Diplomatic Coercion Iran Parlays Two Hostages into Propaganda Victory

The release of two German journalists arrested in Iran last October came at a price. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had to fly personally to Tehran and meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While Iranian media celebrates the end of the country's international isolation, Berlin is focused on damage control.

Two German journalists arrived in Berlin yesterday with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle after four months in captivity in Iran.
AFP

Two German journalists arrived in Berlin yesterday with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle after four months in captivity in Iran.

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As the government-owned Airbus accelerated down the Tehran runway late on Saturday night, the champagne corks popped open in the VIP cabin. After four months of talks, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had finally achieved the sought-after breakthrough: Just hours before, Iran finally released the two journalists, Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch, from captivity in Tabriz, a city in northern Iran.

Finally, the two reporters from the tabloid Bild am Sonntag were on their way back to Berlin. They called their families on satellite phones and tearfully reported that they would soon be landing in the German capital. For the first time in several months, they could truly relax.

But it was a moment of great relief for Westerwelle as well. The negotiations leading up to their release were, as Westerwelle said on Sunday, "complicated." He shied away from offering any concrete details on Sunday, preferring instead to praise the dedication of his team. Sources within the Foreign Ministry, however, made it clear that, from the time Westerwelle took off from Berlin on midday Saturday on the way to Tehran until the moment the doors closed prior to takeoff on the return trip, nothing was certain. Nobody knew for sure if the diplomatic mission would be successful.

The two journalists traveled to Iran in mid-October to interview the family of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two who had been sentenced to death by stoning on adultery charges. They were arrested soon after their arrival, however, for having arrived in Iran on tourist visas rather than journalist visas. In November, they were charges with espionage.

High Diplomatic Price

Berlin, however, continued pushing for their release and on Dec. 27, there were initial indications that a solution to the stand-off could be at hand. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called Westerwelle with a list of conditions that could lead to their release. First, the Springer publishing house, which sent the two reporters, must apologize, a move which would pave they way for a potential prison sentence to be commuted into a fine. More controversial, however, was the demand that Westerwelle come personally to Tehran for a meeting with representatives of the government in Tehran.

It was a high diplomatic price to pay, say officials in the Foreign Ministry. The government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a pariah on the international stage because of the ongoing dispute over Iran's nuclear program. It is also currently also the focus of Western criticism due to the regime's brutal crackdown on the political opposition. High level visits from Western governments have been a rarity in recent years while the number of sanctions levied against Tehran has risen.

The Iranian goverment, using the two journalists as leverage, managed to coerce Westerwelle into the controversial visit, complete with a handshake with Ahmadinejad. The visit to Tehran, say sources in Berlin, was the only way to free the two reporters.

Last Tuesday, Salehi called Westerwelle once again, indicating that a handover of the prisoners was indeed a possibility. The German foreign minister immediately informed Chancellor Angela Merkel of the developing deal and took political responsibility for the diplomatic tightrope walk himself. It was a bitter pill for Westerwelle, said sources in the Foreign Ministry, who emphasized that the welfare of the two Germans was ultimately the main concern.

Happiest Moment of His Life

After his return, Westerwelle sought to dispel possible criticism of his mission. In an official statement, he said that there had been no negotiations about Iran's nuclear program, let alone concessions, during his meeting with Ahmadinejad. The one-hour meeting at the presidential palace took the form of a distant, professional conversation, he said. Westerwelle said he explicitly mentioned Western criticism of the regime's suppression of the Iranian opposition, and also talked about the issue of human rights and freedom of expression in Iran.

The power structures in Iran are so unclear that German diplomats weren't sure that Iran would stick to its agreement until the plane actually took off. The German ambassador drove the two reporters to the airport only after Ahmadinejad twice wordlessly accepted Westerwelle's thanks for their release. The government jet was standing by, ready for takeoff. But there were new problems at the last minute. The two journalists had no exit stamps in the passports that the embassy had hastily issued for them, which meant they had to wait a further 20 tense minutes for permission to leave Iran.

Shortly after Westerwelle's departure, Iranian propaganda began to exploit the visit. State media celebrated the visit to the presidential palace as a foreign policy coup. High-ranking politicians interpreted the visit as the end of Iran's isolation by the governments of the European Union. Germany, Iran's state television said, had sent out a signal that it wanted to cooperate more closely with Iran. The talks between Westerwelle and the president had focused not on the two journalists but on international issues and future relations, the TV said. The broadcast was accompanied by pictures showing the two politicians shaking hands.

The reporters won't care about all the diplomatic wrangling. The 133 days in prison and the tortuous uncertainty left their mark. They asked to be screened from the media after their arrival back in Germany, and to be given a chance to recover with their families. Their editor-in-chief at Bild am Sonntag said greeting them at Berlin's Tegel airport was the happiest moment of his life.

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