Today, the execution of Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali appears to be on another hiatus following his scheduled execution on May 21, 2022. His wife fears that Iranian authorities will execute Djalali at any minute without warning, and Djalali’s fate of life and death may be solely in the hands of Swedish authorities and their willingness to spare a war criminal for her husband’s return.
In April 2016, Iranian Swedish physician Ahmadreza Djalali left Sweden to attend a workshop sponsored by the University of Tehran. A few days after his arrival in Iran, Djalali was detained and charged with spying on behalf of Israel and assisting the assassination of two Iranian nuclear scientists.
In October 2017, Djalali was sentenced to death for “espionage” by Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran based primarily on confessions likely to have been induced by torture. During his imprisonment, Djalali says he was tortured, faced ill-treatment, and denied access to a lawyer.
In November 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called on Iran to release Djalali and offer him the right to claim reparations, Iranian authorities chose to delay Djalali’s execution after global intervention.
On May 7, 2022, Djalali’s wife stated that his lawyers were told by Iranian judicial officials that they assert they had acted in “good faith” by postponing her husband’s execution, but the arrest and prosecution of Hamid Nouri in Sweden left them with “no option” but to carry out the execution.
Hamid Nouri is an Iranian national charged with international war crimes and human rights abuses in connection with the murder of more than 100 people at Gohardasht prison in 1988 at the order of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ebrhim Raisi, Iran’s current president. Nouri is being tried in Sweden and Iran appears to be subtly implying that the fate of the two men are intertwined.
The statements by Djalali’s wife points to the direction that the Iranian regime see the execution of Djalali as a viable retaliatory tactic for the prosecution of Nouri. Iranian state media released a statement on May 4th accusing Swedish authorities of leveraging Nouri’s fate for the release of Djalali. The statement concluded with a declaration that Djalali’s death sentence would be carried out by the end of May, but there have been no indications that Djalali has been executed as of mid-June. Inside sources at various human rights NGOs also confirm the existence of private conversations of Iranian officials seeking prisoner swaps of Djalali for Nouri.
Both Iran and Sweden are party to the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, which criminalizes the detention of any person accompanied by threats to kill, injure, or continue to detain them unless certain conditions are met by a third party. The conditions may be set explicitly or implicitly. Research conducted by Amnesty International concluded that Djalali’s case morphed from a case of unjust and arbitrary detention into hostage-taking by late 2020, when Iranian authorities began conditioning his fate on a “deal” with Belgium to release former Iranian diplomat Asadollah Asadi and/or a deal with Sweden to release Hamid Nouri. The practice of hostage diplomacy in Iran dates back more than 4 decades and sees no signs of stopping given its success in producing favorable results for the Iranian regime.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), of which Iran is a member, is tasked with promoting a code of ethics which include the protection of tourists and visitors, and the prevention of attacks, assaults, and kidnappings even by state actors. Sadly, it appears that the Secretary-General of the UNWTO, Zurab Pololikashvili, is willing to sanitize the dangerous realities of visiting Iran. At the 40th anniversary of the UNWTO in Tehran, Pololikashvili expressed his willingness to “introduce Iran as a safe and peaceful destination” and expressed solidarity in the goal “to attract more and more tourists to Iran.”
Today, there at least four Americans, two Germans, two Austrians, two Frenchmen, and two Swedish nationals (including Djalali) held in Iranian detention, nearly all being charged with spying or “collaborating with hostile states.” Individual states have had to take measures into their own hands in deterring citizens from visiting Iran. The State Department Iran Travel Advisory says, “Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of US citizens,” and similar warnings are repeated by Sweden, the UK, and other nations contending with Iran’s hostage diplomacy.
Barry Rosen, one of the hostages from the 1979 Embassy Crisis, demands the Biden administration do more in ensuring the safe return of the four American hostages as well as leverage US influence to induce Iran to stop these practices. Rosen suggests the US form a coalition with allies acutely affected by the regimes’ tactics to force the suspension of Iran’s membership from the UN WTO Executive Council until it frees all foreign and dual-nationality hostages.
Indeed such political maneuvering and pressuring may be possible for a nation like Iran, but hostage diplomacy disputes can even occur between permanent members of the UN Security Council. On December 1, 2018 Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the CEO of Huawei, was arrested in Canada, at the request of the United States, for allegedly defrauding HSBC, a British bank. The US requested Wanzhou’s extradition and China responded by detaining two Canadian nationals, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, charging them with espionage. After each of their respective trials, and negotiations between US and Chinese officials, the extradition request for Meng was dropped as part of her deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ and both Michaels were released on the same day.
Solutions to combat hostage diplomacy will require greater collective action on several levels. States that feel they have the most to lose from hostage diplomacy should band together and collectively agree to not give in to the demands of rogue states. Additionally, international conventions require greater enforcement mechanisms to uphold the Articles to which States are party to. The International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages explicitly denies the legality of hostage taking for political ends. Also, in the cases of Djalali, Michael Spavor, and Kovrig, the defendants were denied the right to consular assistance, a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations Article 36(a) to which both China and Iran are party.
 Iran: Swedish-Iranian Doctor Held Hostage and at risk of Retaliatory Execution, AMNESTY, May 19, 2022.
 Barry Rosen, Time to Stand up to the UN Body Aiding Iran’s Hostage Diplomacy – opinion, THEJERUSALEMPOST, February 24, 2022.
 Scott Kennedy, Beijing Suffers Major Loss from its Hostage Diplomacy, CSIS, September 29, 2021.