Washington’s Diplomatic Touch in Talking to the Enemy

John Kerry and Javad Zarif


February 03, 2016 18:39 EDT

Building confidence between adversaries is the first step in diplomacy. The Obama administration understands this well.

When Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tehran, was arrested in July 2014 in Iran, the motivations for his imprisonment were unclear.

Iranian security forces stormed his Tehran residence and confiscated laptops, mobile devices and notes. They also arrested his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a journalist at The National. Shortly afterward, Rezaian was charged with espionage. While Salehi was released on bail after a few months, Rezaian remained in custody at Evin Prison, which is well-known for housing political prisoners and intellectuals.

The trials were closed-door and went on for nine months. After, Rezaian was finally convicted of espionage and other serious crimes according to Iranian law, such as “collaborating with hostile governments” and “propaganda against the establishment.” Iranian authorities also accused Rezaian of “collecting classified information.” According to the indictment, he regularly wrote to US President Barack Obama, which proved his alleged contact with the “hostile government.”

As the trials were behind closed doors, there is still uncertainty on whether Rezaian’s imprisonment was intended to be used as a bargaining chip during the nuclear talks. What we do know is that on the US side, Obama used the talks well to release Rezaian and the other prisoners.

A Case of Uncertainty

In 2014, The Washington Post was caught off guard and reported the news of the journalist’s arrest just after two days. In fact, Rezaian’s arrest and custody were not disclosed immediately, nor were his whereabouts or welfare. Iranian authorities cast a shadow over the case of the American journalist, putting forward alleged security concerns. In addition, the arrest took place while both Rezaian and his wife had official work permits from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s Guidance Ministry and were apparently protected by the law.

Rezaian holds dual citizenship, both Iranian and American. His father was born in Tehran and migrated to the US in 1959. He became an Iran correspondent for The Washington Post in 2012, but was based in the Persian Gulf country mainly since 2008. Rezaian’s main task was to cover news from Iran, writing about international politics and nuclear negotiations. Moreover, Rezaian offered a compelling insight into daily life in Tehran and telling portraits of the changes unfolding in Iranian society. He was also well-aware of the potential power of the country, so much so that he tried to get in touch with President Obama to offer his assistance in improving Iran-US relations.

In the aftermath of Rezaian’s arrest, most journalism associations called for his prompt release. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement asking for the immediate acquittal from all the charges and quick release; Reporters without Borders and The Post did the same. The world of journalism stood up for the release of Rezaian, giving support to his family and putting pressure on the US government to do its best to bring him back safe. Simultaneously, journalism associations contributed to sensitize public opinion, while politicians tried to keep their attention focused on the case.

Ever since Rezaian was taken into custody, negotiating the release of the journalist was a complicated matter. In fact, the US and Iran do not have formal diplomatic relations and, therefore, they had to settle this question off-the-record. Even so, and in spite of several requests by US Secretary of State John Kerry via the Swiss Embassy, acting as the US protecting-power in Iran, America was repeatedly denied consular services by the authorities of the Islamic Republic.

In the meantime, the US and Iran were in the middle of taxing negotiations over the nuclear program of Tehran. Many pundits have contended that the arrest of Rezaian and his wife was an effort by Iran’s hard-liners to torpedo the ongoing nuclear negotiations and discredit the moderate leadership of President Rouhani. As moderates gained more power since Rouhani took office in 2013, hard-liners, who hold massive influence in security forces and parts of the judiciary, tried to steer the deal in their favor, exerting as much leverage as possible.

In the US, those who were against the deal, especially the Republican Party, used Rezaian’s arrest as an instrument to continue their political struggle against the Obama administration. If Iranian moderates are not even able to free a journalist, they said, how could they persuade Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to dismantle the nuclear program?

