The moral dilemma of the Iran deal

‘What would you say to Olivier Vandecasteele’s parents?’ Prime Minister De Croo attacked us on Thursday in Parliament because we criticized his bill to release the Iranian diplomat, mastermind and super-terrorist Assadolah Asadi in exchange for Olivier Vandecasteele.

The Tactics of the Ayatollahs

Belgian Olivier Vandecasteele has been held in a cell in Tehran for five months. During a visit to Iran (where he worked for years as an NGO employee) he was arrested and falsely accused of espionage without any prospect of trial. A long time tested tactic that the Ayatollahs have used dozens of times to pressure Western powers to either pay ransom or set their compatriots free.

Moral dilemma

It’s a good question. A moral dilemma. And moral dilemmas require contemplation.

On the one hand the moral ‘right thing to do’ is get your compatriot released, on the other hand you know that an evil regime like that of the Ayatollahs will see this as a victory and that it will only encourage them to move on with terror, attacks and kidnapping, including in Europe.


The Prime Minister draws the ethical-emotional card in the debate. After the family chose to stay out of the media for months, they suddenly came out of the shadows, they were even received this week at Prime Minister’s office. Remarkable, although you can – of course – never blame the family for doing everything they can to get their Olivier released.

But I am not a member of the family, I am a Member of Parliament and so the Prime Minister’s question triggers me.

Max Weber

A century ago, in 1919, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) delivered his famous speech ‘Politics as a profession’ in Munich. A speech devoted to the nature of politics, the origin of the professional politician, and the demands that may be made on him. Few wrote and spoke so clearly about the tension between moral principles and practical action.

Tension field

He knows how to express this field of tension by distinguishing between the ethics of attitude and the ethics of responsibility (gesinnungsethik vs verantwordungsethik).

Ethics of Attitude

One who acts according to the ethics of attitude is convinced that he must always and under all circumstances act according to his moral principles (speak the truth, refrain from violence, etc.), whatever the consequences may be. In the well-known words of Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria: ‘fiat justitia, et pereatmundus’ – let justice be done, even if the world would suffer as a result.

It is the view that the world is ordered in such a way that good intentions will eventually produce good results. Now we know from experience that this is not the case, or at least not in the foreseeable future. Perhaps ‘the soft forces win in the end’, as HenriëtteRoland Holst believed. Let’s hope so. But if this is the case, then only in the distant future. In our world, we know that the bad people often prosper, while the good suffer.

Ethics of responsibility

This insight underlies the other moral attitude, which Weber calls the ethics of responsibility. One who acts on this understanding will also consider the foreseeable consequences of his well-intentioned actions.

One should not only want to do the right thing; one must also use his or her mind in a world where not all people pursue good. ‘I send you like sheep among wolves; so be cunning as snakes and unsuspecting as doves’, Jesus instructed his disciples 2,000 years ago.

No Deal

If we apply this Weberian framework to the Iran deal, you can’t help but not give in to the Iranian blackmail. After all, the long-term perspective is clear, an exchange will only make Iran more brazen and causemany more people and families to suffer.

Common interest

It is the duty of the representatives of the people to serve the public interest. The general interest of all compatriots, including that of the tens of thousands of Iranian dissidents in Belgium and Europe who are now even more afraid of being eliminated by the regime. They have been demonstrating every day in Brussels for weeks now, for good reason.


Some additional thoughts and facts:

– There has been an extremely negative travel advice for Iran for years, cfr rescue operation Red Kite last summer, where this government chose to rescue recognized refugees from Afghanistan who were there on holiday(!), even with a newly chosen bride. Does the concept of individual responsibility still exist?

– An Iranian state terrorist was sentenced to life in Sweden this week. The Belgian case will ensure that the Iranian regime will soon arrest a Swedish citizen and falsely accuse him of espionage with a view to an exchange.

– I made the comparison with the hunger strikers this week. Of course the comparison is not entirely valid, but at the end it comes down to the same thing. In the case of the hunger strikers, the government chose the path of responsibility ethics. After all, giving papers would lead to even more hunger strikes and blackmail. They don’t do that in the Iran deal. Strange.

To the family

Finally, to the people who think I’m heartless and to the family and friends of Olivier Vandecasteele who read this piece: There are many other means of getting Olivier Vandecasteele free than the Asadi exchange. Why don’t we take heavy diplomatic sanctions, even with the whole EU? Why don’t we send their ambassador back? Why do we always allow ourselves to be treated like a doormat by such regimes? For the oil? Gas?

On Tuesday morning, the debate will be discussed in the plenary of the Chamber of Representatives. We normally vote on it on Wednesday evening.

I’ll keep you up to date.

PS: Want to read more about Weber? Be sure to read ‘Max Weber and the ethical dilemma’ by Prof. Dr KoosDe Valck (2003).

PPS: Want to read more about Iran and the regime? Be sure to read the Iran chapter by colleague Darya Safaiin our book: ‘NATO: Brain Dead or Ready for the Future’ (2021).


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