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U.S.-Iran Prisoner Swap: A Tiny Open Window Between the U.S. and Iran?

June 6, 2020 (EIRNS)—Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran who had been imprisoned in Iran since 2018 on a security related charge, and Iranian physician Majid Taheri, who had been similarly imprisoned in the U.S., are both on the way to their respective homes, it was announced on June 4. The two releases are not being officially described as a prisoner swap, but nonetheless, both of their names figured in talks mediated by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. Bill Richardson, former Governor of New Mexico and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, played a key role in the discussion, on behalf of White’s family, which went through a “humanitarian window” that remains open between the U.S. and Iran. The 48-year-old White, a cancer survivor, had been furloughed from prison when he caught COVID-19, and had been placed in the custody of the Swiss Embassy.

Richardson confirmed that the timing of the releases of Michael White and Iranian Majid Taheri, a Florida-based Iranian-American doctor, was no accident. “It may not necessarily be a prisoner swap per se, but it’s a joint humanitarian effort on both sides that is not concurrent,” Richardson told Al-Monitor. “It shows hopefully the possibility of more joint releases like this.” Richardson said he had been involved in discussions over the possible release of White for some nine months, including meetings with Iran’s UN Ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi and with Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. About six weeks ago, Richardson said the Iranians informed him that they wanted Taheri in exchange for White—information he says he passed along to both the U.S. State Department and the White House.

“I think some of these negotiations were complicated by the enormous tension in the relationship,” Richardson said. “I think it seems to be getting worse every day.” He went on, “There’s a little window on humanitarian issues that exists between the U.S. and Iran that have allowed these releases to happen.”

In the aftermath of White’s release, President Trump expressed his gratitude to the Iranians, and offered talks. “Don’t wait until after U.S. Election.... I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!” Trump tweeted.

In response, Zarif made it clear that the Iranian position remains unchanged, and threw the ball back into Trump’s court, saying the President should rather “fix” the accord by reinstating it, instead of renegotiating it. “We had a deal when you entered office. Your advisors—most fired by now—made a dumb bet.” He also stressed that the prisoner swap was a humanitarian deal achieved despite efforts by Trump’s “subordinates” to block it.

Al Monitor points to a recent message posted by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, implying a potential change in his policy toward the U.S. Khamenei lauded the “bravery” and “sacrifices” by a holy Shi’ite figure who “gave in to peace” with his enemies for the sake of “expediency.” The message has been interpreted as preparation for more “heroic flexibility,” a notion Khamenei introduced in 2013. It served as the green light for Iranian negotiators to engage with Western powers, including the United States, in talks that culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015.

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