Entering the Nuclear Talks

Secret talks between Obama administration officials and their Iranian counterpart had been going on since October 2014. Back-channel meetings were held at Geneva, Switzerland. Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy and top US State Department official, was appointed for brokering the release of Rezaian and other Americans detained in Iran. McGurk found he was dealing with a bunch of men from the security apparatus who had never negotiated with Americans and barely spoke English, namely the toughest side of the most conservative party in Iran.

Iranian officials showed stubbornness and seemed firm in their demands, which consisted of the release of about 40 Iranians, mostly charged with “supporting terrorists groups.” They were held in captivity not just in the US, but elsewhere, in exchange for four Americans. Along with Rezaian, included Amir Hekmati, a former marine seized in 2011, and Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor. Furthermore, Americans bargained for the release of Nosratollah Khosravi, a mystery man whose imprisonment in Iran had never been reported. McGurk and other diplomats quickly turned down the radical claims of Tehran and walked out with anger, however, they took home the idea of the swap as feasible.

Donald Trump, a leader in the Republican national polls, told the press that while the US got four hostages back, Iran had seven people along with $150 billion. He also fiercely decried the nuclear deal with Tehran, telling the press that, if he is elected president, he will get rid of it.

The negotiations dragged on for 14 months with monthly meetings, while both sides were grappling with internal divisions. On the Iranian side, changes in attitude reflected the internal rivalry between the political factions at home: moderates willing to strike a deal and hard-liners poised to disrupt any kind of openness to US demands. On the American side, rifts were deep too. Some in the Obama administration were not keen to trade innocent Americans, jailed just for political gain and charged with bogus allegations, for Iranians indicted or convicted with criminal charges. The talks were also affected by mutual mistrust and bitterness, with the Iranians coming out with past resentments like the CIA-backed coup d’état in 1953 and US support for Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980s.

Even though the exact connection between the nuclear deal and the prisoner swap is unknown, Iranian posture seemed to change after the nuclear agreement was stricken in July 2015. Thereafter, Iran softened its stance and agreed to reach an accommodation, coming up with less drastic claims and behaving with more self-restraint. It sounded like Iran’s hard-liners wanted to keep prisoners as bargaining chips until the sanctions had been lifted. Or, maybe, the US and Iran bargained the swap as a tangential path on the nuclear deal.

Yet the nuclear deal gave hope for the release of Rezaian and other prisoners, even though it took time to reach a breakthrough. Ebb and flow went on in the prisoner negotiations until ten American sailors who strayed into Iranian territory in the Persian Gulf were taken into custody. As a result, both Iranian and American officials were stuck in a pretty bad fix. Obama stated that he would not be able to lift sanctions as long as the sailors had been in custody. As a matter of fact, the hotline between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sorted out this difficult situation, and the sailors were released the following morning. This move gave the US the signal that Iran genuinely wanted to cut both deals.

While Implementation Day was round the corner and Iranians were making progress in dismantling their nuclear program earlier than scheduled, President Obama gave a go-ahead to closely examine a list of 19 names that Iranian officials handed in. Most of them were targeted with economic crimes.

Barack Obama and John Kerry

Barack Obama and John Kerry / Flickr

The two sides decided to announce the prisoner swap on the same day of the Implementation Day on January 16. Despite the fact that Iranians and Americans declared that the timing was not premeditated, eventually it seemed that the build-up of mutual trust made both actors decide not to sweep this longstanding problem under the rug any longer. At the same time, it was also Implementation Day that fostered the two parties to fix this matter once and for all.

In the end, Iran freed four Americans (the fifth was not involved in the agreement on the swap) in exchange for seven Iranians. As a response, the US agreed to abandon efforts to prosecute 14 others Iranians, who were charged with sanctions violation.

From Behind Closed Doors to Washington

With the Democratic and Republican primaries underway, the prisoner swap and the nuclear deal heavily affected the debate. Republicans, on the one hand, celebrated the release of American hostages and, on the other hand, they slammed harshly the way negotiations were conducted and kept on adopting saber-rattling tones over Iran. Senator Ted Cruz, who is also a Republican presidential candidate, said that every bad actor “has been told to go capture an American … if they want terrorists out of jail” because Obama is in the “let’s-make-a-deal-business.”

