The US’ prisoner swap with Iran shows that the landmark nuclear deal ‘wasn’t a nuclear deal at all’

A prisoner swap between the US and Iran finalised over the weekend was in the works for more a year, senior Obama administration officials said Saturday.

The administration has insisted that the subject of a prisoner release was never broached during nuclear talks. But that officials were actively working toward freeing the prisoners while nuclear negotiations were underway has led some experts to speculate that the nuclear deal had a more expansive purpose than the White House ever let on.

Indeed, US Secretary of State John Kerry suggested an increased sense of cooperation after the prisoner release was finalised, telling reporters that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said “there are ways to try to translate this [the swap] and hopefully be constructive in other things. He specifically said Syria and Yemen.”

Middle East expert Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD), a DC-based think tank, said this was not surprising.

“The notion of a firewall between nuclear and other issues was always a sham,” Badran told Business Insider on Saturday. “The nuclear deal wasn’t a ‘nuclear’ deal at all — it was rapprochement.”

The prisoner swap — which exchanged seven Iranians detained in the US for violating nuclear-related sanctions for Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and three other Iranian-American prisoners — was apparently hashed out over 11 to 12 meetings throughout 2015.

It was finalised on the same day that the nuclear deal was implemented and that the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were lifted. That has left some experts speculating that the swap was aimed at bolstering overall support for the deal.

“It is difficult to imagine that today’s exchange was not related to the deal,” Amir Toumaj, an Iran expert at the FDD, told Business Insider in an email.

He added: “Apart from the timing of the release, on the day that Iran satisfied IAEA requirements for implementation of the Iran deal, the release also seems to justify the administration’s talking points that the deal would, over time, moderate the Iranian government’s behaviour.”

White House officials have painted the timing as a coincidence.

Though thawing relations with Iran may have been one of President Barack Obama’s goals with the deal, hardliners inside Iran have forcefully insisted that the deal agreed upon by world powers last July — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — be limited to issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. The JCPOA is not, they contend, a step toward greater rapprochement with the so-called “Great Satan.”

But Badran, of the FDD, said that the nuclear deal has always been “a dynamic for cooperation with Iran on other issues.”

The problem with that, he SAID, is that Iranian government officials use every concession the US gives them “to pursue their agenda.”

“Once Implementation Day is announced, Iran is going to step up its provocative actions in the region and the hardliners know this White House won’t do a thing about it for the next 12 months,” Michael Pregent, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and former Defence Department adviser on Iraqi security forces, told Business Insider on Saturday.

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst and the current vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, noted on Twitter that the imminent prisoner swap might explain why the US did not respond more forefully to videos Iran released of American sailors detained in its waters last week.

“Release of Americans might explain why the Obama Adm didn’t react to Iran’s use [of] Navy sailors as propaganda. Swap’s been cooking for a while,” Miller said.

“I’m happy for the families in the US who will get their loved ones back,” Pregent, now executive director of Veterans Against the Iran Deal, added. “But I’m not happy that the [hardline] Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp. and the families of their criminals are celebrating today.”

Some felt ‘blindsided’

The negotiations leading up the exchange were apparently kept so much under wraps that even some Washington officials and insiders were not aware they were happening. Indeed, the secrecy surrounding the issue fuelled one of the biggest criticisms of the Iran deal — namely, that it did not force Iran to release its American prisoners even as Tehran was due to receive sanctions relief.

Chase Foster, a State Department official who leaked details of the prisoner swap talks to The Huffington Post, apparently quit his job out of frustration that a release was not secured by the US as part of the broader nuclear deal.

“I think for the White House to say they were negotiating for the release of illegally detained Americans would have been embarrassing after the Bergdahl fiasco,” Pregent said, referring to the US’ exchange of five Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who was held captive by the Taliban after he walked off his base in Afghanistan in 2009.

Jason Rezaian
A screenshot of the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who was detained in Iran for 545 days before his release on Saturday. Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post

“A strong negotiating team would have demanded their release before we even sat down to talk nuclear program,” Pregent added. He claimed many people within the administration felt “blindsided.”

Criticism over the US’ decision not to bring up the prisoners while negotiating the nuclear deal might have been put to rest had the administration hinted that it was, in fact, trying. But officials apparently chose not to publicly disclose that information due to pressure from Iran. Now, some are criticising the use of the prisoners as a so-called bargaining chip throughout the talks.

Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, largely echoed Pregent’s sentiment.

“We are thrilled to see Jason finally free, but he should have never been imprisoned in the first place,” Deloire said in a statement following the swap. “Jason was innocent. It is outrageous that he has been used as a bargaining chip.”

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