Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Americans abroad have too often become human bargaining chips. In places like Iran and North Korea, rogue regimes have used trumped up and unfounded charges to imprison Americans, kicking off years of complex negotiations with the US government.
But from Otto Warmbier and other Americans released from North Korean prisons to Kevin King, who was released by the Taliban as part of a prisoner swap, Donald Trump’s administration has brought Americans hostages home. And, on Saturday, Iran released American graduate student Xiyue Wang, who was imprisoned in Tehran for more than three years on suspicion of being a spy (US officials deny that Wang was a spy).
In exchange, the US released Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani, who was arrested on charges of violating American trade sanctions against Iran. Soleimani was expected to be released from prison in a few weeks anyway as part of a plea deal.
Because the US doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with Iran, the negotiations for the prisoner swap were conducted through the Swiss government, which represents our interests in Iran. The prisoner swap could be a confidence-building measure that both sides leverage to jump start talks on other issues – like Iran’s nuclear program – or the swap could just be a mutually beneficial, but isolated, positive moment for both countries. Regardless, the swap is a sign that, at least on transactional issues, there is an ability to successfully negotiate.
This is notable because Wang isn’t the only American detained in Iran. The fates of other Americans detained in Iran – including former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran more than a decade ago, and others more recently detained like Baquer and Siamek Namazi, Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Niasari (a green card holder) and Michael White – are still in question.
A rare, but not unprecedented victory
The prisoner swap is a rare victory between the two countries since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and exerted a maximum pressure campaign against Iran. In addition to harsh sanctions, the US has repeatedly spoken out against the regime, including the administration’s condemnation of the regime’s response to domestic protests, backing militia leaders in Iraq, activities in Yemen – and more.
But the swap isn’t unprecedented. Iran has a history of imprisoning Americans on spurious charges – along with a history of negotiating prisoner releases – including the release of American hikers detained in Iran and a prisoner swap which included the release of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and three other Americans.
This isn’t Trump’s first hostage release success, though. The administration negotiated the release of Americans detained in North Korea, including Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after returning to the US. Trump touted Kim Jong Un’s release of American hostages as a sign of a warming relationship before his first summit with Kim. He similarly pointed to the hostage release and other non-nuclear steps as signs of improving bilateral relations before his second summit.
The President says his goal is North Korean denuclearization. But North Korea has made little meaningful progress on this front. And yet Trump has toned down his rhetoric against the regime a bit and used the regime’s release of American hostages as signs of good faith on North Korea’s part. He’s also taken the hostages’ release as opportunities to laud his own skills as a negotiator.
The Iranian regime (and other dangerous actors around the world) can see that trading prisoners – even prisoners like Otto Warmbier, who was comatose when he returned to the US – gets the President to adopt a less aggressive public posture. In short, Iran knows that Trump touts hostage releases as signs of his own bona fides, and the regime could further appeal to his ego to secure additional swaps from the United States.
Just consider Saturday, when Trump thanked the Iranians – by tweet – for a “very fair negotiation” and pointed to the fact that “we can make a deal together” – after noting that Wang was detained while Barack Obama was president. (Of course, he did not mention Michael White, for example, who was detained in Iran under this administration).
One question remains
The outstanding question is whether this prisoner swap – and the secret negotiations that preceded it – could set the foundation for talks on other issues. Nuclear negotiations, for example, would be much more complex, but at least the administration now has some proof of concept.
In order to capitalize on any confidence gained from these negotiations, the administration first has to develop a more coherent strategy about what it will take to really restart nuclear negotiations.
As the Iranians contemplated their strategy for alleviating the US maximum pressure campaign – as well as condemnation for their violent response to protests – they may have wanted to score some PR points domestically for bringing a prisoner home.
And the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign is clearly taking its toll – with the Iranian economy bearing the brunt of US sanctions and decades of economic mismanagement. Bringing home an Iranian scientist won’t quell the protestors’ demands, but the regime may be hoping that it will curry some favor at home and that returning Wang will get some kudos from the international community.
Or, the Iranians could be looking for an opening for broader negotiations with the US, especially as additional sanctions against Iran’s economy, banks and some top officials and the financial sector could be added to the mix. With Iran poised to announce new breaches of the nuclear deal in January, France, Germany and Britain are warning that they may trigger a disputed settlement mechanism in the nuclear agreement. This could be a first step toward re-imposing more sanctions.
Despite Iran’s misdeeds, Wang’s release alone is an achievement, and it could – at the very least – serve as the basis for negotiating the release of more Americans held in Iran. And with the Iranian regime under pressure at home and abroad, Trump should empower his team – whether through the Swiss, the French or others – to negotiate with the Iranians.
As Wang’s release makes clear, the Iranians are willing to talk. A prisoner exchange is a far cry from nuclear negotiations, but it may be a good place to start.