In Brief

What is behind the US-Iran prisoner swap?

Rare act of cooperation between longtime foes could signal thawing relations

A rare prisoner exchange between the US and Iran could have been orchestrated by Tehran to deflect attention from a recent brutal crackdown on mass domestic protests, the Trump administration believes.

In what Reuters called “a rare act of cooperation between two longtime foes whose ties have worsened since President Donald Trump took office”, Iran released Xiyue Wang, a US researcher who had been held for three years on spying charges.

The US followed suit, freeing Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani who had been facing charges of violating US sanctions against Tehran.

The releases came after four weeks of intensive negotiations facilitated by Switzerland, which has represented US diplomatic interests in Tehran since Washington cut diplomatic ties shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

A senior US official told CNN that it was hoped Wang’s release would lead to the freeing of other Americans held in Iran and that it was a sign Tehran was willing to discuss other issues.

The Financial Times says the prisoner swap “comes as tension remains high between Washington and Tehran, particularly as Iran faces increasing economic hardship after Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed tough sanctions”.

This has sent Iran’s currency into free fall, driving inflation above 40% and increasing import prices. Iran has recently been hit by widespread public protests over rising petrol prices, an increase the BBC reports is “partly linked to the US sanctions”.

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US officials have stressed that Washington did not provide any money, or ease sanctions, to secure Wang’s release. The New York Times reports that Trump administration officials believe Iran may have released the US researcher “in order to soften its image and deflect attention from a recent brutal crackdown on mass domestic protests”.

“American officials believe the unrest has left hundreds dead and as many as 7,000 imprisoned”, the newspaper adds.

The diplomatic breakthrough will pile further pressure on the British government to secure the release of Iranian-British aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in Iran since April 2016.

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