Iran has freed four dual-nationality prisoners, including an American/Iranian pastor and an American/Iranian Washington Post reporter who had been accused of working for the U.S. to foment regime change in Iran. The release was part of a prisoner swap, in which seven Iranians imprisoned in the U.S. over sanction violations were also freed. A fifth American was freed by Iran outside of the swap.
Within hours of the release, devastating international sanctions on Iran were lifted after international inspectors verified its compliance with the terms of last year’s nuclear deal between Iran and Western powers.
Taken together, the prisoner swap, Iran’s compliance with its nuclear-deal commitments, and the sanction relief mark what may be a historic thaw in relations between the U.S. and Iran. This, however, should not be exaggerated, as the U.S. continues many belligerent policies directed at Iran, especially in the realm of proxy warfare (see below).
The developments at least mark a short term political triumph for the chief negotiators of the nuclear deal: the administrations of U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani was elected on the basis of his campaign promise to negotiate detente with the U.S. and to accomplish economic relief from sanctions for the Iranian people. Parliamentary elections in Iran will be held late next month, making the lifting of the sanctions exceedingly well-timed for Rouhani’s political party.
Conversely, the thaw is a supreme setback to Rouhani’s political rivals, the hardliners in Iran who have strenuously opposed the nuclear deal.
The hardliners in the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia are certainly furious as well.
Israel strained to stop the nuclear deal, and has long pressed for escalation between the West and Iran, largely because of Iranian support for the militia Hezbollah, which has for decades successfully resisted Israeli incursions into Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia, which also opposed the deal, has, with American support, been waging a long sectarian proxy war against Shia Iran and what the extremist Sunni Saudis perceive as an “axis” of Iran-allied Shia powers. This war has included Saudi support for jihadis fighting in the U.S.-sponsored insurgency to overthrow the Iran-allied regime in Syria, and a U.S.-supported Saudi air war and starvation blockade of the desperately poor country of Yemen.
The hardliners in Washington, Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh must be especially frustrated, since just days ago they momentarily had what they thought was a surefire excuse to scupper the nuclear deal and escalate toward war. American military sailors had been detained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard after they had, for some unknown reason, entered Iranian territorial waters. It is conceivable that military hardliners on both sides had engineered the encounter to sabotage the developing detente. But for all the efforts of neocons and the American corporate media to blow it up into a new “hostage crisis,” the incident dissolved into nothing as quickly as it appeared. The Obama administration quickly apologized for the encroachment and the Rouhani administration quickly released the sailors unharmed.
Then came the prisoner swap, followed by the implementation of the nuclear deal. Once lifted, sanctions will be much harder for hawks to reimpose than they were to maintain. And as Iran continues to free potentially belligerent Americans engaged in suspicious conduct within Iranian territory, it is becoming increasingly difficult for anti-Iran warmongers to paint its regime as an implacable serial aggressor, especially as compared to the extremely militant recent policies of the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia.