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August 20 2023

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Dignified Diplomacy, Not Capitulation: A Response to Senator Chris Murphy

Navid Mohebbi

This week Senator Chris Murphy had something of a tantrum on Twitter when he was faced with backlash to the Biden administration’s recently announced deal to release $6 billion to the Islamic Republic in exchange for 5 Iranian-Americans held hostage in Tehran. As the national media began to cover the growing opposition to the ransom deal, Sen. Murphy said, “It’s the same predictable crowd that will always oppose diplomacy… It’s only Iran hawk insiders that are upset.” I’m one of the many critics of this deal but I’m neither an “Iran hawk insider” nor opposed to diplomacy.

I am an “insider”, however, in the sense that I spent time in this regime’s prisons, including in solitary confinement. Thus, perhaps I have a greater appreciation than the Senator for how badly innocent people like these five hostages deserve to be freed. I just think we can debate the deal and point out its obvious flaws without resorting to arrogant, false attacks. America should engage in diplomacy, but it should be “dignified diplomacy”.

A dignified diplomacy would enable us to achieve national interests, for example freeing wrongly imprisoned Americans, without ignoring our values or making the problem worse. It would engage in international relations from a position of strength, based on a foundation of firm principles, upholding national interests, and building leverage as opposed to capitulating to aggressive demands.  The deal that Mr. Murphy supports with my former captors fails on both of those accounts, as it ignores our long held principle of not negotiating with terrorists and not paying ransom for hostages. Because this deal violates those principles, it is exacerbating the problem it is trying to solve: the Islamic Republic’s hostage taking. The regime in Tehran now knows that for each American it takes hostage, it can get at least $1.2 billion. Its natural incentive, and something regime officials have publicly boasted about, is now to take more Americans hostage and make more billions. That is not diplomacy– that is paying ransom to terrorists and endangering Americans.

The deal the Senator is defending is also flawed because it undermines another key component of American diplomacy: sanctions. The $6 billion that is to be released to the dictatorship in Iran is currently being held in South Korea as proceeds for the sale of oil, and has been inaccessible to Iran since 2018 due to U.S. sanctions. But why did the United States deploy the diplomatic tool of sanctions on Tehran in the first place? For exactly the kind of behavior it is now circumventing sanctions to effectively reward: the violation of international norms with actions such as terrorism, hostage taking, and crimes against humanity. This deal is incentivizing the regime’s illegal activity and violation of international norms by removing punitive measures on the regime for other illegal activity. That is not diplomacy– that is supplication to and appeasement of such activities.

These obvious shortcomings are not just violations of principles and incentives for the regime to rinse and repeat– they are harming America’s image in the world and inviting other bad actors to take similar steps with the knowledge they, too, will reap such rewards from their illegal actions. That is not diplomacy and it certainly is not dignified.

There are means of engaging in diplomacy in a dignified manner. The previous administration, through the diplomatic skill and ingenuity of those in the State Department, was able to free American hostages like Xiyue Wang without paying billions of dollars in ransom, endangering further Americans, or violating our principles. Administrations of both parties have done the same.

Sadly instead of trying to find a solution for dignified diplomacy, Senator Murphy appears to prefer ad-hominem attacks on his opponents like me with arrogant, dismissive labels such as “hawks” or “opponents of diplomacy” rather than engaging in substantive debate.

This approach, it seems, is designed to avoid facing challenges and to circumvent potential criticism. Most notably, he seems aware that the deal in question falls short of the standards one might expect from the United States, but he seems to prefer not to be reminded of this. Instead of addressing these issues directly, he resorts to attacking the characters of his critics, seemingly aiming to undermine their entire personalities. It is worth noting that Senator Murphy has a history of favoring a conciliatory approach toward the regime in Iran, while remaining notably silent on the regime’s human rights record. He should not be called a supporter of the Islamic Republic, however, as that would be using his own tactics of ad hominem attacks and ignoring my opponent’s argument. It is our duty, however, to call him out for his misguided policies and disrespectful comments.

Connecticut is home to many Iranian-Americans who, like me, share concerns about this deal. We should be able to debate this issue and each side of the argument without disparaging attacks. It’s particularly shocking, however, when a United States Senator resorts to such childish tactics to personally attack his own constituents in the Iranian-American community. I hope he will change course and engage in an honest and open dialogue. I’ve posed this issue to him before in person and then, even in the United States Senate, he dismissed me. Given his track record, I won’t be holding my breath.