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Iran’s Offer of Prisoner Exchange has Uncertain Implications for Western Strategy

By Edward Carney

In his recent remarks at the Asia Society in New York, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appeared to propose a specific prisoner exchange as part of a broader conversation about the Iranian regime’s strategy of taking dual and foreign nationals as hostages, to be used as leverage against Western “enemies.”

A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry disavowed the specific proposal on Friday, which would have supposedly seen an Iranian-British mother and child returned to the United Kingdom in exchange for the release of an Iranian woman who gave birth in Australia after being convicted of deliberate and deceptive violations of US sanctions. Although Zarif did expressly cite both of these cases in order to compare the two women, the Iranian government insists that his remarks were misinterpreted. The broader point about the prospective exchange of Iran’s hostages for prisoners in foreign countries, however, was reaffirmed.

Zarif’s commentary on this topic has met with condemnation by international human rights groups and former political prisoners. While most of these persons and groups embrace the notion of engaging the Iranian regime in dialogue over the plight of the hostages, they also tend to regard the proposed prisoner exchanges as confirmation of those detainees’ status as hostages. The Center for Human Rights in Iran said on Wednesday that Zarif’s assertion of personal authority over the cases of detained dual nationals constitutes a “glaring admission” that those persons are being used as political pawns.

Similarly, in an editorial published on Wednesday, Jason Rezaian called Zarif’s remarks “a blunt acknowledgement by Zarif that Iran practices hostage-taking.” A former Tehran correspondent for the Washington Post, Rezaian himself was held as a political prisoner for nearly two years and was one of five individuals released on January 2016 in exchange for the Obama administration releasing seven Iranian nationals and dropping charges against 14 others. Some of the administration’s critics also allege that a simultaneous 700 million dollar cash payment as part of a debt resettlement was a form of ransom for Rezaian and the other American citizens.

Perhaps in part because he himself had benefited from the previous prisoner exchange, Rezaian did not reject out of hand the notion of taking Zarif up on his offer. While observing that the public nature of the current discussion could be a way for the Iranian regime to normalize its unlawful behavior, Rezaian credits Zarif’s statement with serving as “a necessary prelude to starting talks on freeing the prisoners.”

For its part, CHRI took no clear position on how to respond to the Foreign Minister’s proposal. On one hand, the organization highlighted the plight of Iran’s hostages, who have invariably been denied due process, held in long-term solitary confinement, and harshly interrogated. These observations potentially lend credence to Rezaian’s suggestion that securing the prisoners’ freedom should be the US government’s top priority. But on the other hand, CHRI also called attention to the contradictions that have characterized Tehran’s discussion of these cases. This phenomenon may cast further doubt upon whether the regime can be expected to negotiate an agreement in good faith.

CHRI notes that when Zarif said of a potential exchange, “I am ready to do it and I have the authority to do it,” he was undermining a familiar talking point that had previously been employed on several occasions by both him and President Hassan Rouhani, the head of a supposedly moderate faction of Iranian politics. When pressed by Western leaders over the issue of imprisoned foreign nationals, both men have insisted that they cannot intervene in the proceedings of an “independent judiciary.” CHRI Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi thus concluded that Zarif’s recent statement “lays bare the politicized nature of Iran’s judiciary and entire justice process.”

The implicit contradictions in the Foreign Minister’s statements about his relationship with the judiciary were joined on Friday by his own department’s insistence that he had never intended to offer an exchange involving the Iranian-British woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whom he had brought up in New York. The UK newspaper The Independent reported upon that supposed correction by saying that hopes for the release of the Thomson Reuters charity worker “have been dashed.” But it is not at all clear that the UK would have pursued the exchange as it was originally interpreted.

