- Recent clashes between the US and Iran have nearly escalated into full-fledged conflict.
- Despite that tension, there is one issue on which the two governments can cooperate and potentially improve relations, writes Defense Priorities fellow Daniel R. DePetris.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
If there is one word to describe the state of US-Iran relations in 2020, it’s “edgy.”
This January, the two countries were dangerously on the precipice of a wide-scale military confrontation, with US Hellfire missiles slamming into Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani’s convoy and Iranian ballistic missiles sending over 100 US soldiers to the hospital with traumatic brain injuries.
President Donald Trump wisely decided not to respond militarily against Iran’s missile attack on two US bases in Iraq, an operation that was itself an act of retaliation for Soleimani’s death. But the White House isn’t exactly seeking to defuse the situation either; the administration is full-steam ahead on its maximum pressure strategy, with the State Department announcing more sanctions on the Iranian economy in what some Middle East analysts have called a missed opportunity for de-escalation, all but sealing the window shut on a bilateral US-Iran dialogue.
The gap separating these two countries is astronomical, made worse by Trump’s proactive destruction of the Iran nuclear agreement. But there is one issue that could force US and Iranian officials into a dialogue: prisoners.
According to the US Bureau of Prisons, 29 Iranian citizens are currently in US custody. Many of them were arrested, charged, and prosecuted for violating US sanctions on Iran. The Iranian government has always perceived these charges as politically motivated, much the same way as the United States views Americans who have been detained, charged, or sentenced by the Iranian authorities for spying.
Neither Washington nor Tehran wants to see their citizens rotting in an overseas prison cell. The sad death of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who has been missing in Iran since 2007 and whom US intelligence officials now assess died in Iranian custody, is a worst-case scenario US officials should strive to prevent. The United States and Iran have cooperated on prisoner exchanges in the past, even when other issues of concern remain unresolved.
The most significant prisoner exchange in recent history occurred in January 2016, when four Americans—including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian—were swapped in exchange for dropping cases against seven Iranians charged with sanctions violations.
That agreement was the culmination of 14 months of diplomacy on the sidelines of the nuclear talks. While the deal caused an uproar among some in Washington, the result was a tough but ultimately successful diplomatic outcome that helped solidify then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s working relationship with Foreign Minister Zarif.
President Trump has taken a personal interest in freeing detained Americans overseas and has had some notable success with the help of hostage envoy and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
Last December, in a choreographed release, the Iranians handed over Princeton University researcher Xiyue Wang to the Americans after years in detention. In return, Washington dropped charges against an Iranian scientist and released him into Iran’s custody. Trump praised the exchange and thanked Tehran for its cooperation. Days later, Zarif proposed an all-for-all prisoner swap—but the idea was rejected by the Trump administration as heavily skewed in Iran’s favor.
The issue of prisoners is a live one, and it should be pursued with absolute rigor by both parties.
Ironically, the deadly spread of the coronavirus inside Iranian borders today has only given more impetus to the issue of prisoner releases—tens of thousands of prisoners, many of whom are categorized as political prisoners, have been freed from jail by the Iranian government in order to help contain the virus. Michael White, a US citizen who has been detained in Iran since 2018, is now on medical furlough and is in the care of the Swiss government.
Recently, Iran and France successfully completed a one-for-one prisoner exchange despite stark differences on other aspects of their relationship. Rather than condemning the exchange, the State Department should proceed on a similar wavelength in order to free Americans from Iranian prisons and remove a portion of the antagonism that now dominates relations with Tehran.
When channels for communication remain so constricted, it’s incumbent upon US and Iranian leaders to capitalize on whatever opportunity for dialogue exists. Tehran acknowledges that its relationship with the United States won’t magically sort itself out regardless of who is sitting in the White House next year. But it has just as much of an interest in getting its people back home as the United States does. This convergence is at least a starting point for a discussion.
A few prisoner releases may not be a dramatic foreign policy triumph for President Trump, but they would still go a long way toward arresting a cycle of confrontation that would suck Washington even deeper in a region of declining strategic importance.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.