Some may have missed the triumphant return to China of “princess” Huawei Meng Wanzhou, chief operating officer of the Chinese telecommunications megalith and daughter of its founder and CEO, in the last days of September. The result of negotiations begun under the Trump administration, Meng’s return to China triggered the mutual release of two Canadian hostages arrested nearly three years ago by the Beijing government, almost certainly with the express purpose of forcing an exchange.
Meng had been charged with financial fraud (in particular, “conspiracy to commit bank fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, bank fraud and wire fraud”) and was awaiting his extradition from Canada to the United States. ; in order to obtain her release, she admitted to having committed offenses against American law. The two Canadians were charged with “spying on national secrets” and providing information to “outside entities”. But the details of the case against them are irrelevant, with the façade adorning a larger trend – hostage-taking as a tool of government.
There is not much new on the sovereign rapture. In the book of Genesis, Lot, Abraham’s nephew, is led away by the four kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, forcing the patriarch to assemble “318 trained men” and undertake a rescue. Teddy Roosevelt won in 1904 following a hostage-taking earlier that year, a confrontation with the pirate Raisuli and the Sultan of Morocco over an “American” kidnapped for ransom. (The American is in quotation marks because later documents revealed that the “American” in question was not a citizen, notwithstanding Teddy’s claims.) Jimmy Carter collapsed in defeat in 1980 in part at because of a failed attempt to save Americans held hostage after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
In short, kidnapping and hostage-taking is one thing. But it is more recently that it has gone from a tool of terrorists in the modern era to a tool regularly used by governments. And like many of these instruments of coercion, it finds its modern origins in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The most significant intra-government hostage crisis of the modern era began with the overthrow of the US-backed Shah of Iran and the taking of 52 hostages inside the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 The crisis would bring down Carter and usher in an era of US-Iranian hostility that continues today.
This 444-day hostage crisis sparked an era of hostage-taking centered mainly in the war-torn Lebanese capital, Beirut. And while these kidnappings were horrific, with some Americans held for years, some killed, most were carried out by government-backed terrorist groups, not the governments themselves. Not anymore.
The Iranian government is now holding four American hostages: Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, and Baquer and Siamak Namazi. Like the American hostages taken and already released — Wang Xiyue (see his Mail interview here) and the Washington postFor Jason Rezaian, Iran’s demands were not specific; these human pawns were levers, their performative rather than substantive convictions. None were engaged in espionage; Wang Xiyue was researching the history of the 19th century, Rezaian was the Washington postthe head of the Tehran office; the Namazis were businessmen – Baquer Namazi was lured to Iran to help free his son before he himself was arrested – and Shargi was, more recently, a businessman.
The Iranian hostage-taking was also not limited to dual Iranian-American citizenship and hapless researchers. In several cases, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-N) navy took military hostages on the high seas. Nine American sailors and a naval officer were arrested in January 2016, Iranian forces seized 15 British military in 2007, three small British Royal Navy boats with eight sailors on board were taken in 2004.
Never hesitating to lift the intellectual property of others, the Chinese government clearly appreciated the effectiveness of Iranian diplomacy in matters of hostages. The two detained Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, are not alone either. While the Michaels – as they’re called – were clearly arrested explicitly in an attempt to secure Meng’s release, others were taken in for more generic leverage. 115 other Canadians remain imprisoned in China, some for legitimate reasons (drug trafficking among them), others for political reasons. Likewise, not all hostages in Beijing have been arrested; in some cases, the Chinese have “simply” confined their victims inside China, denying exit visas and confiscating travel documents. Estimates suggest that at least two dozen U.S. citizens have been barred from leaving China in the past three years. (Coincidentally, two of those American hostages were also released on the same weekend as the Michaels and Meng.
Students Cynthia and Victor Liu have been denied exit visas for three years in order to bring their father, a Chinese banker accused of corruption, back to the mainland. Their mother remains in jail on false charges. The Biden administration denies any connection.)
These are the most prominent stories of modern day hostage diplomacy, but others have also stepped into the game. Erdogan’s increasingly dictatorial regime in Turkey arrested an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, in 2016, on charges so bizarre they appeared to be a joke (including allegations of links to an alleged conspirator due to a photo of a particular rice dish on his phone; a CIA agent – making part of a “Mormon gang” inside the intelligence agency; an Israeli agent; and a “brainwasher” who used the US national anthem to indoctrinate Turkish students). Erdogan demanded in return the extradition of a political opponent of the United States. Exceptionally, he lost that game and Brunson came out in 2018.
Is there a moral to these stories, a lesson in politics for the United States? Indeed there is. Following a wave of kidnappings and terrorist attacks against US troops and the US Embassy in Beirut in the 1980s, the Reagan administration imposed a travel ban on US citizens traveling to Lebanon. Opposed tooth and nail for reasons ranging from the burden weighing on double nationals to the difficulty of access for humanitarian workers and diplomats, the ban was however lifted only in 1997. Did she send a message to the Lebanese government on the need to protect American citizens? It did, and despite the continued presence of Hezbollah groups in al Qaeda and its affiliates, Lebanon is now generally a safer place for Americans. Is the same for Iran and China?
It may seem like an overreaction, but the right response to a state kidnapping policy is a travel ban for US citizens and a ban on air travel for US carriers. At present, the State Department is warning Americans not to travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping and arbitrary arrest and to reconsider their travel to China due to the arbitrary application of local laws. . But these warnings are clearly insufficient. If China, Iran and others see American citizens as pawns to be taken in return for political or political concessions or human exchanges, it is time to deny them that option. Will it be difficult for American companies to stop sending Americans to China? Difficult for diplomats and researchers to travel to Iran? You bet. Will it be hard for US carriers traveling to China (US carriers are prohibited from flying to Iran)? Indeed, it will. But it will be harder for the culprits. This is the price to pay for being a state that behaves like a terrorist group. The choice is theirs, or should be.