Iranian Hostages: Old Story, Same Ending

With the news that Iran has released the last two of its latest American hostages, I conducted a little test yesterday.

I went to the U.S. website for Air France (www.airfrance.us) to price a round trip from Paris to Tehran. Despite decades of sanctions, it is legal for American citizens to travel to Iran for non-business reasons. Air France was happy to offer me a convenient connection through Amsterdam. The flight from Amsterdam to Iran would be on Air France’s corporate sibling, KLM.

Next, I tried to book a flight directly from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Tehran on Delta, the biggest U.S. code-share partner of Air France-KLM. Delta, likewise, offered me a variety of bookings to Tehran, connecting through Amsterdam.

This explains why Iran keeps taking hostages. From the Iranian viewpoint, the benefits of doing so exceed the trifling costs.

After 32 years during which holding Western prisoners has practically been the regime’s sideline business, Iran ought to be a global travel pariah. It isn’t. I had no problem finding a flight from Toronto to Tehran, either. Air Canada routed me through London, where I could connect with its alliance partner, British Midland International, for the second leg. In fact, several carriers can take you to Tehran from London’s Heathrow airport.

It’s not as though these countries have not had their own hostage issues with Iran. In 2007, Iranian gunboats seized 15 British sailors in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq. The Iranians claimed the British seamen had crossed the border – as though that would have justified seizing their craft, transferring them to a Tehran prison, forcibly holding them for 13 days, and broadcasting the recorded “apologies” they gave under duress.

The Iranians did not net any cash in exchange for the British sailors, but they scored a propaganda victory at a time when they were contesting the U.S.-led coalition for influence inside Iraq. Moreover, the release came only after unidentified Iraqis freed an Iranian diplomat who had been abducted in Baghdad, and as the Iranians pressed for access to five of their citizens who had been detained in Iraq by U.S. soldiers on suspicion of terrorist links. The Iranians had every reason to view their British escapade as a success.

Three years later, they repeated it with the French. In 2010, France released the convicted assassin of former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, the last head of government under the deposed Shah of Iran, a few days after Iran freed a French academic who had been arrested on espionage charges.

As far as I know, Canada has not had any of its citizens treated to the Iranians’ special brand of hospitality, but our northern neighbours have witnessed first-hand the Islamic Republic’s methods. Most famously, the Canadian embassy sheltered six American diplomats who escaped when militants overran the U.S. embassy compound in 1979. Ken Taylor, who was Canada’s ambassador to Tehran at the time, became a folk hero for rallying his staff to smuggle the Americans to safety outside Iran. It later came out that Taylor was being a little more than just a good neighbour; he reportedly served as the CIA’s de facto station chief in Tehran after the U.S. embassy seizure.

Canada also vocally objected when Iran seized the British sailors in 2007. Unlike the United States, which has no diplomatic relations with Iran, Canada maintains contact below the ambassador level. The Canadian rebuke was delivered to Iran’s charge d’affaires in Ottawa.

Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd were at the least careless, and possibly naïve, when they decided to go hiking in July 2009 in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, near the border with Iran. Their outing came just two months after the American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi had been released from nearly four months of captivity, after being convicted on trumped-up espionage charges.

Maybe, as the Iranians claim, the American hikers strayed over the unmarked boundary; maybe an Iranian patrol simply spotted the three Westerners and decided on a spur-of-the-moment body-snatching incursion into Iraq. Either way, the ensuing charges of espionage against Iran had exactly as much credibility as the results of the Iranian presidential election that took place only a few weeks before the three were captured. Shourd was released last year. Each of the three prisoners, like Saberi before them, posted $500,000 in “bail” that, like any ransom, will never be seen again.

Iran was clearly a place any thoughtful traveller, particularly an American, should have given a wide berth. But the three idealistic young Americans apparently believed, at least before their capture, that there was some sort of moral equivalence between Iran and its adversaries. Bauer told a news conference after he and Fattal were released that all three still “oppose U.S. policies toward Iran which perpetuate this hostility.”

Bauer and Fattal have just lost more than two years of their lives for no other reason than the political convenience of a regime that considers foreigners, as well as its own citizens, game to be hunted and trophies to be displayed. It is not U.S. policies that cause or perpetuate Western hostility to Iran. There is no way to be anything but hostile to the loathsome clique of clerics and militia that govern the country for their own benefit.

There is a large, productive and welcome Iranian-American community that knows Tehran’s shortcomings all too well. Many of its members have relatives in Iran. Permitting travel there allows them to maintain family ties, albeit at considerable personal risk. They would probably be the ones to suffer most if travel to Iran was further restricted.

But unless we can raise the price of hostage taking, Iran will continue to take hostages. It is that simple. The time has come to isolate Iran from the global travel network.

At a minimum, U.S. citizens and permanent residents should be barred from travelling to Iran, with very limited exceptions. It may also be time to prohibit American airlines such as Delta from joining or maintaining alliances with foreign carriers, such as Air France-KLM, that fly to Iran. To take things a step further, we might bar foreign carriers that serve Iran from flying to American destinations. Given the choice of the two markets, most carriers will probably find it expedient to drop their Tehran routes.

Iran has been in the hostage-taking business for more than three decades now. If we want to change the regime’s behaviour, we will have to raise its costs and reduce its benefits.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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