Iran’s decades-long policy of hostage diplomacy, which began with the 1979 storming of the United States (US) Embassy in Tehran that resulted in 52 Americans being held hostage for 444 days, continues to this very day. Tehran currently holds nearly two-dozen foreign and dual-nationality hostages, none are Russian, Chinese or Venezuelan, but at least 10 are American, French or British. This presents a national security risk to the US and its European allies. Accordingly, we must expose and oppose outright lies and distortions that cast doubt on official warnings against travel to Iran.
Unfortunately, one of the more prominent sources of pro-Iran fabrications is the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), of which the Iran is a member. As such, Iran is supposed to adhere to the organization’s code of ethics, requiring the protection of tourists and visitors, and ensuring the prevention of attacks, assaults and kidnappings. As is well-documented, it is the Iranian authorities themselves who are doing the attacks, assaults and kidnappings of foreign tourists.
Tourists in Iran are at tremendous risk of being taken hostage by the regime. The State Department’s Iran Travel Advisory leads with an ominous warning: “Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of US citizens.” Britain’s Foreign Office similarly warns in its travel advisory that Britons “face significantly greater risks of arrest, questioning by security services or arbitrary detention than nationals of many other countries.”
This message is undermined by the UNWTO and its Secretary-General, Zurab Pololikashvili, a Georgian diplomat who is dependent upon Iran’s support – the regime is a member of the UNWTO Executive Council – for his job. Unsurprisingly, before winning the Executive Council’s endorsement for a second-term in office last January, Mr. Pololikashvili three years earlier shamefully kowtowed to the Iranian regime as the UNWTO chose to hold its 40th anniversary conference in Tehran.
There, the secretary-general declared, “We are here to help Iran become more powerful, and as a result, to make the World Tourism Organization more powerful.” According to Pololikashvili, his UN agency is “willing to introduce Iran as a safe and peaceful destination,” adding how important it is, “to attract more and more tourists to Iran.”
To the contrary, tourism to Iran is one the best instruments for the Iranian regime to gain leverage against Western powers to win economic concessions and the release of lawfully imprisoned Iranian criminals held abroad. Mr. Pololikashvili’s statements – made in the same city, Tehran, where foreign tourists are held captive, tortured and abused – rank highly among the great lies recorded in the annals of the UN’s history and underscore the extremely overdue need for meaningful reform. It is small wonder that the US, along with Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, have elected to refrain from membership in the UNWTO.
President Joe Biden should do everything in his power to bring the hostages home and ensure that hostages cannot be taken in the future. Within his immediate power, Biden should make the safe return of all Americans a precondition to any agreements with Iran, and insist that any agreements will be null and void if Iran takes hostages in the future. Additionally, he should ban the use of US passports to travel to Iran, just as the US has done with North Korea. When foreign regimes take Americans hostage, we must minimize our exposure to risk.
He should also use the US’s power and influence to actively oppose efforts by the UNWTO to spread lies that could not have been written any better by regime propagandists, and work with its allies on the Executive Council, including France, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, among others, to force a suspension of Iran’s membership until it frees all foreign and dual-nationality hostages. Doing so will further reduce the likelihood of Americans being held for ransom.
Iran is a radical cause rather than a normal country, and is incapable of negotiating in good faith. Whether it is hostage diplomacy, deploying terrorist proxies against adversaries or orchestrating years of nuclear blackmail, Iran has proven that it is entirely untrustworthy. We cannot leave Americans behind, as we did in 2015. We cannot assume the continued risk of our citizens being taken. And we cannot be silent when corrupt diplomats put us at risk.
The writer is a former US diplomat and was held hostage in Iran from 1979-81. He is a senior adviser to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a founding member of Hostage Aid Worldwide.