June 20, 2024 | Policy Brief

Swedish Hostage Deal Set to Underwrite More Hostage-Taking

June 20, 2024 | Policy Brief

Swedish Hostage Deal Set to Underwrite More Hostage-Taking

As part of a deal to release Swedish hostages in Iran, Stockholm freed Hamid Nouri, a former Iranian official convicted of crimes against humanity for his role in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. This agreement is set to further incentivize hostage-taking by Iran and other rogue regimes as a means of generating leverage against states that seek to apply diplomatic, legal, or economic pressure against them.

After Nouri’s arrest in Stockholm in 2019, a Swedish court convicted him of war crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction, a legal doctrine asserting that certain crimes are so egregious that they transcend national boundaries for prosecution. Nouri is the first Iranian ever tried and convicted using this principle, receiving a life sentence in 2022. A Swedish court of appeals upheld the sentence in 2023.

In response to the conviction, Tehran turned to hostage diplomacy to generate leverage against Sweden and prevent Nouri from serving his full sentence. In exchange for Nouri, Tehran released two recently detained Swedish hostages in Iran: Johan Floderus, a European Union (EU) diplomat, and Saeed Azizi, a Swedish-Iranian dual national. Remaining hostage in Iran is Ahmadreza Djalali, a scientist and Swedish-Iranian dual national arrested in 2016 on spurious charges and now on death row.

A media outlet affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) — said the two Swedish citizens exchanged for Nouri “were only arrested for the purpose of a swap.”

While EU officials have heralded the agreement, previous hostages in Iran have voiced criticism, citing Iran’s ability to overturn the rule of law through hostage diplomacy. But the Swedish case is hardly the first. In 2023, Belgium released Asadollah Asadi, a convicted terrorist, in exchange for Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgian aid worker detained in 2022 on sham charges of espionage and collaboration with the United States. Asadi is a former attaché at the Iranian embassy in Vienna convicted of plotting to bomb an exiled opposition group gathering near Paris in 2018.

The Swedish government’s failure to secure all its nationals in this agreement echoes previous incomplete hostage deals, such as the case of the recently returned French hostage Louis Arnaud. After he languished in an Iranian jail for nearly two years, Tehran freed Arnaud as part of an agreement that left behind three French citizens.

Similarly, last September, Washington failed to secure the release of U.S. national Jamshid Sharmahd, now on death row, as part of a deal with Iran to free several American-Iranian dual citizens in exchange for several jailed Iranians and access to $6 billion in frozen funds.

In 2021, a former IRGC commander candidly admitted that hostage-taking was a way to improve Tehran’s economic standing. Countries engaging in hostage diplomacy with Tehran should be aware that they are funding an enterprise that will make their citizens less safe in the long run.

Beyond undermining the prospects of universal jurisdiction and accountability for war crimes, swaps like Stockholm’s set back any attempt to develop a multilateral framework to deal with Tehran’s hostage-taking. Rather, they encourage the clerical regime to extort states bilaterally by using innocent citizens as political pawns.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Janatan Sayeh is a research analyst. They both contribute to FDD’s Iran Program. For more analysis from Behnam and Janatan, please subscribe HERE. Follow Janatan on X @JanatanSayeh. Follow FDD on X @FDD and at @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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