In a reprieve from the usual bellicose rhetoric, President Donald Trump thanked the leaders of Iran for swapping an American prisoner with a detained Iranian scientist. Senior officials, however, told a different story.
Princeton scholar Xiyue Wang left Iran for the US on Saturday morning, while Iranian Scientist Massoud Soleimani returned to Tehran from America. Wang had been in Iranian custody since 2016 and was serving a ten-year term on espionage charges, while Soleimani was arrested in Chicago last year for sanctions violations and was awaiting trial.
The prisoner exchange came after weeks of negotiations, a senior US official told reporters on Saturday. President Trump later thanked Iran for “a very fair negotiation,” and suggested that the swap was proof “we can make a deal together.”
Taken during the Obama Administration (despite $150 Billion gift), returned during the Trump Administration. Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together! https://t.co/rZaY9p8xzV
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2019
Relations between Washington and Tehran have declined sharply since Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran Deal) last year. The deal had offered Iran some sanctions relief in exchange for a halt to its nuclear program, yet Washington reapplied these sanctions in the months following the withdrawal.
The situation deteriorated even further this summer, when Washington blamed the Islamic Republic for a series of sabotage attacks on oil tankers and infrastructure in the Persian Gulf and beefed up its military presence in the region.
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With tensions simmering, the prisoner exchange can be seen as a triumph of diplomacy over threats, and Trump’s tweet is perhaps his most positive statement towards Iran to date. However, an administration official told reporters on Saturday that the US’ “maximum pressure” campaign is highly effective, and was responsible for Wang’s release – suggesting that a shift towards diplomacy may be wishful thinking.
Far from wearing down the will of the Iranian government, “maximum pressure” has only served to harden its rhetoric, and punish ordinary Iranian citizens. Iranian leaders have repeatedly blamed US sanctions for the country’s humanitarian woes, and Saturday’s exchange in all likelihood took place despite the pressure campaign, not because of it.
One US official told reporters that Trump remains committed to holding talks with Iran “with no preconditions.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also said this week that he is willing to sit down and talk, as long as “America is prepared to lift and put aside its wrong, cruel, unlawful, incorrect, terrorist sanctions.”
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