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5 Americans held in Iran for years are back in the U.S. following prisoner exchange

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Five Americans that were held in Iran for years are back in the U.S. following a prisoner exchange deal with Iran. For its part, Tehran gains access to billions in its own frozen oil revenues and the release of five Iranians imprisoned in the U.S. So where does this deal leave relations between the U.S. and Iran going forward? We've called on Barbara Slavin, distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, an international relations think tank here in Washington. And her focus is the Middle East and North Africa. Good morning, Barbara.

BARBARA SLAVIN: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So does this prisoner exchange actually signal a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations?

SLAVIN: I would call it a slight de-escalation, but I would not call it a thaw. You know, I sometimes feel like we're in a kind of infinite loop with Iran. We make some progress, and then we have setbacks. And we've had repeated hostage crises going back to 1979, 1981, when 52 Americans were held hostage, 52 American diplomats. So it seems somehow, we cannot get out of this rut that we're in with Iran.

FADEL: Now, for the families of these Americans, this is something they've been begging their government to address, bring their loved ones home. It's happening. But critics of the deal say even if this money is supposed to be spent on humanitarian goods, the U.S. paid to get its citizens out. And this will embolden other adversaries to capture or detain U.S. citizens and use them to get what they want from the U.S. What do you make of that argument?

SLAVIN: I don't think it holds water. You know, I think this was a really ingenious way of getting these five Americans home. And welcome home to them, by the way. This was Iran's money. It was legally earned by Iran by exporting oil to South Korea. It was held in South Korean banks because the South Koreans couldn't figure out ways to transfer the funds. But it was technically legal to use that money for humanitarian purchases, which have never been sanctioned. So I don't think this argument is really valid. Of all the ways in which we freed hostages in Iran over the years, this is probably the most benign.

FADEL: What does it do for the Iranian government under President Ebrahim Raisi? I mean, it comes at a time that the government there continues to crush popular opposition. It also comes at a time where there's a lot of anger over the economic conditions in Iran with all of these sanctions.

SLAVIN: I don't think it does much for him. I mean, I think it's fair to say that he is perhaps among the most unpopular presidents that Iran has ever had. He was barely elected. Very few people turned out to vote in 2021. You pointed out Iran's economy has been in extremely poor shape. Now, that's partly because of U.S. sanctions, which were reimposed by the Trump administration when they quit the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. But a lot of it also has to do with mismanagement and corruption and Iran's decision to double down on relationships with Russia and China under U.S. sanctions.

FADEL: Now, these sanctions on the Iranian government - they are aimed at wearing down hard-liners, depriving it of funds in order for it to come in line with some of what the world wants, including curbing its nuclear ambitions. Does that undermine that strategy, this deal?

SLAVIN: No, I don't think it does. And frankly, I have a lot of problems with the sanctions strategy altogether. I think it tends to hurt ordinary people...

FADEL: Yeah.

SLAVIN: ...Much more than it does people in the regime. And it supports corruption. It supports smuggling, and it has pushed Iran, frankly, into this look east direction, doubling down on relationships with Russia and China. So I think we need a major rethink on broad economic sanctions, even as we put individual sanctions on Iranians who are involved in human rights abuses.

FADEL: And very quickly, when you say a rethink, is this deal possibly first step towards that rethink of that relationship with Iran and the U.S.?

SLAVIN: I would love to think so, but I have my doubts. Again, I think we have to figure out a different way of approaching Iran, and Iran has to figure out a different way of approaching the United States.

FADEL: Barbara Slavin, distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. Barbara, thank you for your insights.

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

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