Iran is detaining British citizens without explanation – and this is how they plan to use them

Ahmed Aboudouh
AFP/Getty Images

In detaining British and Australian citizens, Iran has sent a clear message to the Europe and the West: falling in line with the US on Iran comes with severe consequences.

This time, the nation has taken the hostage diplomacy game to a new level. The detention of these citizens, who do not hold dual Iranian nationality, is unprecedented in recent years. It gives the impression that Iran considers itself to have nothing to lose. But the nation is playing a dangerous roulette with its global diplomatic relations.

Since the UK and Australia announced that both their navies would potentially take part in a US-led maritime force to guarantee freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran is experiencing a new era of insecurity. Despite propaganda efforts, Iranian official know the facts: Iran has brought the biggest western maritime force to its borders. Defusing US efforts to consolidate its military power in the region is one motivating factor behind this latest series of detentions.

These arrests are not arbitrary. In the middle of the transition between Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s governments, Iran announced the detention of the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero. Now, in the midst of Brexit rollercoaster, it has been leaked that Iran is detaining British citizens. Iran acted on May’s weakness, and on Johnson’s imprudence. People all over the world (not only in Iran) have concluded that Boris Johnson’s government is prorogued on foreign policy so much as the House of Commons is prorogued on Brexit.

Iran well remembers that, during his time as foreign secretary, Boris Johnson's remarks over the imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian citizen jailed in Iran on spying charges which she denies, nudged her deeper into her predicament. Johnson is now prime minister, and Iran has taken British citizens with no Iranian dual nationality hostages. In both cases, he has stood by helplessly.

But if you take a closer look at Iran’s impasse with west, it's clear that Iran is not only taking citizens hostages, but whole European states too. In scaling back its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal, by firing up advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium at a faster rate, Iran forced the remaining European signatories (the UK, France and Germany) to their knees. On Wednesday, Angela Merkel said on that Europe had decided to uphold the Iran nuclear deal, and “step by step we will keep trying to find solutions with Iran that prevent an escalation of tensions in a globally sensitive region. That’s our job.”

So now the situation looks like this: Iran still has Stena Impero, and has transferred the oil on board Adrian Darya 1 (previously known as Grace 1) to Syria – despite reassurances given to the UK; it is reneging on its commitment to the nuclear deal terms, and continues rebuffing Donald Trump’s calls for talks with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Meanwhile, on the other side, the US and its allies have the military pressure on the Iran’s doorsteps. Iran is adopting a similar “maximum pressure” on the west to torpedo Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy towards its economy and own security in the Gulf.

And, so far, it seems to be working.

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The detained British and Australian citizens are no more than pawns of leverage in the battle between Iran’s sinking economy and the European will to help it stay afloat. Despite Europe’s scrambling to give the nuclear deal a new lifeline, Iran is tightening the screws and leaving them with no choice before the UN General Assembly this month.

Taking British and Australian citizens hostages should not be tolerable. But, sadly for their families, Johnson’s government seems powerless to act when it lacks the diplomatic leverage to force Tehran into a release.

It is time to change tactics in dealing with Iran. Hopes that Johnson's government will do so, however, are mere illusion.

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