Senator Marco Rubio, another Republican presidential candidate, was on the same wavelength. He held the view that the Obama-promoted prisoner swap created a precedent for “rogue states” and governments to take hostages. Donald Trump, a leader in the Republican national polls, told the press that while the US got four hostages back, Iran had seven people along with $150 billion. He also fiercely decried the nuclear deal with Tehran, telling the press that, if he is elected president, he will get rid of it. Senator Rand Paul was the only GOP candidate who took a measured tone. He called the release “a hopeful sign about the agreement and a sign that we need to continue to try to see if negotiations will work.”

In the Democratic platform, tones were not as severe as in the Republican one. The most surprising, and hawkish, posture was the one of Hillary Clinton. She first praised the swap and the Iran deal, but suddenly called for fresh sanctions against Tehran due to its ballistic missile program. She also stressed that, if she is elected president, she will take on Iran with “a distrust and verify” attitude.

The swap then played into the hands of Bernie Sanders. He first maintained that the deal would not happen had Hillary Clinton been president—a gentle hint to the Democratic debate in 2008, when she was asked, “would you sit down and talk to the Iranians?” and she replied, “No.” Then Sanders applauded the release of prisoners and called the Iran deal “a huge step forward with a powerful country.”

… Obama understood that the payoffs of engaging diplomatically with Tehran could bolster Washington’s leverage on its allies …

Obama praised the power of diplomacy that cut off “every single path that Iran could have used to build a bomb” and quoted the example of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan who “have never been afraid to pursue diplomacy with our adversaries.”

Obama’s Diplomatic Leverage: Engaging With Iran

The nuclear deal, along with the Cuba overture, will be Barack Obama’s legacy for the years ahead. He was able to pursue painstaking and careful diplomacy and to engage the enemies of the US in back-channel and secret meetings.

Obama and Kerry’s stance on Iran could be framed into a tradition of aggressive American diplomacy well-practiced in the past by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in their opening to China, or by James Baker and George H.W. Bush just before the Gulf War in 1990-91. As Nixon understood that engaging China would be useful for the US in order to deal with a great power on the rise, in this case Obama went forward on a path of outreach to Iran—tenacious and adamant to find a clear solution to Tehran’s nuclear program.

Even though Obama’s policy toward Iran irritated some longtime allies, such as Israel or Saudi Arabia, and could have backfired at the national level, the US president stubbornly went on. He understood that a better relationship with Iran would be an asset for the US. As a matter of fact, with 80 million potential new consumers, a worldly and well-educated urban middle-class, a participatory political system and dynamic younger generations eager to engage with the world, Iran could become an important player for America in the Middle East.

At the same time, Obama understood that the payoffs of engaging diplomatically with Tehran could bolster Washington’s leverage on its allies, while encouraging Iran to play a more constructive regional role. Ultimately, the move could serve the core strategic interest of America in the Middle East, namely preserving the balance of power.

In this opening to Iran, the US has not been alone. France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia have invited the Iranians to take part in talks over Syria to test whether further conversations are possible. Obama knows that Iran is not going to change overnight, and his adversaries will portray the release of Rezaian and others, as well as the Iran deal, as a capitulation for his administration in order to boost their own political agenda. Criticisms notwithstanding, the president followed through with his plan to ease the tensions with Tehran—well-aware that the advantages of engaging Iran markedly outweigh the drawback in the long-term.

Yet what matters most to Obama is not related to Iran’s constraints to its nuclear program, much less how politicians will depict the prisoner swap. What matters to President Obama is handling the political role of Tehran and its society in the years to come.

It will not be simple, but building confidence between adversaries is the first and most crucial step. That is what Rezaian was doing in Iran as a journalist: to build mutual trust.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: US Department of State / Flickr

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