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Inside the prison swap with Iran which freed Washington Post reporter

January 16, 2016 at 7:21 PM EST
Iran freed five Americans, including "Washington Post" reporter Jason Rezaian, who had been jailed 18 months on espionage charges that his newspaper called "trumped up". "The Post" said it couldn't be happier about his release. Rezaian and three other men freed, including a former marine and a pastor, are dual U.S. and Iranian citizens. Iran also released an American college student in its custody.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: In the hours leading up to certification, Iran freed five Americans, including “Washington Post” reporter Jason Rezaian, who had been jailed 18 months on espionage charges that his newspaper called “trumped up”. “The Post” said it couldn’t be happier about his release. Rezaian and three other men freed, including a former marine and a pastor, are dual U.S. and Iranian citizens. Iran also released an American college student in its custody.

In exchange, the U.S. granted clemency to seven Iranians imprisoned or charged with violating U.S. sanctions, and dropped charges against 14 others.

Joining me now for more analysis on today’s developments is Emad Kiyaei, the executive director of the American Iranian Council, a nonprofit, educational organization. He’s also a researcher at Princeton University.

How significant is what happened today?

EMAD KIYAEI, AMERICAN IRANIAN COUNCIL: First of all, thanks for having me.

This is a major breakthrough. It is very significant. And to your accounts (ph), we, first of all, have this return of Iranian-Americans who were held in jail in Iran, and of course, vice versa in the United States. Of course, the latest announcements of the IAEA, bringing in, ushering in the implementation for a nuclear deal. So, a very good day for the Iranians and for the international community as a whole

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right. So, this — there were two tracks, as Secretary Kerry mentioned, one the prison swap or humanitarian gesture, whatever you want to call it and then the Iranian deal itself. And really, he said these things merge expected accelerated because the relationships between him and Zarif were getting stronger over the two and a half years that they worked together.

EMAD KIYAEI: I totally agree with his assessment, especially because if you look at the two and a half years of negotiations, they were not only just intense. For the first time, the United States and Iran engaged directly with one another after 36 years of non-relations. So, you have a direct channel between Iran and the United States. Of course, that helps in this case, and in previous cases. In this past 100 hours, we have seen, even with the case of the Marines, the Navy, the 10 sailors released within 24 hours, this also came about because of the good relationship between Secretary John Kerry and his counterpart Javad Zarif.

HARI SREENIVASAN: They could have been used as pawns in a much longer chess game, right?

EMAD KIYAEI: Exactly. This wouldn’t have happened two and a half years ago, even a year ago, especially when the Revolutionary Guard itself had taken the sailors captive.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, tell me, does this change the international community’s perception of Iran like Iran wants it to be? They want to be at this stage, they want to be engaged in trade with the world.

EMAD KIYAEI: Well, this is how the current President Rouhani came into power, on the back of trying to remove Iran’s isolation from international community, resolve the nuclear issue, and, of course, revamp the Iranian economy that’s been under so much pressure because of sanctions.

So, Iran wants to rejoin the international community, more robust than before. And I think that this image of Iran, this trend is going in the right direction to bring about a new assessment from the American side on who they’re dealing with in the Iranian leadership.

And I hope that this nuclear deal, the prison exchange swap, and the release of the sailors is just one step towards opening up the relationship between the two countries on more pressing issues that they see eye to eye, may that be the security and stability in Afghanistan, in Iraq, the fight against ISIS, even Syria, Yemen, and energy security. There are lots at stake here and a lot on the table that they can still discuss

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the issues inside Iranian society that we as Americans would still have serious problems with?

EMAD KIYAEI: I mean, it depends on which ones. Obviously, in my opinion, the isolation of Iran did not help the human rights conditions of Iranians within the country. I’ve lived through engagement, through diplomacy, and through opening of Iran and engaging with the international community, we will see also within the country a more space for liberties, for human rights conditions improving, and when we close off a country, obviously, this becomes much more difficult to press a country to evolve or change its positions on such matters as you mentioned in the country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Emad Kiyaei, thanks so much for joining us.

EMAD KIYAEI: My pleasure. Thank you.

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