Will the Iran-US prisoner swap lead to better relations?

Will the Iran-US prisoner swap lead to better relations?
Damaged US seal on the former embassy in Tehran, now an anti US museum. / CC: Adam Jones -Flickr
By bne IntelliNews September 19, 2023

A rare deal came through between Iran and the US on September 18 that could potentially pave the way for further de-escalation in the historically tense bilateral ties.

In a series of events that resembled a Hollywood kidnapping blockbuster, five American detainees (with dual US-Iranian nationalities) held in Iran for years were flown out of the country and repatriated after Tehran confirmed the release of its $6bn frozen by the US in South Korea.

Qatar was the mediator role in this drama, hosting the American detainees in a stopover before their flight to the US and home, as well as accommodating the Iranian money in its banks until Tehran could collect it. On the same day, five Iranians held in the US were also released as part of the deal.

All these gains an extra layer of excitement considering the long history of animosity between the statesmen in Tehran and Washington that dates back to the very inception of the Islamic Republic in Iran.

Washington brands Tehran a “state sponsor of terrorism” and has gone to extreme lengths to make sure the country does not develop what themselves were the first country to develop — and not to mention the only country to have used them in combat – nuclear weapons.

In Iran, they’ve been calling the US “the Great Satan” ever since the late leader of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, coined the epithet in 1979, just after the Iranian revolution; in fact, one day after the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran.

Mixed reactions

The prisoner swap drama grabbed many headlines worldwide, even days before it actually unravelled. But it received mixed reactions worldwide.

In the US, some reportedly welcomed the release of the Americans, while others criticised the Biden administration for what they called paying “ransom” to Iran.

Republican lawmakers have been particularly critical of the prisoner exchange deal. They argue that the Biden administration rewarded Iran for its bad behaviour and that releasing Iranian prisoners could put American troops at risk. They also say that unfreezing Iranian funds could boost Iran's economy and help it develop its nuclear programme. The Biden administration has defended the deal, saying it was necessary to bring the Americans home, who otherwise would face a lifetime in jail.

"We're comfortable with the parameters of this deal. I've heard the critics say that somehow they're getting the better end of it. Ask the families of those five Americans who's getting the better end of it, and I think you'd get a different answer,” John Kirby, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, said at a press conference.

The White House has also argued that the deal does not signal a broader improvement in relations with Iran.

Meanwhile, the US issued sanctions against former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence as the prisoner swap was underway. “We will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region,” US President Joe Biden said.

On the day of the prisoner exchange, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US is currently “not engaged” with Iran but will “continue to see if there are opportunities” for diplomacy. However, he stressed that the prisoner swap is not connected to the nuclear talks, the so-called JCPOA deal.

“Let me be very clear that this process and the engagements necessary to bring about the freedom of these unjustly detained Americans has always been a separate track in our engagement – or, for that matter, lack of engagement – with Iran,” Blinken told reporters.

Iran sells the deal as a victory

The reactions in Iran have been largely positive, as the government has been able to portray the deal as a victory for the Islamic Republic.

“Officials in Tehran have repeatedly stated that they are taking a humanitarian approach to the issue of prisoner exchange, and if the US had not linked this matter to the Iran nuclear deal negotiations and some domestic developments in Iran over the past year, the exchange of prisoners between the two countries would have been carried out much sooner,” wrote Iran’s semi-official news agency ISNA.

The Qatar-brokered Iran-US negotiations for the prisoner exchange and release of Iranian funds took more than two years, according to the spokesman of the Qatari Foreign Ministry.

Promise of new horizons?

The deal is indeed a rare instance of the two sides coming to an agreement, but it may just as well hold the promise of opening up the possibility for better diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington, despite the latter’s apparent rebuff at the prospects of an impending a breakthrough on the nuclear deal.

Commenting that Tehran is awaiting “bigger steps from the US for agreements on bigger issues, such as the nuclear deal”, Mohammad Marandi, an advisor to the Iranian negotiating delegation in the nuclear talks, said he hoped the prisoner exchange deal could facilitate and ease the path for continued nuclear negotiations.

This optimism was also echoed in US media. Quoting an official familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the Washington Post reported: “We see this as building trust between the two sides… There is also hope that these small steps could lead to [a] discussion of more substantive issues such as a return to the nuclear deal — though that could be hampered by uncertainty of what sort of leadership will be running the United States after the [upcoming US presidential] elections.”

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