September 6, 2023 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1717

The Iranian Regime's Strategy Of Taking Western Hostages To Use As Bargaining Chips With The U.S. And Europe For Political And Financial Gain

September 6, 2023 | By A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1717


On September 4, 2023, The New York Times revealed that a European Union official, Swedish citizen Johan Floderus, has been detained in Iran since his arrest in the country in April 2022 while on vacation. According to Tehran, he was engaged in espionage. He is being held in Tehran's Evin Prison.[1]

Johan Floderus (Source: EU Careers, Sweden)

It should be noted that in July 2022, Sweden sentenced an Iranian "diplomat," Hamid Nouri aka Hamid Abassi, to life in prison for crimes against humanity. Nouri, a former Iranian judiciary official, was involved in mass executions, in the summer of 1988 and on regime orders, of political prisoners opposed to the regime. Iran has demanded, and is still demanding, his release, claiming that he was arrested for political reasons and that the accusations against him are fabricated. It is also notable that Iran is applying considerable pressure to European countries to free its citizens sentenced to prison for terrorism offenses. Recently, in May 2023, it was reported that an Iranian "diplomat," Asadollah Assadi, was freed from a Belgian prison where he was serving a 20-year sentence, in exchange for Iran's release of a Belgian aid worker arrested for "spying" (see below).

Since it came to power in 1979, Iran's Islamic regime has regularly used the taking of Western hostages for political and financial gains from the West, to the point where it can be seen as a policy.

In August 2023, it was reported that Qatar and Oman had mediated between the Biden administration and the Iranian regime to arrive at understandings for a prisoner exchange deal and the transfer of funds from the U.S. to Iran. Under the deal, five American prisoners held in Iran would be exchanged for five Iranian prisoners held in the U.S. and the release of billions of dollars of Iranian oil revenues frozen due to the U.S. sanctions.

Iran has so far released five prisoners with dual Iranian-American citizenship who were "accused of spying," among them American businessman Siamak Namazi, detained since 2015 and serving a 10-year sentence for maintaining contacts with foreign governments; American tourist Emad Sharqi, detained since 2018  and serving a 10-year sentence in Evin Prison for espionage; British-American environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, detained since 2018 and serving 10 years for espionage, and another man and woman whose names have not been revealed.

Iran has said that the five will leave Iran within two months, and after receipt of the promised funds – $6 billion from South Korea and $4 billion from Iraq. According to Iranian Foreign Minister  Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, negotiations on the release of billions of dollars more, in Japan, are underway.[2]

This report will review Iran's policy of arresting citizens of the U.S. and other Western countries, most of them with dual Western-Iranian citizenship, when they are in Iran, and demanding in exchange for their release millions or billions of dollars and the release of Iranian prisoners held in the West.

Senior Iranian Security Official: "We Released A Few Iranian Prisoners In Exchange For Some Prisoners Whose Sentences Were About To End – And, On The Other Hand, We Succeeded In Releasing Billions Of Dollars Of Our Blocked Resources Without Committing To Anything Else"

In an August 12, 2023 interview, a senior Iranian security source spoke anonymously with the Fars news agency about how Iran had achieved the current prisoner exchange with the U.S. Iranian prisoners, he said, were released in exchange for American prisoners and several billion dollars of Iran's resources that were blocked because of the American sanctions. He noted that "this sum of money that was released to Iran this time is four or five times greater than [the amount released] the last time" – that is, in 2016, when President Obama transferred $1.7 billion in cash to Iran.

In the interview, he discussed how the prisoner exchange idea had been raised with the Obama administration during the nuclear negotiations for the JCPOA: "The idea that was raised with the Americans, that in addition to the prisoner [release] there must also be action to remove the illegal seizure of Iran's monetary resources during the [prisoner] exchange, was then a new idea raised by one of the young security experts. At first, no one thought it was possible, but it was gradually accepted by [the top] hierarchy and ushered along by [Iran's] Supreme National Security Council, but the government at that time [of Iranian President Hassan Rohani] was not involved at all, and feared that this [Iranian demand] would sideline the JCPOA.

"During the previous period, this idea was new, and put forth for the first time, and the Democrats quietly accepted and implemented it. But taking into account that the last time, after implementing the [JCPOA negotiations] project [with the U.S.], they greatly pressured Obama, this time [under the Biden administration] it was harder for the Americans to accept this idea, and they knew that in light of their political rivals and public opinion in the U.S., they must respond by explaining such a compromise made to the Iranian side."

