How the Trump admin’s prisoner swap photo-op complicated future exchanges with Iran
The Trump administration says it wants a deal with Iran. And on only one front, it’s been able to get one.
“By starting from a principled position of strength, we have brought two Americans, Xiyue Wang and Michael White, back to the United States from Iranian detention,” Elliott Abrams, the State Department official in charge of Iranian and Venezuelan affairs, told the Senate on September 24. “And there was no payment for the Americans, no sanctions relief granted, and no pallets of cash loaded on planes to the Iranian regime in exchange for their release.”
Abrams said the negotiations to release the American prisoners should be a model for how the United States approaches Tehran, adding, “We are committed to bringing every American home who is wrongfully detained abroad. Our team works every single day – literally every single day – to make that happen.”
Except Abrams is not telling the full truth. Wang and White only came home because of the work of private hostage negotiators, who carried sensitive messages between Iranian authorities and the U.S. Justice Department, as the New Yorker, CNN, and Al Monitor have reported. The State Department dragged its feet on doing any diplomacy with Iran at all, only jumping in at the last minute to take credit.
But the full story is even worse, as Responsible Statecraft has learned. By meddling with these private negotiations, an official at the State Department actually jeopardized future prisoner swaps. Abrams’s predecessor, Brian Hook, turned quiet negotiations for Xiyue Wang’s freedom into a loud public affair — angering the Justice Department — while he told Iran not to listen to the private negotiators anymore.
All the while, another American was still languishing in prison.
“Michael White was in play, and their taking credit and excluding us might have delayed Michael White’s [release],” former New Mexico governor and private negotiator Bill Richardson said. “With Hook, it was very political: ‘I want the credit.’ It delayed Michael White’s return.”
And the prisoners’ return did not exactly come for free, either. The United States traded two Iranian academics — both of whom were held in U.S. custody on charges the government later realized they were innocent of — and an Iranian-American doctor for Wang and White’s freedom.
Iran and the United States are playing a dangerous game of hostage diplomacy, while innocent Americans continue to languish in Iranian prisons. The next administration will not only have to end the U.S.-Iranian nuclear standoff, it will also need a diplomatic reset to get Americans home free.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said last week that Iran is open to more prisoner exchanges. Will the United States take up his offer?
The official story
“Elliott Abrams and I over the years have worked well on a number of issues, and we are working together on the Venezuela hostages in a positive way. However, I disagree with the statement that he made that it was maximum pressure that brought the hostages back,” Richardson told Responsible Statecraft. “In both releases of Americans — Wang and White — there was a clear exchange.”
The story of the exchanges has been widely reported.
Iranian authorities arrested Princeton historian Xiyue Wang in 2016, soon after the Obama administration had concluded a prisoner exchange with Iran and agreed to pay off a decades-old, $1.7 billion debt to the country.
Wang later wrote in Foreign Affairs that his captors had asked him to sign a false confession so that they could “demand monetary payment and a prisoner exchange from the United States.”
But another hostage exchange was not forthcoming. Trump had been elected president in 2016, promising to take a harder line on Iran. He was particularly fixated on the image of Iran getting “actual cash, carried out in barrels and in boxes from airplanes.”
The new president tore up an earlier nuclear agreement with Iran and imposed harsh economic sanctions that banned most trade with Iranians.
But there was a breakthrough. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif publicly announced in April 2019 that he was willing to do a prisoner exchange.
Wang’s lawyers reached out to former Democratic Congressman Jim Slattery, who was college friends with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, as the New Yorker first reported.
Slattery joined forces with Richardson, who had handled sensitive negotiations with North Korea and was now leading a crack team of hostage negotiators dedicated to rescuing Americans held by criminal organizations and enemy regimes.
Zarif told Slattery and Richardson during a U.N. meeting in September 2019 that he was willing to swap Wang for Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian academic accused of violating U.S. trade laws. The informal negotiators talked to prosecutors in Soleimani’s case, hammering out a favorable plea deal for Soleimani and convincing the Iranians to let Wang go free in return.
