We can hope that the American hikers detained by Iran on Friday will be released shortly, but it is not clear whether Iran’s recent history in this regard is the most useful guide. There may be more at work in the current situation than general suspicion of foreigners, state-to-state threats with hostages, and diplomatic posturing.
Iran’s historical pattern of detentions and hostage-taking is, of course, varied and well established. Recent years have seen the 2007 detention of Americans and British Royal Navy hostages in retaliation for U.S. forces’ seizure of Iranian officials in a raid in northern Iraq; the celebrated conviction and release of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi in 2009; and the arrests in 2007, and again in July 2009, of Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh. Tajbakhsh’s July 9 arrest occurred the same day the U.S. released to Iran the officials detained in the 2007 raid in Iraq. It also, of course, followed the disputed June 12 election and the detention of at least two foreign journalists along with hundreds of Iranians.
Iran arrests so many foreigners that we should be wary of making too much of a given case. But the detention of the American hikers has enough context in common with another detention — that of the American journalists in North Korea — to make the comparison worth reviewing.
Although the conditions of seizure were similar in both cases, with the Americans straying over unmarked borders, the situations of the detaining nations are even more significant. North Korea seized Laura Ling and Euna Lee in mid-March while preparing for a U.N.-prohibited rocket test launch. Since arresting them, North Korea has performed the controversial rocket launch in April, the country’s second-ever nuclear detonation in May, and some dozen missile-test launches in May and July — the largest flurry of such activity observed from North Korea in any single year, let alone in a four-month period. Asia analysts tie Kim Jong-Il’s string of high-profile weapons tests to the regime’s sense of vulnerability over internal succession questions. Bristling militarily, issuing threats, and impressing the domestic public with technological triumphs are intended as insurance against outside intervention and internal collapse.
In this context, holding on to the Americans is probably seen as additional insurance, for both the regime in Pyongyang and its testing program. Iran, with a predisposition to see hostages in this light anyway, shares key features of North Korea’s situation: internal regime vulnerabilities, U.N. sanctions due to a suspect nuclear program, and the need to immunize itself against intervention as the next steps in building a nuclear-weapons program are taken. Tehran has assuredly watched the North Korean hostage example closely. We can hope the American hikers seized on Friday do not become insurance for Iran. But as Iran’s inauguration of activities expressly prohibited by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty nears, it should not surprise us if someone does.