Recent hostage negotiations in Somalia and Iran show westerners are still valuable international bargaining chips
The video message from British hostages in Somalia and the visit of the mothers of three American hikers in Iran are reminders of the huge value of holding westerners in larger political disputes. In a region wracked by apparently eternal and endless bloody conflicts, the fate of a handful of western hostages can still act as an important pivot in determining events.
Newly elected prime minister David Cameron received congratulations this week from the two Britons being held by Somali pirates, who also warned the PM that their captives' "hopes and expectations" had been raised by his election. A few months into his presidency, Barack Obama faced a similar challenge. His response was to issue somewhat risky aggressive orders that paid off when US navy snipers killed Somali pirates in the midst of a kidnap attempt.
Cameron will be well aware that Britain's story in Iraq was punctuated by the tragic fate of Kenneth Bigley and Margaret Hassan and the release of the more fortunate Peter Moore and Norman Kember. One of the grizzly by-products of the rise of YouTube and similar websites is the ease insurgent groups had in conveying their message -- whether it was pleading hostages or the executions themselves -- to the global public.
The fate of a hostage can be uncertain for months or years, allowing the thoughts and wishes of their family to remain a source of active pressure on a government. The British government was somewhat unfairly criticized for its role in negotiating the release of Peter Moore and his four guards. The obvious cost of negotiating with certain groups, something the US and Britain refuse to officially countenance, may have short-term gains in terms of the release of the hostages themselves, but is likely to place a higher premium on capturing Britons in the future.
Even a hostage's remains can have a price. Five years after the death of Margaret Hassan, it is reported that there is still a ransom demand of $1m for revealing the location of her body. The brutality of the Iraqi kidnapping industry was such that a woman who had dedicated 30 years of her life to helping Iraqis was considered fair game.
The Iranians are arguably less bloody and more strategic in exploiting hostage-taking for their own means, famously releasing the US Embassy hostages on the day Jimmy Carter stood down from the White House, forever blighting his presidency. The storming of the US embassy in 1979 was followed by the Iranian direction given to proxy groups that kidnapped and held numerous westerners including Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy for years against the backdrop of the Lebanese civil war.
Iran, like any state, has a right to protect its borders. The Pentagon's confirmation earlier this week that the US is sending more soldiers into the country on covert missions gives the Iranians even more pause for thought. Yet the incident of the hikers, given the porous nature of most of Iran's borders and the frequency of valuable hostages "straying" into them, means that Tehran can be seen as deploying Venus fly traps to obtain such precious bargaining chips.
An individual hostage's story is a powerful bargaining tool in a region where the vast majority of indigenous dead are unknown on western shores. In the case of Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, allowing their mothers to visit ensured that upon their return to the US they would hammer home the suffering of their loved ones.
There was irony in the anti-war protester Kember being rescued by the SAS, with some backlash over his apparent lack of an apology. The trio of hikers held in Iran, who have a history of protesting against America's involvement in the Middle East, suddenly find themselves much closer to influencing it. Indeed, perhaps to court sympathy with the Iranians, the hikers' mothers described their pro-Palestinian tendencies and their marches in Damascus against the Israeli bombing of Gaza.
Months into their captivity, Shourd and Bauer became engaged -- Bauer threading a wedding ring from the material of his shirt. Their high-profile plight has led to meetings between their parents and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, while the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended their incarceration on Good Morning America earlier in the month.
Unlike hostage negotiations with sub-state Somali or Iraqi groups, which are often motivated by money, there is greater formula to state-to-state disagreements such as the one between Washington and Tehran. Yet the paucity of diplomatic relations between the countries means that unless there is an easing of the crescendo of pressure on the Iranian nuclear file, the three hikers will remain hostages to events far beyond their control for some time.