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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

If Tehran thinks it can get away with intimidation techniques, it should think again

The Iranian regime has often resorted to hostage-taking, but US president won't stay silent this time

Several hostage-taking situations have ensued since the 1970 Islamic Revolution. Reuters
Several hostage-taking situations have ensued since the 1970 Islamic Revolution. Reuters

Ever since 1979, the guardians of Iran's Islamic Revolution have resorted to the ancient Middle Eastern practice of hostage-taking as a means of placing political pressure on their enemies.

One of the Revolutionary Guards’ first acts after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s founding father and spiritual leader, was safely established in power was to occupy the American embassy in Tehran and hold 52 US diplomats and other embassy staff hostage for 444 days. The embassy siege was politically disastrous for former US president Jimmy Carter, who was ultimately driven from office over his failure to secure the release of the hostages.

It was a similar situation during the 1980s civil war in Lebanon, when Tehran wanted to pressure the Reagan administration into dropping its support for the Lebanese government, which was opposed to attempts by the Iranian-backed militia Hizbollah to establish a de facto state in the southern half of the country. More than a dozen American, French and British subjects, including the Church of England envoy, Terry Waite, were taken hostage and held in captivity. The Reagan administration’s attempts to secure the hostages’ release resulted in the Iran-Contra scandal, the arms-for-hostages arrangement that forever tarnished Ronald Reagan’s reputation.

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Now, similar storm clouds are forming in Britain over the political future of British foreign secretary Boris Johnson regarding his less-than-impressive handling of the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman who has been jailed in Iran on trumped-up charges.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Britain, was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards at Imam Khomeini Airport as she prepared to leave Iran in April last year after visiting her Iranian family with Gabriella, her 22-month-old daughter. Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family insist she was simply visiting relatives, but the Revolutionary Guards had other ideas, and in September 2016, it was revealed that she had been sentenced to five years imprisonment "for allegedly plotting to topple the Iranian regime". Meanwhile, her daughter's British passport was confiscated during the arrest, and the now three-year-old remains in Iran under the care of her maternal grandparents.

The methods might be more sophisticated, but this is simply another means by which the ayatollahs can take a foreign national captive for their own political ends.

Nor is the excessive jail sentence handed down to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe the end of her ordeal. Last week, she was brought back to a revolutionary court and told she could face further charges that could see her prison sentence doubled.

The news that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe could spend at least a decade in an Iranian jail cell has been greeted with dismay by her family in Britain and her British husband, Richard Ratcliffe, who has organised a vociferous campaign demanding her release.

But Mr Ratcliffe’s cause has not been helped by some injudicious remarks Mr Johnson made when he appeared by the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and said that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training Iranian journalists at the time of her arrest. Opposition MPs have now demanded that Mr Johnson resign from his position, as campaigners say his comments will be seized upon by the Iranian authorities to justify their claim that she was involved in unauthorised activities at the time of her detention.

For the moment, Mr Johnson is resisting demands for him to resign, saying his words have been taken out of context, and that he is continuing to work with the Iranians to secure Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.

But it is a measure of Iran’s refusal to cooperate on the case that, as The National is now reporting, they have stymied attempts by Mr Ratcliffe to visit his wife in prison by not fulfilling their promise to provide him with a visa.

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The harsh treatment meted out to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is typical of the disdain Iranian officials have for the West and its citizens. And it demonstrates yet again that, despite US president Donald Trump’s warning to Iran last month to change its behaviour or face the consequences, the ayatollahs of changing their hostile tactics.

On the contrary, in a week when much of the focus has centred on Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s plight, Iran has been involved in a number of other hostile acts that will not go down well at the White House.

The resignation of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri has been blamed on the threats he has received to his life for the stand he has taken against Hizbollah’s increasing encroachment on the Lebanese political establishment. Mr Hariri’s concerns, moreover, have great credibility, as Hizbollah has been accused of murdering his father, Rafik, in 2005.

The other incident that shows Iran has no intention of toning down its bellicosity was the firing of a ballistic missile at Riyadh International Airport by Yemeni-based Houthi rebels last weekend. Iran is known to be the main supplier of such sophisticated weapons to the relatively primitive Houthi fighters, and the attack has now been condemned by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as being tantamount to a declaration of war by Tehran against Saudi Arabia.

But if the Iranians believe they can get away with the intimidation tactics, whether placing Western citizens in captivity or firing ballistic missiles, they should think again. Mr Trump has shown he is serious about confronting rogue states like Iran and North Korea. He has already inflicted severe damage on Pyongyang for its ballistic missiles tests, and he will do the same to Iran if the ayatollahs do not mend their ways.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and author of Khomeini’s Ghost (Macmillan)