Iran has Western hostages locked up at all times in case it wants leverage for a deal with their country
- Last week
Iranreleased Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a dual UK-Australian citizen who has been detained since 2018, in exchange for three Iranians convicted of attempting an attack on Israel's embassy in Thailand.
- This is part of Iran's longstanding campaign to amass foreign — particularly US and European — hostages so they can be used as pawns in future diplomatic deals with their countries, US and European officials told Insider.
- "What we have seen is ... a focus on people they can arrest visiting Tehran on bogus charges that never seem to get resolved until they need something," a former US intelligence official said.
- "Iran thinks it will always be treated like a pariah state by the West," the official added. "Taking hostages through kidnapping and arrests pays off if you don't care."
Iran's agreement last week to swap an Australian-British academic held in Tehran for over two years, in exchange for three Iranians who were jailed for planning an attack on Israel's embassy in Bangkok, is part of an ongoing Iranian campaign to collect and trade hostages with Western countries, according to US and European officials contacted by Insider.
Iran's release of dual UK-Australian citizen Kylie Moore-Gilbert after her 2018 arrest on spying charges — which she, Australia, and Britain have strongly denied — came one day before the assassination of Iran's top nuclear scientist in Tehran last Friday. Iran has accused Israel of being behind the hit.
A European intelligence official, who has negotiated
Iran's move came as the outgoing Trump administration and its political allies in Israel continue to appear committed to actions that could lead to military conflict — with the most recent being last Friday's assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran's top nuclear scientist.
"Well, the killing of Fakhrizadeh puts significant pressure for the Iranians to respond but I think they can wait," the official said.
"They've committed to the course of waiting for [President-elect Joe] Biden to see if talks over the nuclear deal can resume. The release of Moore-Gilbert is intended to calm things somewhat with US allies that would be needed if Trump or Israel pushed for a military confrontation.
"This is why they arrested her in the first place: In case they ever needed a card to play with the Brits," the source said.
Since its formation in 1979, the Iranian regime has repeatedly targeted Western citizens for arrests or kidnapping as a way to maintain leverage over negotiations, offer potential leverage against foes, or simply to keep in hand in case they come in useful one day, according to a former senior US intelligence official.
This source asked not to be quoted by name, but their identity is known to Insider.
"It started with the taking of the US embassy in 1979 but the Iranians — often using Lebanese proxies like Hezbollah — throughout the 1980s made sure that at any given time they had a number of Americans or British hostages on hand to negotiate with," said the official.
"It calmed down in the 1990s but since 2001, what we have seen is a renewal of the tactics but with more of a focus on people they can arrest visiting Tehran on bogus charges that never seem to get resolved until they need something."
Since 2015, Iran has arrested more than 40 dual nationals inside the country, with a heavy focus on Iranians living in the US or Europe. Reuters found that 30 were arrested from 2015 to 2018, and that 19 of them were nationals of both Iran and various European countries.
"We watched just as the ink figuratively dried on the [nuclear] deal and they [Iran] began methodically arresting foreigners passing through Tehran — usually targeting dual citizens living in the US or Europe," said the US official.
"It was clear they had been restrained on prisoner collection during the runup to the agreement, not wanting to annoy anyone until it was signed, but once it was, they started again."
Iran's playbook — according to the US official, and seconded by the European intelligence official — for dual citizens were obvious:
- They would be interrogated for information about Western activities in Iran.
- Sometimes they would be offered deals to spy for Iran on dissidents or governments abroad.
- If these deals were rejected, they would be put on trial, given a long sentence, and eventually traded to the West for some concession in the future.
"For Moore-Gilbert, the Iranians got to look responsible — even more so considering the Israel assassination the very next day — as well as freeing three of their guys in a Thai jail," said the US official.
"And it more or less cost them nothing but letting some woman they knew wasn't a spy leave for home."
To date, at least 30 foreign nationals — including US and British citizens and residents — are still under some form of arrest or detention in Iran.
Intelligence analysts widely expect the regime to continue using the strategy to maintain leverage over countries with whom it will likely be renegotiating a nuclear agreement in the future.
"It works," said the former US official. "Iran thinks it will always be treated like a pariah state by the West. Taking hostages through kidnapping and arrests pays off if you don't care."
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