Opinion | How Much Is an American Hostage Worth?

The Biden administration agreed last week to a deal with Iran that, if all goes according to plan, paves the way for five American citizens to come home after long imprisonments on spurious charges. For them and their families, the deal is a godsend.

The prize for Tehran? Six billion dollars in frozen Iranian oil revenues held in South Korea, to be disbursed via a special Qatari fund for humanitarian purchases, along with the release of several Iranians held in U.S. prisons for violating sanctions on Tehran. It’s likely that the agreement is also tied to efforts to resume nuclear talks with Iran, though the administration insists the nuclear and hostage files remain separate.

Before we get to everything that’s wrong with the deal, let’s acknowledge what’s right.

The prisoners and their families have been put through hell: One of them, Morad Tahbaz, lost 88 pounds in prison, according to his sister; another, Siamak Namazi, has been locked up for over 2,800 days. (The U.S. Embassy hostage ordeal lasted 444.) The redemption of captives is more than just a moral imperative: Americans deserve to know their government will never forsake them in foreign dungeons. And it is not a sign of weakness when democratic governments pay what seem like exorbitant amounts to free hostages. In Israel, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu each released hundreds of Arab prisoners to obtain the release of a single living Israeli hostage.

But there are also bad deals and unintended consequences. This is one that contains many.

Start with the prisoners. The five who may soon be coming home aren’t the only ones with a claim on the administration’s conscience. There is also Shahab Dalili, a U.S. permanent resident whose wife and sons are Americans and who has been imprisoned in Tehran since 2016. The fact that he is not a U.S. citizen may be an excuse for treating his case separately, but the administration recently obtained the release from a Rwandan prison of another U.S. permanent resident, Paul Rusesabagina of “Hotel Rwanda” fame.

Dalili is not famous. But leaving him behind smacks of the same thinking that has left Paul Whelan to suffer in a remote Russian penal colony for more than four years even as the basketball star Brittney Griner was brought home after 10 months.

Then there is the price tag of $1.2 billion per hostage. The administration argues that this costs U.S. taxpayers nothing because the money was Iran’s to begin with and that the Qataris will ensure that it will be spent only on food, medicine and other basics.

But money is fungible: Every dollar the Iranian regime doesn’t spend on basics can be used for other regime priorities, like buying surveillance technology from China, torturing women, funding terrorist proxies and attacking American service members. How much will Americans have to spend to help defend Ukrainian airspace against the Iranian-made kamikaze drones that Russia is using to attack civilians in Kharkiv or Kyiv?

There is also precedent. Iran’s leaders have learned that an excellent way to erode American sanctions is to take more hostages. They’ve also learned to treat $1.2 billion as the baseline price for their eventual release.

This is a lesson not only for Iran but for other hostage-taking regimes, too, particularly Russia. It is no accident that Moscow took The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich hostage in March, barely three months after it released Griner in exchange for the infamous arms dealer Viktor Bout. What will it now cost the U.S. to win Gershkovich’s return? And how soon after he’s home till a new hostage is taken and a fresh drama begins?

There is no need to doubt the administration’s good intentions in arranging this deal: All administrations struggle with hostage dilemmas. But there is a reason to doubt its judgment.

The long record of negotiating with the Islamic republic shows it never pays to pay Tehran. “The regime’s hostility toward the U.S. isn’t reactive but proactive,” Wang Xiyue, a former hostage of Tehran, has noted. “It survives and thrives on its self-perpetuated hostility against the West.” Far from smoothing the way toward another nuclear deal with Iran, as the administration hopes, the hostage agreement means Iran will raise its price, probably past what President Biden can politically afford to pay. In the meantime, other hostages are sure to be taken.

There’s a better way. Every time Iran takes another hostage, the administration imposes another sanction. Every time Iran or its proxies attack a single U.S. military installation, the United States retaliates against multiple Iranian targets. Every time Iran supplies offensive weapons to Russia or other outlaw states, the United States supplies long-range fire and other advanced munitions to Ukraine.

“He pulls a knife, you pull a gun” is supposed to be the Chicago way, as the line from “The Untouchables” has it. If the administration wants better behavior from Iran, whether over nukes or hostages, it could profit from employing the same approach.

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