He also discussed the Rohani government's January 2016 release of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian: "Among the prisoners released at that time, the exchange of Rezaian motivated the American side more than [the other prisoners]. When his arrest became known to the Americans, they immediately sent a message to the [Iranian] government at the time stating that Jason must be freed or the negotiations and the agreement would be disrupted.

"So [President] Rohani called a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council, during the Friday sabbath – that is, less than 72 hours afterwards. Unrelated to the content of the case and to Jason's criminal [actions] and espionage, he [Rohani] said that Jason must be released, or else the government's most important issue, that is, the JCPOA, would be disrupted. The security institutions and the judiciary did not accept this, and they said that the [Rezaian] case must be investigated."

Another point, said the official, "was that the sentences of the current prisoners were almost up and essentially they had served their sentence in Iran. [Thus,] these exchanges were maximal utilization of this issue."

Siamak Namazi (right) with his father Baquer Namazi (Source: Mashregh News, Iran, February 24, 2018)

The security source continued: "Among the current prisoners, Baquer and [his son] Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz are more important to the Americans. Siamak's father [Baquer] who was transferred [out of Iran] a few months ago [in October 2022, for medical care], had in effect already served his sentence, was very old [85], and in fact was it was not recommended that he remain in prison, and the judicial and security authorities made a good plan to release him.[3]

"[His son] Siamak Namazi, who has also been in prison for about 10 years, had been under the watchful eye of the [Iranian-American] lobby [in Washington] NIAC, and Baquer Namazi himself, who was very influential among the Democrats, and Morad Tahbaz, one of the main activists in the environmentalists' Influence Project [the name given by the Iranians for this espionage against it] has both American and British citizenship...

"A strong point of the [prisoner] exchange the last time was the Iranian side's receipt of cash at the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran simultaneously with the exchange of the prisoners. This might not have been possible this time due to the very large amount of resources [i.e. billions of dollars] released, and also due to the political conditions inside America and the Americans' past experience.

"This exchange operation is in fact one of the most successful and effective negotiation [efforts] ever to happen to the Islamic Republic of Iran. In essence, we released a few Iranian prisoners in exchange for some prisoners whose sentences were about to end, and, on the other hand, we succeeded in releasing billions of dollars of our blocked resources without committing to anything else."[4]

Iranian Regime Policy: Arresting Westerners And Releasing Them In Exchange For Financial And Political Gain

Iran's policy of taking Western hostages for political and financial gains from the West came into play as soon as its Islamic regime took power in 1979, with the kidnapping of the American diplomats. They were released 444 days later in exchange for $8 billion and an American commitment not to interfere with Iran's internal affairs.

This success was the basis for the practice's continued use by Iran, and Iranian officials have in recent years recommended several times that Americans or Britons be taken hostage and released in exchange for billions of dollars to boost the Iranian economy or for political gains from the Western countries. 

On July 31, 2019, Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Rezaee said on Iran's Channel 2 that Britain must pay for the release of its citizens detained in Iran, such as British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Rezaee said the UK foreign secretary had begged Iran to release the British citizens but that Tehran had explained to him its rationale for not doing so because Iranian interests were being "trampled."

To view the MEMRI TV clip of Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Rezaee speaking on Iran's Channel 2, click here or below:

In June 2021, Iranian journalist in exile in the U.S. Masih Alinejad tweeted a video showing Rezaee, at the time a presidential candidate, calling on Iranian TV for solving Iran's economic problems by taking 1,000 American hostages and demanding billions of dollars for their release.[5]

Masih Alinejad's tweet, June 10, 2021

In October 2021, Rezaee, now vice president for economic affairs and secretary of the Expediency Council, warned that if the U.S. attacked Iran, Iran would take 1,000 Americans hostage and demand $1 billion in ransom for each.[6]

Hassan Abbasi, head of the IRGC's Center for National Security Doctrine, who is known as the IRGC theoretician, said in a speech he gave in the city of Nowshahr that the IRGC should "create income" by kidnapping Americans and demanding ransom for their return. In the speech, a video of which was posted on on January 17, 2020, he cited the $1.7 billion that Iran had received, he claimed, from Qatar because the aircraft that had killed IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani had taken off from Qatar. He added that Iran's economic problems could be solved by kidnapping an American every week, and thus raising $50 billion a year.

To view the MEMRI TV clip of Abbasi's statements, click here or below:  

Since the kidnapping of the American hostages in the early days of the Islamic Revolution, there have been dozens of such arrests in Iran of dual Iranian-Western citizens. Western military servicemen and Western tourists have even been kidnapped outside Iran and held inside the country, as the regime negotiates for their release in exchange for large sums of money. To justify its actions, the regime accuses these hapless Westerners of spying and other security offenses against Iran.

