April 15, 2024

Tehran, Iran – Iran and the United States have successfully completed a prisoner exchange two years in the making, which Tehran is hailing as a diplomatic victory.

After arduous indirect negotiations mediated by Qatar and Oman, Tehran and Washington on Monday exchanged five American and five Iranian prisoners in an airport in Doha.

Iran also confirmed access to $6bn of its own money that had been frozen for years in South Korea in compliance with unilateral US sanctions on Iran that were imposed after Washington in 2018 withdrew from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

The money was first exchanged into euros and was transferred to banks in Qatar from Switzerland after the US issued a waiver clearing the transaction.

Of the five prisoners held in Iran, the identities of three are known. Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morah Tahbaz were all charged with espionage-related offences.

In the face of US rhetoric that called them “hostages” who were wrongfully detained, Tehran had maintained its stance of branding them “spies” that worked to undermine Iran.

On the other hand, most of the Iranian prisoners in the US were arrested on charges of violating sanctions, prompting Tehran to say they were “businessmen” who were unjustly held for allegedly undermining laws that Washington has “illegally” imposed after reneging on the landmark nuclear accord.

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Regardless of the rhetoric surrounding the prisoners, politicians and media outlets in Iran – unlike some of their US counterparts – mostly welcomed the exchange as an achievement.

“America Kneels Before Iran” was the headline chosen by Keyhan, the ultraconservative newspaper whose editor-in-chief is directly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It wrote that the money in South Korea remained blocked due to “passive diplomacy” exercised by the administration of former moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

“Completing the process of transferring Iran’s blocked reserves in South Korea indicates another page in the graceful diplomatic success of [President Ebrahim Raisi’s] government, and an unwanted and unconscious confession by the Westerners, and especially the US, of their defeat against the will of the Iranian nation,” it said.

The reformist Shargh newspaper led with Historic Monday and referred to the exchange as a “positive diplomatic step”.

The conservative Quds newspaper used the headline “Diplomatic Hat-Trick” on its Tuesday front page, to celebrate the combination of the exchange, Raisi’s trip to New York to participate in the United Nations General Assembly, and welcoming Saudi football teams and superstar Cristiano Ronald in Tehran.

In New York before his UNGA speech scheduled for late Tuesday, the Iranian president suggested the prisoner exchange – which Iran has repeatedly called a “humanitarian” issue – could have taken place sooner if the US acted differently.

Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz and Siamak Namazi,
Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz and Siamak Namazi, former prisoners in Iran, walk off a Qatar Airways flight that brought them from Tehran to Doha, Qatar, September 18, 2023 [Lujain Jo/AP Photo]

“The US pursued negotiations again after the project of riots failed,” he was quoted as saying by the state-run IRNA, in reference to protests that formed across Iran from September 22 after the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.

Iran has maintained that the US, along with a number of other Western and regional powers, incited and supported the unrest.

After the prisoner exchange on Monday, the Iranian foreign ministry released a statement saying Tehran would not forget past grievances, including ongoing US sanctions.

“Our people will never forget that even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US regime at the time prevented our country from accessing its own funds in South Korea, ignoring a health emergency and humanitarian concerns, and dismissing repeated calls by the UN secretary-general and human rights officials,” it said.

Complicated Iran-US relations

Abbas Aslani, a senior fellow at the Centre for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, believed the swap was an important development because it displayed a diminishing role for Europe in engagement between Iran and the US.

“The timing is important because this is happening on the anniversary of those [Mahsa Amini] protests in Iran,” he told Al Jazeera from Tehran.

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“This somehow suggests that their calculations have been changing towards Iran,” the analyst said.

“This could be a beginning for extended and further talks on nuclear negotiations, as well as lifting the sanctions against Iran.”

But university professor and analyst Sasan Karimi found it unlikely that the exchange would lead to major changes in the fraught relationship between Tehran and Washington.

“The Biden administration has currently focused all its attention toward the upcoming presidential elections, so it will strive to protect itself from falling into uncalculated situations,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that restoring the nuclear deal would count as such a situation, especially as the West has accused Tehran of supplying Russia with drones for the war in Ukraine.

He said an unwritten understanding between Iran and the US aimed at reducing tensions, which appears to be in place, is more suitable for Biden and better protects him from local critics as well.

“Therefore, it does not seem like the US government would look for more when Iran is concerned, at least not until after the presidential elections. And other incentives like investment and business are inconceivable concerning Iran, so it has achieved almost everything it needed under the current circumstances,” Karimi said.

For Iran, any tentative agreement would act as a de-escalatory measure which would not help it overcome the current state of “securitisation” of affairs, according to the analyst.

“What Iran needs to pursue is removing any negative attention, and defusing the securitisation projects that have been pursued against Iran in recent years, especially by Israel,” he said.

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