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The US-Iran Prisoner Swap and the Future of Iranian Foreign Relations


Sarah Reeves


Following months of ongoing negotiations, on Monday, September 18th, Iran released five Iranian Americans from detention in return for the release of Iranians imprisoned within the United States. Those released by Iran include three Iranian American businessmen, a California scientist, and a humanitarian aid worker. Their time in detention spanned from a few months to nearly six years. Those released by the U.S. include an accused spy, a man who violated the Iranian trade embargo, an accused conspirator of illegal trade with the Central Bank of Iran, a man indicted for conspiracy and money laundering, and a man accused of sending sensitive documents. All have been recognized as low-level, nonviolent criminals.

In addition to the release of prisoners, the deal between the two countries included the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian assets. While these funds are supposed to be restricted to food, medicine, and humanitarian aid, it is not certain how the money will be used by the Iranian government. The use of the funds is subject to strict American oversight, but the deal faced staunch criticism from Republicans who fear the use of funds for terrorism. However, a State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, rebuked these claims, explaining that the $6 billion comes from the proceeds of Iranian oil sales to South Korea. Prior to this deal, the funds had been frozen by South Korea since 2018. Through this deal, the State Department insists that the US granted an exception to economic sanctions but did not give any money to Iran.

The deal between U.S. and Iran represents a remarkable step in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Over the past nearly 100 years, the two countries have had a very tumultuous relationship. In 1953, the U.S. assisted in leading a coup in Iran that brought Western-friendly Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to power. The relations took a turn towards the current state of affairs in 1979 with the Iranian revolution that began a very anti-Western rhetoric in the country. From the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the Beirut Barracks bombing in 1983, Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, and the U.S. oil and trade embargo in 1995, contact between the two was decidedly negative from 1979 to 1998. Although there was some hope for reconciliation following 1998 talks between the two countries at the United Nations General Assembly, these hopes were diminished by American rhetoric towards Iran in former President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. President Bush included Iran in the “axis of evil” that the U.S. attempted to defeat in the War on Terror. The war removed nearly all possibility of peaceful democratic relations until 2013, when President Barack Obama called the newly elected Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, to discuss nuclear programs- the first form of direct contact between the US and Iran since the revolution in 1979. The talks resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement that lifted several sanctions placed on the Middle Eastern country in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. But, as US administrations transitioned, so did the standing of U.S.-Iranian relations. President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, further complicating relations with Iran. The differing strategies of relations amongst elected officials ended with this new act of diplomacy by the Biden administration. The September deal came after months of continuous work despite the stop-start nature of international negotiations.

While the September deal does not promise friendly relations between the two countries, there is some positive hope for the future. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, was clear that “Iran must de-escalate, to create space for future diplomacy.” His statement implies that there is a possibility of future diplomacy, as long as Iran meets the necessary requirements.

Despite this somewhat hopeful outlook in September, the future of diplomacy has now been completely flipped on its head due to the October 7th invasion of Israel by Hamas. Hamas is a militant group known for its armed resistance to Israel. It has been designated as a terrorist organization by many countries, including the United States, the European Union, and Israel. Notably, Hamas receives both material and financial support from Iran. On Saturday, October 7th, during the Jewish high holiday of Shabbat, Hamas stormed the Gaza strip in a surprise attack on Israel, killing civilians and soldiers alike. Given the US’s close alliance with and support of Israel, the possibility of improved US-Iranian relations seems unlikely for now, as Israel has formally declared war against Hamas.

While the prisoner swap represented the beginning of a new era in diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, those hopes are now on hold given the impending threat of war in the Middle East. At this point, only time can tell what the future will hold for Iranian diplomacy.

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