The deal was ready to go through in December 2019, when Richardson and Slattery were suddenly cut out of the loop. The State Department began speaking directly to Iran through the Swiss Embassy in Iran, which handles U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Soleimani, and the United States and Iran traded their prisoners in a very public display at an airport in Switzerland.
“Typically, the Trump administration does not like to share credit, but this is a happy outcome, so we shouldn’t fight over getting credit,” Richardson told the New Yorker at the time.
Richardson is adamant that credit doesn’t matter. He emphasized to Responsible Statecraft that he coordinated closely with the U.S. government and praised the Trump administration for beefing up the State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
But the issue was not only a fight over credit. The swap was supposed to have been the first of a two-part exchange, and Responsible Statecraft has learned that the State Department’s actions may have actually jeopardized the second phase.
“The Justice Department made it very clear to me that they were opposed to prisoner swaps that undermined the integrity of the department,” Slattery told Responsible Statecraft. “The State Department made it look like a swap when it didn’t have to be a swap.”
He said that the plea deal had been possible because prosecutors had seen “the writing on the wall,” and realized that they had “basically lost control of the case against Dr. Soleimani.”
The prosecutors still needed approval from their superiors, so Richardson’s team had to approach them very carefully to gain it.
Mickey Bergman, a senior member of Richardson’s team, describes a November 2019 meeting with Justice Department officials. Richardson’s team told them that no one should interfere in the judicial process, but the prosecution should “keep in the back of their minds that an American life is at stake” when they considered Soleimani’s plea bargain.
“They just nodded, and we left,” Bergman says.
It was supposed to have been a “hush-hush” affair, according to Mehrnoush Yazdanyar, one of the attorneys on Soleimani’s case.
“They were very clear that the United States policy was that we do not engage in prisoner exchanges,” she said. “That was something they were very clear about, that they wanted to highlight, over and over.”
The State Department was opposed to talks with Iran. After all, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was pushing for a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran. Pompeo had even threatened to quit the Trump administration if Trump met with Zarif in mid-2019, according to a recent memoir by former national security adviser John Bolton.
Bolton, to his credit, supported the hostage talks, according to Bergman. So did Bolton’s successor, Robert O’Brien.
Four days before the deal was set to go forward, the State Department’s Iran envoy Brian Hook “realized this was happening, with or without him,” Bergman said.
Then pressure came from above to drop the plea deal.
“Something very quickly changed,” Yazdanyar said. “You know when you have a moment in your career or in your life when you realize, wow, so much is going on in so many different places, behind a curtain or way above your head?”
The new, public prisoner deal undermined the progress that Richardson and Slattery had made with both the Iranian and U.S. sides.
“[F]irst, it demonstrated inconsistency vis-a-vis the Iranians. We worked on one deal for months, and then suddenly a new deal that violates what was articulated as U.S. guidelines (no prisoner swaps on a tarmac) interrupts,” Bergman wrote in an email to Responsible Statecraft. “Second, instead of having [Soleimani] pleading guilty and thus maintaining the integrity of the U.S. judicial process, [Soleimani] left the U.S. after all charges against him were dropped.”
He added that Hook had told the Iranians not to treat Richardson’s team as “authorized representatives” anymore.
Bergman confirmed that the State Department’s actions on the Wang case caused “roadblocks” in later negotiations.
Governments often run into “trade-offs” when using “intermediaries” like Richardson for “hostage diplomacy,” according to Dr. Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“On the one hand, intermediaries may be able to say and do things that U.S. government officials can’t, offering concessions that become crucial for bringing a hostage home,” she says. “On the other hand, introducing intermediaries creates a principal-agent problem: intermediaries may have their own incentives that clash with U.S. interests and priorities.”
The Trump administration did not follow up on Richardson’s success with more diplomacy. Instead, it doubled down on the economic pressure, unleashing a torrent of new sanctions on multiple sectors of the Iranian economy the same day as the prisoner swap.
A few weeks later, U.S. forces killed Iranian major general Qassem Soleimani (no relation to Dr. Soleimani) in Iraq, kicking off a near all-out war and shutting down further negotiations for the time being.
