On the evening of Monday, 15 February 2016, Iran’s television channel 3 aired a 13-minute report titled “The Rules of the Game” (in Persian, قاعده بازی) about the 17 January 2016 prisoner swap between Iran and the United States, arguing that the exchange was a victory for Iran and a loss for the United States. The program, produced by the “General Administration for Analytical and Documentary Programming” (اداره کل برنامههای تحلیلی و مستند) contends that the settlement of a longstanding property dispute between Iran and the United States was linked to the prisoner exchange, reporting among other things that on the day of the exchange, the U.S. flew $400 million in cash to Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport.
The following is a rough translation of the report that I have prepared. Comments are welcome.
The morning of 17 January 2016, Tehran, Mehrabad Airport. Precisely at the historical moment when millions of eyes were fixed on television screens in anticipation of the official announcement of the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), another event was taking place: an historic exchange between Iran and America, enemies of 37 years. It appears that no one is aware of the details of this exchange, not even the American media.
Reflection of the news of the JCPOA provides a good excuse for the media’s failure to note this big event, but that’s not the whole story. The Americans insist that this exchange take place in complete media silence. This point is of such importance to them that they threaten Iranian officials that if the details of the transaction are exposed, [European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica] Mogherini won’t say anything about the implementation of the JCPOA. That is, the JCPOA would be a dead letter.
Only a few hours after the transaction takes place, the media announce news of the exchange of four American prisoners of Iranian ancestry for seven Iranians imprisoned in the United States. But no one knows anything more about the exchange. Even American officials, who have legendary skills at magnifying their diplomatic accomplishments, prefer to say little about what happened this time.
But what is the story behind this exchange? Why are the Americans unwilling to divulge the details of it?
The 31st of December 1977, Iran, Tehran. With the beginning of the Iranian people’s revolutionary movement, James Earl Carter, known as “Jimmy” Carter, the 39th president of the United States of America, comes to Iran to give encouragement to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi by declaring America’s complete support for him. But the truth of the matter is that the Iranian people have made up their minds. Unfortunately for the Democrats in America, the Iranian people’s Islamic Revolution took place at a time when the reins of power in America were in their hands. But the Americans did not refrain from interference in Iran’s internal affairs even after the revolution, to the point that on the 4th of November 1979, the Americans’ nest of spies, operating under the cover an embassy, was occupied by students following the path of the Imam [Khomeini].
[Video clip of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini]: “You see that now, America’s center of corruption, the youth went and took it, and they took the Americans who were there, and they seized that nest of corruption, and America can’t do a damned thing.”
The Americans used all diplomatic—and non-diplomatic—tools to liberate their hostages, from sanctions and freezing of Iranian assets to military operations. In fact, the last fourteen months of Carter’s presidency was dedicated to freeing the hostages, on America’s terms. But the harder Carter tried, the less he achieved.
But during the two months before handing over the White House to his Republican rival, Ronald Reagan, he was thinking of restoring his reputation by the only means left, that is, by negotiation.
But on the other side of these negotiations sits a wise revolutionary who knows well the rules of the game: Imam Khomeini. Finally, 36 hours before the statutory end of Carter’s term as president, the negotiations to free the hostages produce a result. But there is still no news of the freeing of the hostages. Now for the Democrats, seconds mean life and death. Finally, Inauguration Day arrives. Carter has only two hours to at least dispel the American popular notion that he was a defeated champion.
As he is preparing to leave the White House, he knows that the hostages are at Mehrabad Airport awaiting flight authorization from Iran to take off for the United States. But no one knows the true intentions that the Iranian revolutionaries had in mind.
Finally, after the inauguration ceremony, Reagan officially becomes president of the United States. Twenty minutes after Reagan’s speech, as Carter was entering a car to return to his peanut farm, security officials inform him that the American hostages have taken off from Mehrabad Airport. But by then it was too late, and the Iranians, in addition to humiliating the American president, had also caused him to forever regret having been deprived of this honor.
Now the bitter experience of the 1981 exchange with Iran has taught a lesson to the Democrat Obama, the fifth president after Carter, more than anyone else. Perhaps it is for this reason that he doesn’t want details of what happened on the 17th of January 2016 to be reported. This is the least of America’s efforts to control the situation.
From there, the story changes, as on the very day that implementation of the JCPOA is to be announced, the Islamic Republic accepts the Americans’ proposal for the exchange of a number of prisoners. They happen to be several individuals that the Iranians themselves had in mind.
