Copyright 1991 The Jerusalem Report
The Jerusalem Report
May 30, 1991
HEADLINE: Haggling Over Hostages
BYLINE: Martin Kramer
"The worst of men are those who buy and sell men," said the Prophet Muhammad. But the vice persists. The Middle Eastern hostage bazaar may soon open again, after a long suspension of trading that lasted through the Gulf war.
Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, has again advertised his country's willingness to help free Westerners held by Shi'ites in Lebanon.
These include six Americans, three Britons, two Germans and possibly an Italian. The price of Iran's influence: Israel must release several hundred Shi'ites held for security offences, including Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, the cleric seized by Israel in 1989.
But Israel is not buying. Defense Minister Moshe Arens has reiterated that Israel will trade the captive Shi'ites only if the deal includes Israelis missing in action and prisoners of war. Three Israeli servicemen, Joseph Fink, Rahamim Alsheikh and Ron Arad, are presumed held in Lebanon by Iran and its Shi'ite client Hizballah. (Another four are assumed to be in Syrian hands.) Israel will not budge until Iran and Hizballah put the Israelis on the bargaining block a step their captors refuse to take.
Impasse. Still, it is possible that more hints of willingness to release Western hostages from Teheran, supplemented by grainy hostage photos from Beirut, could generate public pressure that Israel yield. Not only would this be against Israel's interests. It would be pointless. Neither the Iranians nor their Lebanese clients intend to free all of the Western hostages, even if Israel does bend. Indeed, each year confirms the effectiveness of hostage-holding as an instrument of political leverage. And its uses are far from exhausted.
The early payoffs came in arms and money. In 1985 and 1986, the U.S. traded arms for hostages, in a deal with Iran that shook the U.S. administration.
"Our guys," said then-U.S. secretary of state George Shultz, "they got taken to the cleaners." In 1988, France bought out its hostages by unfreezing Iranian assets and dishing out bribes. Said one close observer: France poured so much money down so many throats, that to this day it is impossible to say which bribes were the effective ones.
The latest reward has been freedom for imprisoned Shi'ites and 1990 was a homecoming year for several dozen of them:In July, France pardoned and expelled Anis Naccache, a Lebanese doing life for the 1980 killing of a bystander in Paris, in a failed attempt to assassinate an Iranian opposition leader. Naccache's release figured prominently in the demands of Iran and the Lebanese hostage holders. France got back its last hostage in 1988; Naccache's rlease was a delayed French payment for their freedom. He owed his liberty to the policy of hostage-holding. In August, fate contributed its share, when Lebanese Shi'ite terrorists on death row in Kuwait managed to escape in the tumult of the Iraqi invasion. Since 1983, their release had been the most persistent demand of the hostage-holders in Beirut. Kuwait refused to submit, but the emir did suspend the executions lest they provoke the murder of Western hostages in Lebanon. Were it not for hostage-holding, the condemned Shi'ites would not have lived to escape.
In October, the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army released 40 Shi'ites from a prison in the security zone. Israel believed the gesture would open the door to dialogue over its own missing servicemen. Instead, Iran and Hizballah ascribed the Israeli move to U.S. pressure, and to their own release of two American hostages earlier in 1990. Now they are convinced they can exchange some of their other American hostages for most (or all) of the Shi'ites held by Israel and keep Israeli prisoners and remaining foreigners for a rainy day.
And that day may be coming. The weed of Hizballah thrived in the past when Lebanon was an untended garden. Now Syria is spreading its heavy-handed order throughout Lebanon, the militias are being disarmed and the Lebanese army is being deployed in Shi'ite-inhabited areas. The hostages have become Hizballah's thorns, preventing it from being uprooted by any hand.
Hostages have brought arms, money and freedom for imprisoned brethren. Now they are the last sure guarantee of Hizballah's autonomy, and Iran's continued presence and influence in Lebanon.
Perhaps later this year, there will be another round of hostage bartering but no comprehensive deal. Hostages will be held so long as it pays. For years, analysts have been arguing that Iran wants to shed the stigma of hostage-holding. The sad truth is that hostage-holding hasn't transformed Iran into a pariah state, and it obviously works. Another round of ransoms, and the hostage bazaar will have won its place in the "new" Middle East.
The writer, a contributing editor of The Jerusalem Report, is associate director of Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
Return to Archive