As the Biden administration heralds the forthcoming release of five U.S. citizens detained by Iran, President Joe Biden is also confronting questions about the price being paid to bring them — and other detainees — home.
The billions of dollars being unfrozen for Iran and the release of five prisoners charged in America are just the latest sizable concessions by the U.S. government in the name of securing the freedom of wrongfully detained Americans.
In the past year alone, a notorious arms dealer was exchanged for a WNBA star imprisoned in Russia on a minor drug offense and a major drug lord was traded for a civilian contractor held by the Taliban. And though the U.S, doesn’t control the $6 billion in Iranian funds, it's removing a critical obstacle to their release as the main price for the homecoming of five American citizens, giving Iran a much-needed boost for its struggling economy.
The administration's deals with adversaries have in some instances drawn scorn from congressional Republicans who see them as tantamount to ransom payments. But each time, officials have said bringing home Americans held by foreign adversaries is a core administration priority that necessarily comes at a heavy cost. Increasingly, the Biden White House has appeared willing to pay it.
“Iran is not going to release these American citizens out of the goodness of their heart,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters about the latest deal, expected to unfold as soon as this coming week. “That is not real life. That is not how this works. That was never going to happen. We have to make tough choices and engage in tough negotiations to bring these American citizens home.”
Nonetheless, Republicans are accusing the Biden administration of conceding too much again, encouraging more detentions and boosting the Iranian economy at a time when Iran poses a growing threat to U.S. troops and Mideast allies.
“There’s NO downside for dictatorships, like Iran or Russia, to take Americans hostage,” Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “With Biden, these regimes always get a good deal in the end, and that’s why they’ll keep doing it.”
And the latest deal hardly signals a lasting breakthrough in relations. Tensions remain high, with the U.S. announcing more sanctions Friday to mark the anniversary of the death of an Iranian woman while in the custody of the country’s morality police.
The Biden administration is, of course, hardly unique in prisoner swaps. The Trump administration engaged in similar deals, with former President Donald Trump inviting some Americans who'd been freed under his watch to appear with him at the 2020 Republican National Convention. The Obama administration in a 2016 deal that drew consternation granted clemency to seven Iranians charged in the U.S. in exchange for the release by Iran of four Americans. The U.S. also made a $400 million cash payment.
But there's also no question that Americans jailed abroad are coming home at a record clip, including cases that might once have seemed intractable. One of the U.S. citizens set to be released from Iran, Siamak Namazi, has been detained since 2015 on internationally criticized spying charges.
The largest number of publicly known releases of “wrongfully detained” Americans — a formal designation used by the U.S. government — occurred in 2022, according to a new report by the James W. Foley Foundation, which advocates for hostages and detainees and their families. Twenty-five were freed between the start of last year and this past July 31, most through diplomatic engagement, the report said.
Danielle Gilbert, a Northwestern University political science professor who researches hostage matters, said the administration has demonstrated a willingness to make difficult, even controversial, decisions to recover hostages and detainees. The political blowback it faces reflects the inherent imbalance to the swaps, which involve American citizens that Washington regards as unjustly detained and foreigners it sees as lawfully convicted.
“There is no deal that will ever be fair when we are dealing with our adversaries to bring home hostages,” she said. “It's unfair. It's unjust. It's not like a normal business transaction or trade of players between sports teams. There's never going to be a deal that we feel great about in terms of the sacrifices that are made.”
Some prisoners the U.S. released were ones the Justice Department had once told courts were acute threats to society.
The U.S., for instance, gave up Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout — his nickname is “The Merchant of Death” — in a swap with Moscow that brought home basketball star Brittney Griner, the most prominent American held abroad. Some Republicans reacted angrily to the swap, especially since another detained American, Marine veteran Paul Whelan, was not part of the deal. Months later, another American, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, was arrested in Russia. He remains detained.
When the Taliban in September 2022 freed American contractor Mark Frerichs, the U.S. released Taliban drug lord Bashir Noorzai, who had spent 17 years behind bars for what the Justice Department said was overseeing the distribution of mass quantities of heroin on American streets.
The release of seven jailed Americans by Venezuela last October came at the cost of the U.S. giving up two nephews of President Nicolás Maduro’s wife jailed for years on narcotics convictions.
The contours of the new Iran deal came into focus Monday with the revelation that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had issued a blanket waiver for international banks to transfer $6 billion in frozen Iranian money from South Korea to Qatar without fear of U.S. sanctions, part of a deal that also envisions a swap of five Americans in Iran for five Iranians charged in the U.S.
U.S. officials have sought to defend the new exchange, noting that the frozen funds belong to the Iranians and insisting that Washington will have oversight of how that money is spent. Even so, Iran wouldn’t be getting access to the money without U.S. consent, and President Ebrahim Raisi said in an NBC News interview that his government would decide to "spend it wherever we need it.”
The five Iranians who appear poised for release aren't prominent defendants. They are accused or in some instances convicted in prosecutions that for the most part involve allegations of sanctions violations. One defendant on the list, an Iranian who's a permanent resident of the U.S., was charged in 2019 with stealing engineering plans from his employer to send to Iran; another is accused of failing to register as a foreign agent on Iran’s behalf while lobbying U.S. officials on issues like nuclear policy.
It's hard to quantify how much the reliance on prisoner swaps directly incentivizes future hostage-taking. But Gilbert, the Northwestern professor, said it's worth developing solutions to deter and punish adversaries in the first place, without relying on uncomfortable concessions.
“The most important thing from where I sit is figuring out, apart from these negotiations, is how do we stop this going forward,” she said.