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Latest Implications For Iran Prisoner Exchange


It is a new day in the relationship between the United States and Iran. After two and a half years of intense international negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, the U.N.'s watchdog agency confirmed that Iran has met all its obligations under the deal reached this summer. And as a result, economic sanctions placed on Iran for its nuclear program have been lifted. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to reporters in Austria last night. He said, quote, "today, the U.S. and our friends and allies are safer because the threat of the nuclear weapon has been reduced." At the same time the announcement was being prepared, word got out that the U.S. and Iran had agreed to a prisoner swap. The U.S. released seven Iranians from U.S. prisons. And in exchange, Iran released five American citizens, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who had been imprisoned in Tehran for the past year and a half. To talk about the latest developments, we're joined by Robin Wright of the Wilson Center. She's an expert on Iran and the region and has been following all of these developments closely. Hey, Robin, thanks for being with us.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Let's start with the prisoner swap. You have written a piece in The New Yorker saying that President Obama had opened a top secret diplomatic channel with Tehran 14 months ago to start negotiating for the release of these prisoners. What more can you tell us about that?

WRIGHT: Well, it grew out of the nuclear talks. The U.S. at every session had made a point on the sidelines of the discussion about the American cases. And the Iranians, in turn, had made the case for a long list of Iranian-Americans who were imprisoned in the United States. And after several - almost a year of this, they then decided that it would be much better, if they really hoped to make any progress, to set up a secret second channel that would officially deal with this. And President Obama, after much debate, authorized this and assigned Brent McGurk, a senior State Department official, to meet with a different Iranian team. And it was quite controversial, actually, and quite a gamble because the Iranian interlocutor was a member of Iranian intelligence. And this was a different channel than the usual context through the foreign ministry.

MARTIN: You wrote that it was so secret, it was even kept from the people who were negotiating the nuclear deal - some of them, anyway.

WRIGHT: Indeed. Wendy Sherman, who was the top U.S. negotiator, kept it very closely held within her team. Only one other person on this vast nuclear team involved in talking with the Iranians about limiting the controversial nuclear program knew about this second channel.

MARTIN: Secretary Kerry said that the nuclear deal helped facilitate this second channel that led to the swap. How so - because wouldn't it have made it more complicated because the U.S. no longer had anything to leverage after the deal was signed?

WRIGHT: Well, the U.S. didn't want the two to be connected and that - didn't want the Americans' lives to be leveraged in the middle of the nuclear talks. They hoped that both could be achieved separately. But clearly, the spirit of diplomacy developed during the nuclear talks facilitated the second negotiation. And it was really quite touching. At the end of the announcement last July about the nuclear deal, John Kerry said to his Iranian counterpart that it would be good for the development of both contacts that they move forward on solving the long-standing dispute over the Americans imprisoned in Iran.

MARTIN: There was a fifth American who was released, apparently not part of the official prisoner swap. But he was someone you personally knew. His name is Matthew Trevithick. At one point, he worked as your research assistant. What can you tell us about him?

WRIGHT: Matt worked for me in 2009, when I was looking at working on a book. And he's a very gregarious, outgoing, enthusiastic young man who then went on to work at the American University of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq and after that spent four years working at the American University in Kabul. He had actually been in Iran before on vacation, liked the place, thought it was an interesting dynamic of a country, wanted to add it to his repertoire of nations. And so because he had learned a little bit of Farsi while working in Afghanistan, he decided to take an intensive language training program in Tehran. And he arrived in September, and he was just about to complete the four-month course when he was arrested.

MARTIN: What do we know, if anything, about the Iranians who've been released on this end?

WRIGHT: There are seven who - six of whom were Iranian-Americans who have been released. All of them were involved in activities related to sanctions-busting or violations of trade embargoes. And there were an additional 14 who are fugitives and who are on Interpol's list. There's something called a red notice that notifies other countries to be on the alert for them. And so the United States took two steps. One was pardoning the seven who were held in the United States and lifting the red notices of 14 additional Iranians.

MARTIN: Quickly, Robin, the announcement that Iran has held up its part of the nuclear deal, economic sanctions will be lifted. What will be the immediate impact, do you think?

WRIGHT: Well, this will have an enormous impact on Iran in terms of trying to get control of its economy again and develop its oil resources. It - aging equipment, they have got a lot of problems. They've had a serious chronic problem with mismanagement of the economy. And this is the moment they hope to turn it around. But it's also the end of four decades of a pariah status for a country that went through a turbulent revolution. And I think it's trying to regain its place in the region as well as the world. It'll be a long haul still, but it's a beginning.

MARTIN: Robin Wright it is a foreign affairs analyst and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. Thank you so much.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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