The following are notable Iranian kidnappings of Westerners in recent years:

  • Bob Levinson – an FBI agent, kidnapped in Iran in 2007 – his fate is unknown.

  • Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal – In 2009, the three were kidnapped by the IRGC as they hiked in the Iraqi Kurdistan mountains near the Iranian border. Sentenced to eight years in prison for spying, Ms. Shourd was released after a year and a half, and the other two after two years, in exchange for $1.5 million in a deal brokered by Oman. President Obama welcomed this deal, saying of Ms. Shourd's return, "I am very pleased that Sarah Shourd has been released by the Iranian government, and will soon be united with her family."[7]

  • Jason Rezaian – A Washington Post journalist, Rezaian was arrested in Iran in 2014 on espionage charges. He was released in 2016, a few months after the conclusion of the JCPOA nuclear deal and before the International Atomic Energy Agency report of Iran's nuclear violations. Four other American citizens were released with him: pastor Saeed Abedini, a former Muslim who became an Evangelical Christian preacher; former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati; businessman Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, and Matthew Trevithick, who had come to Iran to study Farsi. Iran received in exchange $1.7 billion in cash.

  • Ahmad Reza Djalali – a Swedish-Iranian doctor and researcher, who had come to Tehran for a conference and was arrested in 2016 on charges that he was a Mossad agent. He was sentenced to death for espionage and treason, and was tortured throughout his detention in Evin Prison and held in solitary confinement.

Additionally, a 2017 Reuters investigation named some 30 dual Iranian-Western citizens arrested in Iran by the IRGC in the preceding two years. They included the aforementioned British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who had come to visit her family in 2016 and was detained in Evin Prison on charges of spying against Iran. She was released in a 2022 deal together with another Briton, Anoosheh Ashoori, who in 2019 was sentenced to 10 years for spying for the Mossad,  and another two prisoners held for "accumulating illegal capital." They were freed in exchange for $530 million, which the Iranian regime claimed was owed to it by Britain.

Another foreign citizen, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian-British academic in Islamic studies who was at the time married to an Israeli, was arrested by Iranian intelligence in September 2018 for spying and collecting information under the cover of academic research and Islamic studies. She was sentenced to 10 years, partly in solitary confinement, and released as part of a deal in 2020 that also included Iranian terrorists held in Thailand who had attempted to assassinate Israeli diplomats in 2012.

France also announced in January 2023 that seven of its citizens were being held in Iran on espionage charges.[8]

Furthermore, Iran customarily kidnaps foreign citizens on its soil, imprisons them on charges of spying, and exchanges them for its own citizens imprisoned in other countries. For example, on May 26, 2023, Iran freed Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele. Vandecasteele had previously lived in Iran for six years, beginning in 2015, and was arrested when he returned to the country, and sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes for spying. He was freed in exchange for Belgium's release of Iranian intelligence officer Asadollah Assadi, described by Iran as a "diplomat."

Assadi was serving a 20-year sentence in Belgium for a 2018 bomb plot against an expatriate Iranian opposition group's rally near Paris with an expected attendance of 25,000 people. The attendees were to include senior officials from other countries, such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt (see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 10639, Oman Serves Iran By Brokering Exchange Deal To Free Iranian Agent Convicted And Imprisoned In Europe For Terrorism, May 31, 2023)

A week after Vandecasteele's release, in early June 2023, "Phase Two" of the prisoner exchange deal was carried out, with a Dane and two Austrians arriving in Belgium via Oman, which had brokered the negotiations. According to Belgian authorities, 22 European Union citizens are still imprisoned in Iran on fabricated charges.

* A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project.


[1], September 4, 2023.

[2] At an August 14, 2023 briefing, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani rejected the reports by Al-Jazeera that $23 billion of Iranian assets had been released based on the Iran-U.S. understandings, of which $5 billion was linked to Iranian assets in Japan. He noted, in connection with Foreign Minister Abdollahian's recent Tokyo visit: "A limited part of our financial resources remains in Japanese banks. The talks to free the resources that remain are ongoing. Iran and Japan spoke in this context during Abdollahian's visit to Japan.", August 14, 2023. Abdollahian said on August 30, 2023 that Iran has no blocked money remaining in any country, which suggests that the $5 million in Japan might also have been released. IRNA, August 28, 2023.

[3] It should be noted that Namazi's father, Iranian-American Baquer Namazi, a former UNICEF senior official and a former provincial governor in Iran under the Shah, was arrested in 2016 when he went to Iran from the U.S. seeking the release of his son; he was freed in October 2022 due to poor health.,

[4], August 12, 2023.

[7], September 14, 2010.

[8], January 25, 2023.

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