A miracle deal
The coronavirus pandemic resurrected chances for a deal for Michael White’s freedom, as first reported by CNN.
White was a cancer survivor, so Richardson’s team asked Iran to release him on medical grounds in March 2020. Iranian authorities agreed to grant him a temporary furlough, and just in time — White had to be rushed to the hospital for coronavirus symptoms soon after leaving prison.
The Iranians told Richardson’s team that they wanted Dr. Sirous Asgari, an Iranian academic in U.S. immigration detention who had also caught coronavirus. It was another reciprocal exchange — a medical evacuation for a medical evacuation.
But progress in the talks was “stalling” on the U.S. side, so White’s supporters attempted to speed things up, a source familiar with the negotiations told Responsible Statecraft.
A spokesman for the White family wrote on Twitter on March 26 that Richardson had “graciously delivered the family’s request directly to senior Iranian officials for an immediate humanitarian medical evacuation.”
The statement insinuated “that Richardson [was] making progress regardless” of the U.S. government, the source familiar with negotiations said, and it “worked like a charm.” The Trump administration began talking to Iran through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.
Iran then asked Richardson for Dr. Matteo Taerri, another doctor involved in the Soleimani case. (Taerri was born Majid Taheri in Iran, and first came to the United States as a political refugee.) Taerri’s lawyers were asking for him to be released due to an unnamed medical condition, according to court records.
Richardson successfully sold the Trump administration on a “two-for-one” deal.
Prosecutors told a judge in April that they wanted to grant Taerri a medical release “solely based on the significant foreign policy interests of the United States.” The next month, Asgari’s wife told him that there was “a special plan for [his] return” involving the Swiss Embassy, Asgari told Responsible Statecraft in an email.
Asgari was then transferred to New Orleans International Airport and witnessed “uncharacteristically nice behavior” from the immigration agents sent to escort him.
“They told me that I was a very important person; my case was a unique case and that they would have treated me differently if they were in charge from the beginning,” he noted. “I replied that it was a little too late to say that.”
Asgari arrived in Iran on June 3. U.S. officials denied that he was part of a prisoner swap, but Taerri and White were both released to their respective home countries on June 8.
“You may recall that in early March we were able to negotiate Michael’s medical furlough on humanitarian grounds, and that was conditioned upon him staying in Iran, but we kept up the diplomacy and were able to secure his full release yesterday,” Hook told reporters at the time.
“I don’t have any comment on Bill Richardson,” he added in response to a question about the private negotiators’ role. “That’s something that you would have to ask Michael’s mother.”
Hook left the State Department in August 2020. He was replaced by Abrams, with whom Richardson says he has a much better relationship.
Taking prisoners as bargaining chips
There is still much work to be done on the hostage issue.
Iranian authorities convicted Siamak and Baquer Namazi, an Iranian-American father-son duo, of espionage in 2016. They are still in an Iranian prison. So is the Iranian-American environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, the French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, the British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, and the British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
“The use of prisoners as bargaining chips in order to coerce other governments to provide concessions is a cruel strategy that the Islamic Republic has been using, and it has to end,” wrote 32 academics and diplomats in a September letter published by the Namazi family, which warns that the elder Namazi may not live much longer.
Iran has jailed many Americans on specious charges of spying over the years. The arrests are often motivated by a combination of paranoia about “infiltration” and clashes between “competing security agencies,” says Sina Toossi, a senior research analyst at the National Iranian American Council.
“Iran is not a monolithic country,” Toossi emphasizes, and many elements of the state “don’t want the country to open up.”
But Iran is not the only country trading in hostages. Soleimani, Taerri, and Asgari’s cases were all highly politicized.
“I’m not convinced that the case against Dr. Soleimani was meritorious,” Slattery told Responsible Statecraft. “It was a travesty that he was imprisoned for more than a year.”
Years before his arrest, Soleimani had needed laboratory supplies that were not easily available in Iran, so he asked a few contacts living in the United States to bring the supplies. U.S. authorities considered this to be a violation of sanctions law, confiscating laboratory equipment and medical samples from Taerri and two of Soleimani’s other associates in 2015 and 2016.