Agence France-Presse reported on Thursday that the British government had “dismissed” the idea, with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt calling it a “vile” diplomatic ploy. Meanwhile, the prisoner’s British husband Richard Ratcliffe opined that the exchange would be “almost impossible,” largely because it had been made public in what he suggested could be a “displacement tactic” by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

Nonetheless, The Independent quoted Hunt as saying it was “unfortunate” that Zarif had “somewhat retracted” his apparent offer. Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been mentioned in the Asia Society speech alongside Negar Ghodskani, who is currently detained in Australia, where she is a legal resident, after falsely presenting herself as an employee of a Malaysian company in order to gain access to digital communications technology and transfer it to an Iranian company with ties to the country’s state media apparatus. Whether or not Hunt would have pursued the one-to-one exchange, his initial response to his Iranian counterpart’s comments emphasized the false equivalence involved in comparing their cases.

“The woman in jail in Australia is facing due process, a proper legal procedure, and she is alleged to have committed a very serious crime,” Hunt said. “Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is innocent -- she has done nothing wrong. What is unacceptable about what Iran is doing is that they are putting innocent people in prison and using it as leverage.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in April 2016 as she was attempting to leave the country with her 21-year-old daughter Gabriella, after a visit with family members. No clear explanation for her arrest has ever been given, although the intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps quickly labeled her as a leader in some manner of “infiltration network” working toward the “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic. Western commentators have invariably concluded that she was targeted solely on the basis of her dual national status and her former employment by the charitable arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Iran’s English-language propaganda network Press TV did nothing to undercut this explanation on Friday when it communicated the Foreign Ministry’s rejection of the apparent offer to release her in exchange for Ghodskani. The article cited no evidence to support the allegations of espionage, saying only that “the 39-year-old was arrested after it became clear that she had run an illegal course to recruit and train people for the BBC Persian Television, a channel Iran deems an extension of Britain’s anti-Iran propaganda machine.”

The Press TV report relied heavily upon a misstatement by Jeremy Hunt’s predecessor Boris Johnson in order to justify this narrative. In off-the-cuff comments on the prisoner’s case, Johnson simply repeated Iran’s preexisting allegations, noting that even if she had been “teaching journalism,” it would not be recognized as a crime in any modern democratic country. However, those same allegations had been roundly rejected by Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s supporters, who noted for instance that she had been employed only by the BBC’s charitable arm and had never held a position related to journalism or training.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s misstatement appeared to complicate the case, possibly contributing to a situation in which the new Foreign Minister saw fit to offer diplomatic protection to Zaghari-Ratcliffe last year. This comparatively rare step allows the UK to challenge Iran under international law, concerning the prisoner’s treatment. And as evidenced by some contents of the Press TV statement, this maneuver may have frustrated the Iranian regime enough to make them separate the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case from the half-dozen cases of American citizens and dual nationals who are serving prison terms in Iran as a result of equally questionable charges.

As Euronews noted on Thursday, Zarif initially identified Zaghari-Ratcliffe by name in order to say the he felt sorry for her, before adding, “I put this offer on the table publicly now. Exchange them. All these people that are in prison.” But in subsequent remarks to Reuters News Agency, Zarif “appeared to backtrack,” declaring that his general offer would be applicable only to American nationals and persons detained in the US or in other countries upon extradition orders from Washington. “The Iranian-British woman is a separate case,” he concluded.

It remains to be seen whether this separation also applies to the several other British nationals who, according to The Independent, are also being held in Iran but have not been identified publicly by their families. On one hand, Press TV says simply that “the prisoner swap offer has nothing to do with Britons.” But on the other hand, it adds that this is the case because in the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe specifically, “the UK government is responsible for her situation.”

This is arguably a veiled reference to diplomatic protection, which the same article described as an “unexpected turn” in the case. But even so, it is surprising to see that Iran would take a harder line with the UK than the US in this matter, considering that the US has dramatically increased sanctions on the Islamic Republic in recent weeks. On April 8, the White House announced that it would be designating the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, and two weeks later it announced that no further sanctions waivers would be granted to importers of Iranian oil.

There is little doubt that the Trump administration and its supporters will highlight the prisoner exchange offer, and the exclusion of British nationals, in order to argue that the American strategy of “maximum pressure” is proving effective and that the UK should stop supporting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and instead adopt a similarly assertive posture.

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