Event Highlight

IGP Across the Aisle Discusses Hostage Diplomacy

By Katherine Noel
Posted May 23 2024
IGP Across the Aisle: Hostage Diplomacy
Left to right: Jason Rezaian, Dean Keren Yarhi-Milo, Robert O'Brien, Julia Nesheiwat, Roger Carstens, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sean Penn (Photo: Shahar Azran)

SIPA’s Institute of Global Politics recently convened a bipartisan panel of diplomats and experts to examine a critical issue facing the United States: hostage diplomacy, the practice in which states arbitrarily arrest or otherwise detain foreign nationals to gain foreign policy leverage. Increasingly, authoritarian regimes like those in Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, and Venezuela are turning to hostage diplomacy as a bargaining tool of foreign policy. Recent high-profile cases in these countries — such as that of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia — have brought international attention to the issue, showing how governments weaponize arbitrary detention to coerce political and diplomatic concessions from their adversaries.

The April 29 discussion was part of IGP’s Across the Aisle series, which brings people from diverse and opposing perspectives together to talk about pressing global challenges. The panel, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, featured Ambassador Roger Carstens, current special presidential envoy for hostage affairs; IGP Distinguished Fellow Ambassador Robert O’Brien, former national security advisor from 2019 to 2021 and Carstens’s predecessor as special presidential envoy for hostage affairs; Dr. Julia Nesheiwat, former deputy and acting special presidential envoy for hostage affairs; and Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post columnist who was held for 544 days in an Iranian prison in 2014. The panel also included Academy Award-winning actor and filmmaker Sean Penn, who played a role in the release of two American hostages held in Iran in 2011 and an American hostage freed from Bolivia in 2013, and is the founder of a crisis response organization called CORE. The Across the Aisle panel, moderated by Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, was followed by a Spotlight Interview on the war in Ukraine with Penn, O’Brien, and Clinton. 

Across the Aisle panel
Photo: Shahar Azran

The panelists spoke about the importance of working across the aisle to bring wrongfully detained Americans home, the evolution of hostage recovery missions, and deterrence strategies. (In the last decade, the number of Americans unlawfully detained in foreign countries has increased by 175 percent.) In 2015, the Obama administration conducted a review of US policy on hostage-taking, following an uptick in hostage-taking by ISIS and other groups in the Middle East. This led to the creation of the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA). Prior to SPEHA, there hadn’t been a “centralized focal point” within the US government for handling hostage and wrongful detention cases, Nesheiwat explained.

Nesheiwat was tasked with getting the small office off the ground and building it out, which proved challenging as she found that hostages “often ended up at the bottom of the list of what people are negotiating or concerned about.” SPEHA began working directly with the families of American hostages, which had not been common practice before, and also started working more closely with the media to increase public awareness.

When O’Brien took over as the office’s special presidential envoy in 2018, he pushed a military-first approach to hostage rescue — a complete reversal of the office’s prior strategy of focusing on diplomacy first and only using military force as a last resort. 

O’Brien also highlighted the need to build human connection with families, and spoke about putting faces to the hostages he was working to rescue. When he was given a spreadsheet listing the names of all the US hostages and wrongful detainees, he found it impersonal, and had his staff create baseball card-style photos with info about each person that he could carry around with him instead. 

“I wanted a picture of [each] hostage, I wanted to know where they were from, who their congressman was, who their senator was, who was fighting for them, where they were captured, what date they were captured on,” O’Brien said. 

Jason Rezaian, Washington Post columnist
Photo: Shahar Azran

Rezaian spoke about being wrongfully detained in Iran on espionage charges while working as the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tehran in 2014. Rezaian and his wife, an Iranian native and journalist, were abducted from their home, blindfolded, and taken to the notorious Evin prison, where they were placed in solitary confinement. His captors interrogated him and tried to break him down psychologically — “the idea is to wear you down into a malleable piece of meat, and it works quite well,” he said — before he was finally released in 2016 in a prisoner exchange [that was part of the Iran nuclear deal]. He pointed out that among hostage cases, his release after 18 months was considered a “best-case scenario,” as he was working for a major news organization and his situation received significant media attention. 

Rezaian emphasized the importance of bringing together people from different backgrounds — from former law enforcement and diplomats to Senate staffers and journalists to former hostages and families — to tackle the issue from all sides going forward. 

"More people need to know about this, more people need to understand it, they need to study it,” said Clinton. “And we need to be behind those trying to do more to prevent it, to deter it, and to get people home."

Watch the Across the Aisle discussion: