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[Daniel DePetris] Why negotiating with Iran to free prisoners matters

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 22, 2023 - 05:30

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Negotiating with Iran is never easy or uncontroversial. But it’s often necessary to solve problems -- or in one case last week, to free Americans who were imprisoned unjustly by the Iranian authorities.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced the beginning of a highly synchronized process that, ideally, will end with the release of five Americans to their families after years of detention. In exchange, the US agreed to release five imprisoned Iranians and unfreeze $6 billion of Iran’s own money that was stuck in a South Korean bank courtesy of US sanctions. Those funds will be transferred to a Qatari bank, available for Tehran to purchase humanitarian supplies. All five Americans are now under house arrest waiting for the process to play out. According to the terms of the deal, they will be allowed to leave Iran as soon as the $6 billion makes its way into the Qatari account.

This is hardly the first prisoner exchange to occur between the US and Iran. While the two nations haven’t had diplomatic relations with each other in more than four decades, they have nevertheless found a way to haggle when it’s in their interest to do so.

In 2016, President Barack Obama’s administration finalized a 14-month negotiation that resulted in the freeing of four Americans, including Washington Post columnist Jason Rezaian. In return, Washington dropped criminal charges against seven Iranians who were convicted of violating US sanctions against Tehran. In 2019, President Donald Trump’s administration and Iran agreed on a one-for-one swap, bringing home an American student who was in the fourth year of a 10-year sentence for espionage.

Just as those previous agreements generated outright opposition from some quarters in Washington, last week’s accord spurred a fusillade of criticism from lawmakers who believed the terms were extremely advantageous to Iran. Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted that “unfreezing $6B in #Iranian assets dangerously further incentivizes hostage taking & provides a windfall for regime aggression.” Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blasted the Biden administration on television for essentially enabling Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East by handing over billions of dollars. And Sen. Tom Cotton, perhaps the most hawkish of the Iran hawks on Capitol Hill, labeled the deal a “craven act of appeasement.”

Viewed impartially, however, none of this criticism makes a whole lot of sense. “Appeasement,” for instance, is a loaded term, suggesting the US was raked over the coals during negotiations and left the room without any concessions at all. Naturally, this isn’t the case; the US ended the ordeal of five Americans who were rotting in Iranian prison cells. (One prisoner, Siamak Namazi, was in Iran’s notorious Evin prison for about seven years.) While one can dispute the specific concessions the US provided to win those Americans their freedom, nobody can seriously argue that concessions weren’t required to bring the agreement over the finish line. What Cotton is opposed to, it seems, is the very idea of diplomacy itself.

The notion that Iran will see a cash windfall for its destabilizing deeds in the region is also far-fetched. It’s not like the $6 billion will be deposited in a bank controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. While the Iranians will have access to the funds, they won’t be able to spend them freely. The US Treasury Department, with the assistance of its Qatari partners, will have eyes on how the funds are disbursed and how much is being withdrawn. This money isn’t going toward Tehran’s missile development or regional proxies but rather to pay suppliers for humanitarian goods, such as food, medicine and medical devices the Iranian people so desperately need. The notion propagated by McCaul is simply inaccurate.

Finally, let’s be clear about what most of this opposition is about: a refusal to negotiate with Iran under any circumstances whatsoever. It’s no coincidence that the very lawmakers who disapprove of last week’s prisoner exchange were also proponents of killing the Iran nuclear deal and instituting a policy of maximum pressure on Tehran. The motivation behind this policy was to squeeze the Iranian economy so tightly that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would have no choice but to crawl back to the negotiating table and cater to US demands in order to stem the financial bleeding. What the US received instead was the exact opposite: US-Iran relations worsened dramatically, the constraints and limitations over Iran’s nuclear program were removed, and another dose of tension was injected in the Middle East.

Next to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Iran is the boogeyman to a significant swath of the US foreign policy elite. The idea of sitting down with one of America’s foremost adversaries, one whose proxies often launch missiles and drones against US forces in Syria, is too much to bear.

But international relations aren't a morality contest between good and evil. Sometimes, talking with your enemies is unavoidable or the least bad option on the table. If Ronald Reagan, the arch Cold War warrior, could negotiate with the Soviet Union, there’s no reason why Biden or any other US president can’t exhibit the confidence and dexterity to negotiate with Iran, a much weaker country than the Soviet Union ever was.

The alternative is to trap yourself in a zero-sum mentality, in which diplomacy is seen as a reward rather than the cost of doing business.

Daniel DePetris

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)