While Hostages Languish, U.S. Still Clueless on What Motivates Iran

It’s not as if the beginning of a beautiful, two-sided friendship steeped in mutual respect was sparked with the P5+1 deal

ARLINGTON, VA - JANUARY 09: Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby conducts a briefing at the Pentagon, January 9, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. Rear Adm. Kirby spoke about Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's schedule, and Department of Defense issues.

Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Despite that which is plainly obvious standing up and smacking every foreign policy watcher across the face, there are apparently some deep Foggy Bottom mysteries that still elude the State Department: Why are there still chemical weapons attacks when Bashar Assad promised he’d stop? Why doesn’t Kim Jong-un take seriously our stern warnings to stop nuclear provocations? And why does Iran keep taking American hostages, darn it?

Yes, that’s apparently a great enigma. Reacting to this week’s shocking 18-year sentence for San Diego resident Robin Shahini—on the heels of two other U.S. citizens and a permanent U.S. resident receiving 10-year terms after similar sham trials for likewise trumped-up charges—the State Department said it can’t fathom why Iran keeps kidnapping.

“I can’t possibly get into the heads of Iranian officials; I can’t speak to their motivations on this,” press secretary John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.

Shahini, a grad student visiting his ailing mother when he was grabbed off the street by the Revolutionary Guard Corps in July, was sentenced on the usual mumble-jumble of murky, quickie-trial charges that have something to do with collaborating with the U.S. and insulting the regime. He told VICE News by phone from behind bars that he planned a hunger strike to protest the injustice.

But it was just recently that the State Department was expressing its cookie-cutter, short-lived outrage about that trio of 10-year sentences levied on American citizens Siamak Namazi and Baquer Namazi, and D.C. resident Nizar Zakka.

An astute diplomatic detective could go straight to the hostage himself to determine why Zakka is being held. The IT expert was invited by the Iranian government to give a presentation at a Tehran conference in September 2015, and attended with the support of the State Department. In a Tuesday statement, Zakka’s U.S. attorney Jason Poblete said his client was told by Iranian officials in April that “as much as $2 billion would be requested for his release from captivity.” Last month, Zakka was told that the ransom is now $4 million, payable directly to the Iranian regime.

Poblete stressed that Iran is using Zakka, who is “extremely weak and getting sicker,” and other Americans “as political chattel to exact concessions from the U.S. and other powers”—a “grave breach of, among others, the Geneva Conventions against hostage-taking.”

Kirby insisted that the United States doesn’t pay ransom, pallets of cash aside, but will continue to “raise our concerns,” whatever that means by this point. “So nobody’s turning a blind eye here, but what may be behind this, I don’t think any of us know with certainty,” the spokesman added.

Let’s studiously asses the clues for those elusive motives.

Money is a time-honored—and, with this regime, well-tested—motive for kidnapping. Luring an American to that fate then demanding $4 million for his freedom backs that up.

Other concessions can’t be dismissed in the motive expedition. The House is expected to vote on the Iran Sanctions Act reauthorization after the campaign recess, and the ayatollah would love to see President Obama dutifully whip out that veto pen or lobby hard to block the bill.

How about good old-fashioned revenge for a motive? It’s not as if the beginning of a beautiful, two-sided friendship steeped in mutual respect was sparked with the P5+1 deal. Taking hostages also throws Iran’s power around in their quest for dominance on the world stage. Tehran gains bully points if the targeted country takes it like a punching bag.

So we’ve narrowed it down: Iran wants stuff for hostages! Money stuff, power stuff, payback stuff. And why shouldn’t they think they can get stuff? They’ve gotten stuff before. They’ll get stuff in the future. All signs point to stuff! They wouldn’t have signed the nuclear deal if they didn’t get stuff.

Kirby eventually said that if Iran wants “quote-unquote ransom” for the Americans, “it’s a false motivation.” We’ve substantiated that they don’t grab our people unless they want something in return, and even the U.S. acting like it doesn’t want to play ball doesn’t make Iran’s motivations anything less than crystal clear.

Meanwhile, our hostages languish in squalid conditions enduring terrible health and torture. From the health fears described by Baquer Namazi’s family, the 80-year-old may not survive a punt to the next administration. That, and Iran’s motivations, may be an inconvenient truth, but one our government must face.

Bridget Johnson is a Senior fellow with the news and public policy group, Haym Salomon Center and D.C. bureau chief for PJ Media.

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