From the time of the arrest of four American nationals for the crime of espionage in Iran, the Americans’ pressure to free them had produced no results. American officials had repeatedly emphasized that the condition for the continuation of negotiations with Iran was the freedom of these very same American spies.
[Citing BBC Persian’s translation of a portion of Barack Obama’s 17 January 2016 Statement on Iran]: “On the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations, our diplomats at the highest level, including Secretary Kerry, used every meeting to push Iran to release our Americans.”
But when they were disappointed in obtaining their freedom, the negotiations continued so that at least, the pressure of international opinion on the American government would be reduced.
But the matter was complicated by the fact that Jason Rezaian, the primary subject of the exchange, had been arrested at least 500 days earlier by the security section of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. To the Americans, this meant that Jason’s release was part of a complex game played by the revolutionary institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran in order to challenge the Americans, just as happened to President Carter more than three decades earlier.
But this was not the Americans’ only worry. The Iranians had a costly proposal for the swap: the release of seven Iranians imprisoned in America, 1.7 billion dollars, and clearance of the names of 16 Iranians who, on the pretext of violating oppressive sanctions, had been placed on a list of those facing criminal prosecution in America. But this was not all that Iran wanted. The removal of Bank Sepah from the sanctions list was also added to Iran’s demands. All of this in exchange for the freedom of only four American nationals: a win-lose transaction in favor of the Islamic Republic of Iran and to the detriment of the American government.
The Democrats’ worries were primarily that Obama’s electoral rivals, in the days leading up to the presidential elections, would hammer current government officials with the details of this transaction, using legal arguments, just as happened to Carter. An outcome that, as predicted, came to pass.
[Citing a BBC Persian report]: “Most of the Republican presidential candidates criticized the release of the Iranian prisoners. [Quoting U.S. Senator Ted Cruz]: ‘You notice that the Obama Administration announces the good news and then hides the bad news? So the details are still coming out, but from what we understand, we’re releasing seven people who were incarcerated for violating the sanctions on Iran and helping Iran develop nuclear weapons. And there are another dozen or more who violated the law that we’ve agreed we’re just not going to prosecute.’”
“The American State Department said that international arrest warrants and accusations against fourteen Iranians had been rescinded because it was unlikely that a request that they be extradited to the United States would be workable.”
“A member of the American Congress has asked the country’s Secretary of State to explain the payment of $1.7 billion to Iran at the same time as the prisoner exchange between the two countries. Ed Royce, the Republican Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, in a letter to John Kerry wrote that the timing of the payment to Iran and the failure to inform Congress about it, made some worry that this sum was, in effect, ransom to Iran. Two weeks ago, the United States paid this amount to Iran to cover a principal sum of $400 million in Iranian property plus interest that had been frozen in the United States thirty five years ago.”
Another disturbing truth for America’s diplomatic apparatus is that this great victory was credited to the Revolutionary Guards, the Supreme National Security Council, and the security services of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and not to an American diplomatic success upon the implementation of the JPCOA.
[Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, cited in a television interview]: “They knew that we were not going to free the prisoners. Because we didn’t want anyone to suppose that these two were connected with each other. In fact, there was no connection. It was two courses that we had been pursuing, and coincidentally, they happened at the same time. Indeed, with all sincerity, it happened by chance.”
The story of the money sought by Iran goes back to the beginning of the victory of the Islamic Revolution. America blocked $400 million in Iranian assets that were to be delivered to Iran as military shipments. Now, in this exchange, the Iranians demand the entire $400 million in addition to $1.3 billion in deferred interest.
The morning of 17 January 2016, Mehrabad Airport. Four hundred million dollars in cash is transported to Iran by airplane. Shortly thereafter, part of the interest owed to Iran was paid, and the American government undertook to also pay the balance to Iran. For the first time since the beginning of negotiations between Iran and the United States, blocked Iranian assets were put at its disposal, with no ifs, ands, or buts, and with the approval of banks and regulatory agencies. That, too, in dollars. Interestingly, before this, America was trying to return Iran’s assets in the form of letters of credit, not dollars.
But the Americans’ worries were not over. The Americans’ new worry was over the release of Jason Rezaian. He, who was arrested for the crimes of espionage and targeting sanctions against Iran, is now simply released. In their opinion, something was not right with this story, the result of which might be that America was playing on the turf of the security services of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. All of this speaks to a complicated agreement, only part of which was revealed to the media: a decided victory for the Islamic Republic’s security services, precisely four days after the arrest of American sailors in the Persian Gulf, that too under circumstances wherein many experts have doubts about Western undertakings and losses in the JPCOA.