Last Wednesday, Iran’s state-run Press TV aired footage of its hostage diplomacy in action, claiming that it had detained Britain’s deputy ambassador for taking soil samples in a desert location close to where the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducts missile exercises.
The event seemed certain to ignite a major international diplomatic flare-up, until the British ambassador, Simon Shercliff, tweeted that Whitaker had left the country in December when his posting ended. Poland’s foreign ministry confirmed that a scientist had indeed been “deprived of his freedom” in Iran — not last week, but last September.
Tehran offered neither explanation nor apology for the bizarre episode. Nor did it provide clarity on the fate of the Polish scientist.
By week’s end, the regime’s spy catchers had returned to their traditional trade of locking up Iranians — in this instance, two filmmakers who had dared challenge the security establishment on social media.
The events of last week should put all Western governments on high alert for diplomatic theatrics and threats from Tehran as Iran is backed into a corner by crises at home and abroad. Iran’s hostage diplomacy arresting high-profile foreigners, or even claiming to, and parading them on TV allows the regime to shift blame for what ails the country onto perfidious outsiders and gives it bargaining chips for negotiations with the West.
Rights groups say Iran has anywhere between 20 and 40 foreigners and Iranians with dual nationality in captivity. The exact number is hard to gauge because it sometimes suits both sides in a hostage situation to keep things under wraps. As with the Polish scientist, news of an arrest can be withheld for months, even years, and announced only when the regime wants to distract its domestic audience or needs to show its hand in negotiations abroad.
Just last month, Tehran threatened to hang a Swedish-Iranian and arrested a Swedish tourist as a Stockholm district court deliberated in a case implicating a high-ranking member of the Iranian regime in war crimes. That same week, Iran arrested a French couple ahead of a European Union envoy’s visit to Tehran pressing the regime on nuclear negotiations. Sweden and France have warned their citizens against traveling to Iran.