Opinion | The Iran prisoner deal continues a miserable cycle of hostage-taking

The homecoming this week of five Americans held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison is a relief for them, their families and friends. They can begin to heal after the trauma of their unjustified incarceration and their years of suffering. But, celebrations aside, their release is a reminder of the nature of the Iranian government — and that authoritarian regimes, with little regard for law or life, have continued to engage in state-sponsored hostage-taking, a barbaric practice that thrives on rewards and concessions from the United States and other nations.

In this case and others, such as Brittney Griner’s wrongful detention in Russia, the United States has taken pragmatic steps to save those imprisoned. These kinds of negotiations are never easy, and there is a strong hold-your-nose aspect to saving Americans stuck in stinking cells, incommunicado and without hope. These sorts of deals reward noxious regimes and encourage more hostage-taking.

The Biden administration agreed to swap five Iranians for five Americans and unlock $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue held in South Korea. The five Iranians receiving clemency had been charged with or convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as circumventing sanctions and, in one case, breaking the Foreign Agents Registration Act. According to the White House, two of the five have been in prison, with sentences about to expire; three were awaiting trial. But, make no mistake, there is no equivalency here: The Americans were arbitrarily and unjustly imprisoned in Iran, while the Iranians were charged or punished for violations in a nation governed by rule of law.

The Biden administration insists the $6 billion will be disbursed for humanitarian purposes only, under strict monitoring. But it is not without benefit for the economically strapped Iranian regime — it will undoubtedly free up other funds to spend on more nefarious purposes, such as buying weapons.

President Biden vowed to “remain unflinching” in his determination to repatriate Americans who have been wrongfully detained abroad, and noted correctly that “too many remain unjustly held in Russia, Venezuela, Syria, and elsewhere around the world.” Left unsaid is that these regimes see hostages as a currency to be traded for future gain, a dirty trafficking in humans by governments. Look no further than Russia, where Ms. Griner’s release in a Dec. 8 prisoner swap was followed by the detention on March 29 of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich, an accredited journalist who had worked in Russia for six years. He is clearly a hostage, nothing less.

Jason Rezaian: A top NSC official explains why Biden moved ahead with the Iran hostage deal

The harsh truth is that rewarding hostage-taking breeds more of the same. Rogue states clang the jail door shut and wait for the next payoff, and they almost never suffer consequences for stealing people off the street. The best deterrent would be for the United States and other nations to refuse to negotiate for the release of such hostages. But that has proved unattractive for U.S. officials, who have struck unbalanced deals to free innocent Americans from foreign cells. Such decisions can only inspire a mix of understanding and regret.

Optimists might regard the latest deal as a prelude to a thaw in the hostility between the United States and Iran. Yet it should also remind Americans of why they should treat Iran with extreme caution. Iran is now allied with Russia in the export and manufacture of deadly drones that are exploding on civilian targets in Ukraine, killing innocent people as they sleep. At home, the theocracy has confronted a year-long protest movement, led by women and students, with relentless coercion and violence. The demonstrators have demanded an end to obligatory wearing of a headscarf in public, a simple liberty, and they have been met with shooting, punishment and arrests. Mr. Biden sought to revive the Iran nuclear deal that President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, but the effort collapsed in August 2022, when Tehran balked at the final terms.

A thaw might revive those discussions. But, at every step, U.S. officials will have to evaluate with moral and practical clarity whether the price is really worth paying.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).



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