As five American hostages come home from Iran—amid both support for and criticism of the deal that secured their release—a much more complex picture lies beyond the headlines. This latest deal with Iran must be understood within the broader context of contemporary state hostage-taking. This is a practice where authoritarian states like Iran, Russia, China, and Venezuela detain foreign nationals within their criminal justice systems for political leverage and to extract concessions from detainees’ home governments. This cruel form of coercive diplomacy is on the rise; there are 55 publicly known cases of Americans held hostage abroad andmore than 90 percent of the captors are states.
The United States is not alone in grappling with the challenge of state hostage-taking—Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and the European Union are also confronted by this growing threat. Earlier this summer, six European citizens returned home after being released from detention in Iran. Their release was secured through a controversial prisoner swap that saw the repatriation of Asadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Belgian court in 2021.
This latest deal to bring the American hostages home includes an exchange for five Iranians imprisoned in the United States and the release of around $6 billion in frozen oil revenue to Iran. Brokered by Qatar and Oman, the deal includes assurances that the released funds can only be used for humanitarian purposes. While the deal is welcome news to the former hostages and their families, there has been criticism from leading Republicans and some experts who argue that the deal will embolden Iran and other abductor states to take more hostages. Others have expressed dismay that at least two U.S. persons were left behind.
There is now a growing debate in Washington, Brussels, and other capitals about these high-profile prisoner deals and the tough negotiations and uncomfortable concessions sometimes required to secure the freedom of state hostages. This is a necessary debate but one that needs to be grounded in facts and research and not partisan point-scoring. Last week, we published a report with The Soufan Center on what the U.S. and its allies can do to address and deter state hostage-taking. Hostage negotiations are complex and often require engaging in difficult tradeoffs, where prisoner swaps might be the right tool in certain cases. However, to offset these concessions and to deter future hostage-taking the US and partner governments must do more to raise the costs on the perpetrator states outside of individual cases. In other words, government policies should focus on punishing the perpetrators without denying protection to the detainees.
Such deterrence through punishment will require governments to be creative when developing new tools to raise costs on perpetrator states and to be more courageous in applying the tools that already exist, such as sanctions, travel bans, and financial penalties. In announcing the return of American hostages from Iran, the White House also disclosed sanctions on the former president of Iran and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for their involvement in wrongfully detaining Americans. With these sanctions, the Biden administration is signaling its willingness to assume a leadership role in developing deterrence tools to levy costs on perpetrator states.
But for these efforts to succeed, they need to be coordinated with allies and partners and collectively applied. A coalition response must recognize that the United States will most likely remain the primary target of state hostage-taking, with close U.S. allies and partners next in line. Only by acting together can the U.S. and its allies make the cost of taking their citizens hostage unpalatable for abductor states to continue to engage in the practice.
This week, during the opening of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, alongside foreign ministers from Canada, Costa Rica, and Malawi, co-hosted a high-level dialogue on the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations. The event underscored the importance of deterrence in the face of state hostage-taking, with Blinken stating that collective action is the only way to amplify the costs on abductor states. The declaration, launched by the government of Canada in 2021 and endorsed by more than 70 states, represents an important first step in marshaling a more coordinated and robust collective response. However, much more needs to be done to turn the declaration’s aspiration of ending state hostage-taking into a reality. An effective first step would be for the U.S. to convene a core group of allies and partners most impacted by state hostage-taking to develop collective deterrence and response policies.
Beyond the headlines lies the space to craft a robust and resolute strategy for collective action in the face of state hostage-taking. Each case that is successfully negotiated to bring a hostage home is a human triumph, but important work must take place outside of the individual cases to find the pressure points that will break the cycle and disrupt the business model at its core.
Vina Nadjibulla is a senior research fellow at The Soufan Centre and an adjunct professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Follow @VinaNadjibulla
Stephanie Foggett is the director of global communications at The Soufan Group and a research fellow at The Soufan Center focused on international security, counterterrorism, and geopolitics.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.