LONDON–Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad revealed in recent statements that former Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani paid $57 million in ransom to release 57 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fighters who had been captured by an armed group in Syria.
Speaking to a gathering of supporters in Bushehr, Ahmadinejad announced that the incident took place at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2012, when an armed opposition group ambushed a bus carrying IRGC fighters in southern Damascus, capturing all the soldiers on board.
According to the former Iranian president, after both Iran and the Syrian government failed to release the Iranian prisoners, Iran contacted Qatari officials who established contact with the group, paying the ransom on behalf of Tehran.
Ahmadinejad explained that he had received a call from the former Qatari emir during which the latter said, “I found a way to contact the hostage-takers, and they said they want a million dollars for each hostage, that is a total sum of 57 million dollars, which is a lot of money.”
“We said well! Anyway, the life of every Iranian is worth much more than that,” Ahmadinejad added.
The former Iranian president noted that he had asked the former Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to pay the ransom and promised Iran would return the money at a later time.
The former Qatari emir, according to Ahmadinejad, paid the ransom and all the prisoners were subsequently released.
Ahmadinejad added that the former emir later refused to accept a $57 million cheque sent by Tehran and sent a word saying that he made the payment for the sake of the friendship between the two peoples.
In August 2012, members of the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of Iranians, saying they were IRGC officers. Iran, however, said they were civilian visitors, including retired military personnel. As part of the deal to release hostages, the Syrian regime freed 2,130 detainees in exchange for the release of IRGC members.
Ahmadinejad’s statements are the first Iranian admission that the prisoners were IRGC members, and not, as Iran previously claimed, civilian visitors.
Doha and Tehran enjoy close relations and Qatar supports Iran on various fronts, cooperating militarily and economically with the Islamic Republic, despite Arab and international disapproval.
Since August 2019 and after the signing of a border memorandum of understanding between the two countries, Qatar has opened its maritime borders to the Iranian border guards without restrictions.
The value of the strong Iranian-Qatari relations has often been questioned, given that the two countries face different challenges, including their differences with other regional and international parties.
It is widely believed that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intends to run in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, slated for next June, but his candidacy may be rejected by the Guardian Council, which is empowered to rule on the eligibility of candidates. In 2017, the same Council nullified Ahmadinejad’s then candidacy for the presidential polls.