question. In some cases, making the deal means you also have to be willing to walk away. In your case, with you and your wife, the United States almost walked away when it looked like the Iranians weren't going to uphold the deal. How do you think about the prospect of wanting to get everybody home quickly and safely and working with adversarial countries who are trying to extract the most they possibly can, and will be willing to break deals?

Jason Rezaian: This is where I have to sometimes consider recusing myself from the conversation. People ask me all the time if the cost of bringing this person from this country home is too high? It is a hard question because all of us who have been former hostages—and I've had this conversation with other former hostages— might think to ourselves that the cost is too high but it’s hypocritical.

It's an impossible calculation that we assume that a President or another leader of a country can make easily. It’s not. This is a very challenging set of ordeals to come to terms with. We've seen this in the Brittney Griner case and others, like the Trevor Reed case. The narrative that follows the release is really important. In my case as well, there was conversations of pallets of cash.

If you go back and unravel what happened in the implementation of the JCPOA, or any of these cases, and pinpoint the release of hostages, it looks like a really bad deal, but there were so many other things involved. There was freedom of Americans, the limitation of Iran's nuclear program, which was working until the last President deiced to pull us out of it, new sanctions put on Iran's ballistic missiles the same day that I was released. Maybe when you look at just the hostages and the financial cost, it looks bad. However, there's always more pieces of the puzzle to consider.

Jon Alterman: As you think broadly over this problem, and taking your own case out of it, what do you think were the most successful U.S. efforts to get hostages home? The United States has been working at this for a long time. Can you remember a time when either the United States was really successful or perceived to be really successful in doing this, or is it always going to be messy and criticized?

Jason Rezaian: It's always going to be messy and criticized. Some of the most successful cases are probably ones that we've never heard about before because they were able to get to the heart of the problem quickly. One that was tangentially related to my own case was the instance of the American sailors that wandered into Iranian waters four or five days before I was released. From where I was sitting, even in prison, hearing about these Americans being captured by the IRGC, the same people that held me, and, then seeing that they were released 12 hours later was really something. Nobody was hurt and not a single shot was fired, and it was all done through telephone calls between Iran's Foreign Minister and the Secretary of State. This shows that there is a different way that this can play out beyond the long-term imprisonment I endured. 

Jon Alterman: Jason Rezaian, I am looking forward to working with you on the CSIS Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention. Thank you for joining us once again on Babel.

Jason Rezaian: It's an honor to be here. Thank you, Jon.