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American Student Freed In Prisoner Swap After 3 Years In Iran Jail


We're going to begin this hour with the news that the American graduate student Xiyue Wang, who had been held in Iran for three years after being accused of being a spy, is now free as part of a prisoner swap brokered by the Swiss government. Wang was exchanged for Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani, who'd been arrested in the U.S. last year for allegedly violating trade sanctions and was due in court next week.

Negotiations over Wang's release began under Robert O'Brien, who served as the State Department's special envoy for hostage affairs. But in September, O'Brien became the new national security adviser, replacing John Bolton. Earlier today, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep had a chance to speak with O'Brien about the prisoner exchange. And Steve Inskeep is with us now.

Steve, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hey there, Michel.

MARTIN: So, you know, the national security adviser has previously been quoted as saying - for example, he said this in March - "the president has had unparalleled success in bringing Americans home without paying concessions, without prisoner exchanges but through force of will and the goodwill that he's generated around the world." That was a quote. So this was a prisoner exchange. What happened? What changed?

INSKEEP: Well, it wasn't about goodwill because the Iranians are not happy with President Trump for obvious reasons. I don't know that it was necessarily about force of will. It does appear to have been a trade. It was a specific trade that was proposed publicly by Iran's foreign minister months ago - this specific prisoner for another specific prisoner who was facing charges inside the United States. Now, Robert O'Brien, the national security adviser, minimized the value of what the United States gave up here. Here's what O'Brien said about that.

ROBERT O'BRIEN: Mr. Soleimani is returned to Iran, that the charges against him were dismissed. You'll have to talk to the Justice Department about the details of that, but I can tell you he was going to court next week, and this was a very, very good deal for the United States of America.

INSKEEP: I think I'm hearing you suggesting that he would have gotten out anyway perhaps, and you weren't giving up that much. Is that what you're telling me?

O'BRIEN: We didn't give up anything.

MARTIN: Take a step back here. Relationships between the United States and Iran have been tense for months now. There was not a sense that there were any ongoing negotiations. Do we have any sense of when that changed?

INSKEEP: It's not clear to me that there are direct negotiations now. The indications we get is that the United States worked through Switzerland. The Swiss have an embassy in Tehran, which the Americans don't, and the Swiss handles U.S. interests there and seem to have taken the lead in this.

MARTIN: So let's go back to the whole question of a prisoner exchange. One of the arguments against a prisoner exchange is that it makes prisoners more valuable, OK?


MARTIN: When you asked...


MARTIN: ...The national security adviser about this, what did he say?

INSKEEP: I asked O'Brien about that here.

How do you avoid creating an incentive for Iran to take other prisoners to trade or even other countries to take American prisoners to trade?

O'BRIEN: What we've been very successful at during the entire Trump administration is not giving concessions for hostages. We haven't sent pallets of cash. We haven't lifted sanctions. There was no money for the Iranians here, which is something that has been a consistent demand of theirs over the years.

INSKEEP: We still have a lot of reporting here to understand if there's a little more to this agreement than we know or a little less to this agreement than we know - because again, the United States is stressing that this wasn't very much really to surrender at all.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Steve, there are at least four other Americans currently being held in Iran. Do we have any sense of whether their circumstances were discussed as part of this? Did Mr. O'Brien have something to say about why none of these other prisoners seem to have been a part of this agreement?

INSKEEP: We don't know. O'Brien indicated that this deal came about now because of a change in Iran's position - that in spite of Iran's public statements that they were willing to arrange a prisoner swap. And they've said this sort of thing for many months - that Iran didn't seem serious about it, and now they became serious in this one instance.

But we don't know what other talks might be ongoing at all with other prisoners. Baquer Namazi is one of them. And he issued a statement on behalf of his family saying that he is beyond devastated that his brother and his father remain inside Iran having been convicted of charges that are rather opaque to us. And they were not included in this deal. Here's what O'Brien said about that.

O'BRIEN: Well, we don't leave anybody behind. And we look for the opportunities to bring hostages home as they arise. And we're going to continue to work hard to bring the other Americans home.

MARTIN: That was national security adviser Robert O'Brien from his conversation earlier today with NPR's Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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