Coronavirus pandemic had impacted our daily lives as well as the international relations today. The impact of the pandemic, the fueling of democratic backsliding in certain liberal and electoral democracies, is likely to be the hot topic among scholars in upcoming days. However, besides causing the emergence of new authoritarian trends, coronavirus is also reminded us the traditional authoritarian practices – hostage diplomacy. Hostage diplomacy is an asymmetrical, non-democratic foreign policy instrument in which the host country detains foreign citizens of the target country under fictitious grounds and usually on political charges to achieve concessions on diplomatic matters. Especially Iran is a prominent practitioner of this type of diplomacy. The issue was resurfaced in early March when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave an ultimatum to Iranian officials -release of the US detainees in Iran in return for humanitarian assistance for COVID-19. Iranian officials indeed release one hostage, Michael White, but did not accept the US assistance by stating it is ingenious. However, why did Iran actually released one of the hostages and did not accept the humanitarian assistance? Here, I will argue that the answer is based on two factors: domestic instability and political image.
Before delving in to the aforementioned case, a more detailed explanation of hostage diplomacy may be helpful. The term hostage diplomacy is an understudied concept in the relevant literatures, and although it is not always referred as such, the practice is frequently used and a disturbing one. Hostage diplomacy is a non-democratic foreign policy tool mostly employed by authoritarian regimes with the objective of obtaining leverage in international negotiations from the target states which are generally democratic in nature. The detention is based on fictitious grounds which are generally political in nature. The practical reason of targeting democratic regimes is due to their sensitivity in protecting their citizens as the cost of not acting will be high for the incumbent rulers. The demanded concession may be transparent or not, however the hostages are released under two circumstances: first, if the demanded concession is granted or second, when the host country can no longer tolerate the bargaining.
The Point Where Iran Can No Longer Tolerate Bargaining
The tension in the US-Iran relations is not a new phenomenon. However, under the Trump administration, the withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal; new economic sanctions and most recently the operation resulted with the death of Qasem Soleimani – one of the major Iranian generals- certainly did open a new page in already existing formidable relations. While the US had dealt with this tension through -mostly- conventional measures such as sanctions and international agreements, Iran also dealt with the US through its own means; one being hostage diplomacy. Since the infamous hostage crisis in 1979-1981 where 52 American diplomats and citizens were detained, Iran practices this type of diplomacy to gain leverage over the US. Especially since 2015, during the nuclear agreement negotiations, the internal drift with the civilian government and the Revolutionary Guard re-energized hostage diplomacy. As of 2019, in Iran, there are at least 10 foreign nationals kept as hostages.
The resurfacing of the issue early in this March demonstrated the slippery grounds of hostage diplomacy. In addition to already existing internal political rift between the civilian government and the Revolutionary Guard and the severe economic condition due to the sanctions imposed by the US and allied countries; the domestic instability further intensified with the outbreak of nationwide protests between November 2019 and February 2020 in the aftermath of Iranian shut down of Ukrainian passenger plane with 176 people on board and the massive shock of coronavirus. Therefore, in a position where a delicate balance must be preserved, it is not surprising that Iranian officials felt the need to recalibrate their stance against the US and give certain compromises. The release of Michael White is a concession given in the realm of hostage diplomacy to suspend any further pressure from the US for a limited time period so that Iran can focus on its internal problems.
On the other side of the story, rejection of the humanitarian assistance fund was not open for bargaining. The anti-Western political image which the country has long been embedded within, and still maintained by the firm hand of the Revolutionary Guard, cannot tolerate to receive aid from the US -even if this means the death of more citizens or more poverty related to prolonging economic problems.
Still, the scenario may not have to be so tragic for Iran. Khamenei allegedly stated that the coronavirus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means.”  By giving statements hints the notion of us versus them, Khamenei may create a rally around the flag effect which may be beneficial to control domestic instability to a certain extent by gaining short-term popularity. In addition, there are still several American hostages in Iran, which can be utilized as bargaining chips in future disputes with the US.
Does the US fights fire with fire?
The debates on democratic backsliding under the Trump administration in the US is a widely discussed in media and academia. Since President Trump took the office, undemocratic applications and rhetoric is in news and Twitter almost every day. However, in the case of hostage diplomacy, can we actually talk about undemocratic practices to the extent that fighting with fire with fire? There is a reason why hostage diplomacy is -so far- practiced by authoritarian states. Due to the low cost of suppression and weak rule of law, authoritarian states deal with less constraints in their practices. In the case of democracies, such undemocratic practices like hostage diplomacy comes with a price to the incumbent.
However, two days after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, reports of American-Iranians and Iranians detention in the Canadian border were arrived which was declined by the US Customs and Border Protection initially. And a year ago, Marzieh Hashemi, an American newscaster working for Iranian governments state TV was detained for 10 days as a witness for an unspecified criminal investigation. Both instances received opposition voices in the US and Iran. These detentions maybe a mere application under security concerns, or rather a demonstration of increasing Xenophobia. Or arguably, may be the indicator of a version of hostage diplomacy adoptable to varying degrees of democracies for the purpose of intimidation of the target state. Obviously, it is too soon to argue that the latter is the case and the US is fighting fire with their own fire -the future may hold light on this possible discussion.
 Hostage diplomacy is conceptualized by me and my dear friend Işık Aksoy in a co-authored article last semester. I -again- thank her for her invaluable partnership.
 ‘’ Pompeo says U.S. citizen detained in Iran since 2018 released on medical furlough’’, The Reuters, March 19, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-iran-white/pompeo-says-u-s-citizen-detained-in-iran-since-2018-released-on-medical-furlough-idUSKBN2162UZ
 Rezaian, Jason. ‘’ Iran’s Hostage Factory’’, the Washington Post, November 4, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/11/04/irans-hostage-factory/?arc404=true
 ‘’Iran’s admission of guilt over plane crash sparks unrest in Tehran’’, the Guardian, accessed in 28th April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/11/iran-plane-crash-admission-sparks-unrest-in-tehran
 ‘’Iran leader refuses US help; cites coronavirus conspiracy theory’’, Al Jazeera, accessed in 28th April 2020,
 Gamboa, Laura. “Opposition at the Margins: Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela.” Comparative Politics 49, no. 4 (July 2017): 457-477.
‘’ Border stops for people of Iranian descent spark outrage’’ , Politico, accessed in 28th April 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/05/reports-detaining-iranian-descent-backlash-094415?nname=playbook&nid=0000014f-1646-d88f-a1cf-5f46b7bd0000&nrid=0000016e-c680-d60d-ad7e-cece56620000&nlid=630318
 ‘’US releases American journalist working for Iranian state TV after uproar’’, The Guardian, accessed in 28th April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/23/marzieh-hashemi-iran-us-arrest-journalist