The Islamic Republic reaches out to regional powers to release 48 Iranian hostages in Syria

With the kidnapping of 48 Iranians in Syria, the Islamic Republic finds itself asking regional powers to intervene on its behalf to save the lives of its citizens. On Saturday 04 August 2012, 48 Iranians travelling from Damascus airport to the city center were kidnapped by a group claiming to belong to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Soon afterward the al-Arabiya network aired a video which purported to show the captured Iranians and alleged that they belonged to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Although one of the Iranian hostages allegedly had an IRGC identity card on his person, this has been difficult to verify because of the low quality of the video. According to Reuters, which cites rebel sources, at least three of the Iranian hostages were killed on Monday during an airstrike by the Syrian regime.

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Africa and the Arab World, denied that the kidnapped Iranians are IRGC members and claimed that they are pilgrims visiting Shi’a holy sites in Syria. Iranian foreign minister Ali-Akbar Salehi has sent messages to his Qatari and Turkish counterparts asking for their help in resolving this issue. It is believed that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing various forms of support for the FSA and may have the clout necessary to get the Iranian hostages freed. Iran’s foreign ministry has also sent a message to the United States through the Swiss embassy in Tehran saying that Iran holds the US responsible for the safety of the Iranian hostages in Syria. So far, there have been no official responses to either of Iran’s messages.

Kazem Jalali, head of the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, took a harsher tone with the countries believed to be backing the FSA, saying that:

“In this crisis which terrorists have created…the lives of our kidnapped pilgrims are certainly the responsibility of Turkey and countries who have armed and supported the terrorists, and these countries must answer for attacks or injuries on Iranian civilians.”

Jalali said that Turkey had a good track record of standing up to the US and Israel, but lamented that on the issue of the Syrian uprising it had switched sides. He asserted that Syria is part of the “axis of resistance” (the Islamic Republic’s terminology for its anti-US/Israel allies in the Middle East) and that countries like Turkey and Qatar should not enter the conflict in Syria.

Editor’s note: The kidnapping of the 48 Iranians places the Islamic Republic in a somewhat ironic position. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has supported numerous militant groups which have carried out a large number of kidnappings, especially of Westerners. This has often given Iran considerable leverage in negotiations with the Western countries (such as the US and France) by allowing it to act as an “intermediary” to get hostages released.

While a group of Iranian engineers working on infrastructure projects in Syria were kidnapped eight months ago, the current kidnappings are on a much larger scale and come at a time when the Syrian conflict has gone from an uprising to a full-scale civil war. The kidnappings may be part of a calculated message by the countries supporting the FSA to the Islamic Republic, which has fully backed Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, to take a more moderate position toward the Syrian problem.

Of course, given the decentralized nature of the FSA, which has a large number of armed groups of varying ideological hues and no clear chain of command, it is possible the kidnappers may not listen to requests from Turkey, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia. The fate of these Iranian hostages may be similar to Lebanese hostages taken some time ago who have still not been released despite requests from the Lebanese governments.