They sat on the case for years without filing charges.
Authorities waited until Soleimani was on an academic trip to the United States in 2018 to pounce. They quietly arrested Soleimani’s associates across the country, then revoked Soleimani’s passport while he was on a plane to Chicago and arrested him at the airport.
One of the prosecutors in the case argued to a judge that it is “frankly irrelevant” whether “Dr. Taerri had an innocent use” for the laboratory supplies, because he did not have a license to export them to Iran, according to court records.
Yazdanyar, who served as one of Soleimani’s attorneys, told Responsible Statecraft that the case against Soleimani was “erroneous,” as there was “absolutely no nefarious use” for the laboratory supplies he wanted.
It “clearly falls within the definition of medicine and medical goods,” Yazdanyar claims. “You don’t even need a [U.S. Treasury] license for those goods.”
The shakiness of the case is why the prosecutors had been willing to offer a plea deal in the first place, as Slattery said. Soleimani and Taerri were traded to Iran, and prosecutors quietly dropped the charges against the two other people involved in the case.
America’s own hostages
Asgari was even more straightforwardly a hostage.
He had been approached by the FBI and asked to be an informant while doing research at an Ohio lab in 2013, the New Yorker recently revealed. Asgari refused. The FBI accused him of stealing secrets, and arrested Asgari when he returned to the United States to visit family in 2017.
The case was shaky from the start. A federal judge slammed the FBI’s “misleading” conduct, and eventually threw out the charges entirely in November 2019.
But immediately after his acquittal, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained Asgari. His visa had never been stamped, and it may have even been a fake visa issued by the FBI.
Asgari languished in immigrant detention. He wanted to buy his own ticket home immediately, but the U.S. government claimed that it had to wait until February for Iran to certify his passport.
Then-U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service director Ken Cuccinelli told AP News that the U.S. government then tried its hardest to deport Asgari, reserving seats on several different flights that were each cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Asgari disputes Cuccinelli’s account. He says that the government only attempted to deport him once, on March 18, before the flight was cancelled due to the pandemic.
In April 2020, after months in immigration detention, Asgari contracted coronavirus.
“He should have been deported long before the pandemic started,” Yazdanyar, who also assisted with Asgari’s case, told Responsible Statecraft. “He wanted to self-deport. He wanted to leave.”
Asgari had never wanted to be part of a prisoner exchange, he told the New Yorker. But that’s what it took to get him out of immigration detention, even after he won his court case and contracted a deadly virus.
Two weeks ago, yet another trumped-up U.S. legal case against an Iranian made headlines.
Iranian-American businessman Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad had been accused in 2018 of running an elaborate sanctions-busting scheme involving Iran and Venezuela. He was convicted in 2020, and prosecutors presented the case as proof that “U.S. economic sanctions against Iran are for real, and violators will be exposed and prosecuted.”
But the case against Hashemi Nejad suddenly fell apart soon after his conviction. Emails were unearthed revealing that prosecutors had tried to “bury” evidence proving his innocence, and Hashemi Nejad was exonerated. The judge slammed the Justice Department for its behavior — and ordered every federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York to read her ruling on the Hashemi Nejad case as a warning.
There is no indication that Iran has agreed to release any more Americans in exchange for Hashemi Nejad.
Yazdanyar would like the political “game” of “arresting someone just to strike a deal” to stop.
“Iranian-Americans get pressured when they go to Iran,” says Yazdanyar, who immigrated from Iran to the United States in 1983. “They get pressured when they come to America.”
Of course, there is an important difference. Americans can criticize their government freely, which makes Yazdanyar “proud.” But that doesn’t mean the U.S. government is perfect.
“Xiyue Wang did nothing wrong, but how was that any different from Dr. Asgari’s arrest? How was that any different from Dr. Soleimani’s arrest?” asks Yazdanyar. “I believe in certain principles. It doesn’t matter if Iran does it, or America does it, or Canada does it, or China does it.”
Taerri’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the Justice or State Departments.