Chicago Tribune: Iran, nukes and the hostage drama

JAN. 18, 2016 — First things first: It is terrific to see Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian freed after 544 days as a hostage in Iran. He and three other Americans of Iranian descent were released Saturday in exchange for U.S. prosecutors pardoning or dropping cases against 21 Iranians. A fifth American — a student — also was released, although his case was said to be unrelated.

The prisoner exchange punctuated a Cold War-esque day of drama as the Iranian nuclear deal with the West kicked in and economic sanctions lifted. Tehran will now reap billions of dollars, a vital infusion for its crippled economy.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the prisoner release deal should “remind us once again of diplomacy’s power.”

It also reminded us of the power of a rogue regime to seize hostages on trumped up charges and use them as pawns. This was a hostage negotiation, not a prisoner exchange.

The people released by the U.S. were accused of trying to steer around sanctions restricting trade with Iran. Those sanctions were in place to stop Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon.

By contrast, no one freed by Iran on Saturday had been accused in public of any credible offense. Rezaian was convicted on phony espionage charges in a secret trial. Not a shred of evidence was released. He heard about his verdict not from a judge but from state television in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.

Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran from Flint, Mich., was detained in 2011, weeks after arriving in Iran to visit his grandmother. He was convicted of spying for the CIA, which he denies.

Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor from Boise, Idaho, was jailed in 2012 for allegedly trying to establish churches in homes.

Iran still is holding several other hostages, including Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-born American oil exec who was arrested in October while visiting his mother in Tehran. Namazi advocated better relations between the U.S. and Iran.

Iran had incentive to play nice, at least for the moment. It was on the edge of finally escaping international economic sanctions. That likely also helped in the quick release by Iran of 10 U.S. sailors who were in Iranian waters.

So does this bode well for the nuclear deal?

It won’t be judged on whether Washington and Tehran cooperate diplomatically. The deal is about stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon. On that score, Iran has completed several significant steps. It has shipped much of its low-enriched uranium to Russia. It has dismantled thousands of centrifuges. It has disabled the core of a reactor designed to produce plutonium, fuel for a nuclear weapon.

Now, though, Iran has what it wants. Its businessmen will rejoin the international business community. Its banks will be freed from restrictions. The cash windfall strengthens the hard-liners in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which controls industry and business across the country.

The hard-liners, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, don’t like the nuclear deal. They can be relied on to test Western resolve. Remember that Iran didn’t come clean on its past nuclear work, as it was supposed to do under the deal. International inspectors still have major questions about Iran’s nuclear weapons research, likely never to be answered.

One key to the deal’s success will be whether the U.S. and its allies show Tehran that they are serious about enforcing the deal to its letter, that sanctions will snap back if Tehran strays.

It might get lost in all the other drama, but there was a very encouraging sign of U.S. resolve to hold Iran accountable: On Sunday, President Barack Obama slapped new economic sanctions on Iran interests for Tehran’s provocative decision to conduct ballistic missile tests that violated a United Nations ban. Those sanctions had been expected and then abruptly delayed, reportedly because Iran had threatened to scuttle the deal to release the Americans who were being held.

Welcome the American hostages home, and remember the cold designs of the dangerous regime that held them.

By Chicago Tribune