Saturday’s prisoner exchange between Iran and the United States symbolizes the potential for profound change in relations between the two countries. It wraps the announcement of the implementation of the nuclear deal and the removal of sanctions against Tehran in a positive spin. It provides President Barack Obama with a significant PR boost, just as it deprives the GOP of a potent political weapon: the continued detention of the four Iranian-Americans had been a favored tool to hammer both Obama and the deal.
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Although Iran remains a dangerous, aggressive, terror-supporting state, the positive conclusion of the secret negotiations on the prisoner release – together with the quick resolution of the captured U.S. sailors in the Persian Gulf last week – enforce the perception that moderates are gaining strength in Tehran; that they are complying with their commitments under the nuclear deal (as the IAEA confirmed Saturday); and that they wish to put Iran on a less belligerent course in the international arena. Obama and his officials view the cup as half full; they believe that the moderates should be strengthened through compromise and dialogue. Their critics and adversaries see the cup as half empty; they prefer a policy of force and intimidation.
Israel, together with some of Iran’s Sunni enemies in the Middle East, adheres to the second school of thought. Jerusalem tends to interpret any perceived softening in Iranian positions as camouflage for its malicious intentions. Sources in Washington have no expectation that the prisoner swap will be viewed any differently. The removal of sanctions, also announced Saturday, will likewise be seen as an almost mortal blow.
Among Israelis who are engaged in national security intelligence and assessments, there are many who discern a much more complex landscape than the black-and-white picture emanating from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Their voices, however, grow steadily fainter, for fear of the harsh criticism repeatedly leveled at them by cabinet ministers and apprehension that their careers would suffer as a result. Thus, Israel exempts itself from examining whether new opportunities exist that might require some adjustments – never mind a complete overhaul – in its single-minded policy toward Iran.
In the eyes of the Obama administration, though, the release and start of the deal provide confirmation, however fleeting, of the triumph of diplomacy and discreet dialogue over confrontation and public polemics. In an impressive display of self-discipline, Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other administration officials refrained from responding to harsh criticism over their supposedly tepid reaction to the capture of the U.S. sailors, as well as their decision last week to put off new sanctions against Iran for its ballistic missile launches. But the surprising release of the prisoners may legitimize their actions retroactively, and could also neutralize the damage caused by the photos of the sailors in captivity at the very least. Some U.S. officials have promised, meanwhile, that new sanctions would be announced a few hours after the implementation of the nuclear deal was launched.
The prisoner release was guaranteed a positive reception by the media – even in some of its more conservative quarters – because of the inclusion of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, whose imprisonment yielded intense media coverage and greater pressure on the administration to get him released. The same may be true of Evangelicals, who had lobbied for the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini, a convert from Islam. Many others were disappointed, however, that former FBI employee Robert Levinson, a part-time contractor for the CIA arrested on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007, had not been included in the deal, other than an Iranian commitment to help look for him. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before Obama is also accused of abandoning Levinson because he’s Jewish.
Republican presidential candidates quickly adjusted to developments, with Marco Rubio leading the pack by claiming the swap only encouraged Iran “and other terrorists” to seek out more hostages. On the other end of the spectrum stood Rand Paul, who slammed his party’s naysayers by expressing hope that Iran would henceforth behave “in a more civilized manner.” Donald Trump summed up the situation by saying, “They’re getting $150 billion plus seven people, and we get four people. That’s not good.”
Apparently Trump finds no value whatsoever in the fact that in order to reach implementation, Iran had to deactivate 13,000 centrifuges, remove 98 percent of its enriched uranium, neutralize the plutonium-producing capabilities of the reactor at Arak, and agree to much more frequent and forceful international monitoring. Critics claim that all these measure are reversible and their expiration dates are set in advance: apparently a hiatus of 10-15 years in which Iran’s nuclear threat will effectively be removed is but a mere trifle in their eyes.
Israel, along with the American right, has adopted a pessimistic if not fatalistic view of Iran, Islam and the Middle East. In recent years, it’s been very difficult to argue with them. The prisoner release, symbolically, and the nuclear deal, strategically, point to the possibility of a happier ending: Many believe that the next step is enhanced Iranian-U.S. collaboration in the fight against their common enemy, ISIS. After that, who knows, perhaps Tehran might even decide to rejoin the rational world.