As Iranians head to the polls this week for parliamentary elections, U.S.-Iran relations are at a critical juncture. The U.S. wants to see Iran adhere to the nuclear agreement, needs Iranian cooperation to try and end the war in Syria, and views Iran as a stakeholder in the conflict in Yemen. The manner in which Iran treats the issue of Americans remaining in custody, however, may form the basis for any further thaw in relations and subtlety frame the terms of Iran’s future negotiations with the U.S.
The release from Iran in January of journalist Jason Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, and the enigmatic Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari was the result of 14 months of secret, multilateral diplomacy. Under a separate agreement researcher Matthew Trevithick was freed. Indeed, such news was positive and welcomed. President Obama described the deal as a victory for multilateral diplomacy.
In exchange, however, the president granted clemency to seven Iranian prisoners and dropped charges and lifted Interpol arrest notices on 14 others accused of violating sanctions. Obama defended the decision, stating that the seven had not been charged with terrorism or other violent crimes and called their release a “one-time gesture to Iran.”
Good for morale, great for the families and friends of those Americans released – but the exchange was hardly fair.
Score: Iran 21, America 5
For five Americans who did nothing wrong, Iran successfully bargained for 21 of its nationals. All but one of the seven Iranians behind bars in the U.S. had been accused of violating transparent American trade laws and were held as a result of criminal charges or convictions involving a justice system that permitted them a legal defense. Iran, on the other hand, arrested five Americans on weak, if not outright false, charges and denied them due process.
Some may think releasing non-violent criminals is non-threatening to U.S. national security but it is worth remembering these men were of value to Iran, which bargained hard. Iran is known to try and keep its smugglers and illicit traffickers out of the control of American authorities. From money laundering, to aiding Iran technologically, to exporting American-manufactured industrial products and services, the seven were guilty of genuine crimes. Nader Modanlo, sentenced to eight years in an American prison and released by the U.S. under the deal, single-handedly cost the U.S. government (and taxpayer) $10 million. Furthermore, arguing that the Iranians have not committed violent crimes and therefore a swap is a small price to pay is tacit admittance that sanctions on Iran are nothing more than a paper tiger.
Iran has used American visitors as trade bait virtually since the inception of the Islamic Republic, and its leaders are well aware that the American public and government have no stomach for hostage taking. The 1981 Algiers Accord, which allowed for the release of Americans taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, reflects this point historically. And more recently the U.S. Congress – well known these days for intense partisanship – has unanimously voted on resolutions telling the president to do everything he can to bring Americans held by Iran home.
Tehran’s thinking becomes apparent, as does its tactics: ‘No need to pressure the U.S. to lift all sanctions – simply negotiate the release of those who broke them via a supply of detained Americans.’
The scorecard – Iran 21, America 5 – is clearly imbalanced. The U.S. got back from Iran five of its citizens who were perhaps guilty of nothing more than naïveté, while blatant Iranian criminals were set free by the U.S. government.
Maybe Donald Trump is right: “We don’t win anymore. We lose to everybody.”
When it comes to bargaining with Iran, so it seems.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished after visiting Iran in 2007, is still missing. And Iran continues to hold Siamik Namazi, an American businessman who is being denied access to his lawyer. One can only imagine for what shrewd moment Tehran is holding these two men – and at what price the U.S. is willing to pay for their release.
Extraction Isn’t Easy
Negotiating the release of Americans detained in Iran is not easy. Brett McGurk, the State Department official who led negotiations, explained the complexity of bargaining with what is a fragmented government: “There’s a real competition within Tehran. The country is undergoing some serious changes and having a debate with itself about its own future.” McGurk added, “[That] plays into every issue in which we deal with the Iranians.”
I can attest to the fact that extraction of American citizens trapped in hostile territory is painstaking. I remember well the ordeal facing the U.S. government in 2009 involving three American hikersin Iraq’s Kurdish territory. At the time I was a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad where I, known only to a handful of my most senior-level colleagues, worked with various agencies to help uncover facts surrounding Iran’s detainment of Joshua Fattal, Sarah Shourd, and Shane Bauer. Bringing these three home took over two years and countless personnel. (Several years later, from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, I assisted with efforts to help find and secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – an equally large, if not bigger, task.)
While there has been some rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran in recent years, Americans may want to think twice about booking a flight to a country whose de facto state motto and battle cry is, still after 37 years, “Death to America!”