Prisoner swap: Obama’s secret second channel to Iran

Robin Wright writes: urteen months ago, President Obama authorized a top-secret, second diplomatic channel with Tehran to negotiate freedom for Americans who had disappeared or been imprisoned in Iran. It was a high-risk diplomatic gamble. The initiative grew out of nuclear negotiations, launched in the fall of 2013, between Iran and the world’s six major powers. On the margins of every session, Wendy Sherman, the top American negotiator, pressed her Iranian counterparts about the American cases. The Iranians countered with demands for the release of their citizens imprisoned in the United States for sanctions-busting crimes. More than a year of informal discussions between Sherman and her counterpart, Majid Takht Ravanchi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry official in charge of American and European affairs, led to an agreement, in late 2014, that the issue should be handled separately — but officially — through a second channel. After debate within the Administration, Obama approved the initiative. But it was so tightly held that most of the American team engaged in tortuous negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program were not told about it.

What heightened the risk was the fact that the new Iranian team was headed by a senior intelligence official, a sharp departure from the traditional but still tentative diplomatic channels with the Iranian Foreign Ministry developed in the nuclear talks. The involvement of Iranian intelligence made prospects far more unpredictable — and potentially controversial. Brett McGurk, a senior State Department official, headed the small American team, which also included officials from the Department of Justice, the F.B.I., and the intelligence community. The meetings — facilitated by the Swiss government and often held in Geneva — repeatedly hit snags, complications, legal hurdles, and last-minute demands. The swap — officially referred to as a “humanitarian gesture” — came close to fruition three times over more than a year of secret meetings, only to collapse again and again, an Iranian official said. [Continue reading…]

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