The US-Iran Prisoner Swap: A Breakthrough or a Band-Aid?

Joe Biden’s policy toward Iran has been marked by incoherence and inconsistency. His prisoner swap deal between the United States and Iran is a rare positive development amid escalating tensions.

Joe Biden delivers a foreign policy statement on Iran at Chelsea Piers in New York on January 7, 2020. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images)

The United States and Iran have been locked in a cycle of escalating tensions since 2018, when the Donald Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions on Iran. This has led to a series of hostile encounters between the two countries, including drone strikes, missile attacks, high-profile assassinations, and cyberattacks. Iran has also ceased abiding by the nuclear deal, enriching uranium beyond the agreed limits and raising fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

In this tense and volatile context, which has not improved much under the Joe Biden administration, a prisoner swap deal between the United States and Iran has raised hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough and a broader de-escalation of tensions in the region.

The deal stands out as a rare positive development amid worrying signs, such as the United States sending thousands of more troops to the Persian Gulf region and reportedly considering the option of deploying US troops on commercial vessels to deter Iranian oil tanker seizures, a tactic that Washington has not used since World War II.

The deal, which was announced on August 10, involves the exchange of five Iranian Americans and an unspecified number of Iranians who were held in each other’s prisons, as well as the release of $6 billion in Iranian oil money that was frozen by South Korea due to US sanctions.

While this deal is undoubtedly a welcome and beneficial development that will reunite unjustly held prisoners with their families and provide some humanitarian relief for Iran, it is also a limited and precarious arrangement that does not tackle the root causes of the US-Iran conflict. Nor does it ensure a lasting and comprehensive solution to the nuclear issue — which lies at the heart of their dispute.

The Fallout of Trump’s Maximum Pressure Campaign

The prisoner deal offers a glimmer of hope in the long-standing US-Iran conflict, which has spiraled out of control since Trump abandoned the nuclear deal. That deal was a landmark achievement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions. It had the backing of Iran and six world powers, the endorsement of the United Nations, and was widely praised in the international community as a win-win solution.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal and impose a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran backfired on all fronts. It pushed Iran to resume its nuclear activities, launch more attacks on the United States and its allies in the region, and alienated US allies in Europe who tried to preserve the deal and maintain trade with Iran. It also heightened the risk of war in the Persian Gulf, where several clashes have occurred between the United States and Iran or their proxies.

President Biden came into office promising to rejoin the 2015 deal, but he has not delivered. He has maintained Trump’s sanctions and initially demanded that Iran comply with the deal first. Iran, on the other hand, said that the United States should lift all sanctions first. This stalemate only worsened over the past few years, as Iran’s government moved to violently suppress protests last year and provide military support to Russia in its war on Ukraine.

The US economic war on Iran, which began with the Trump administration’s attempt to block all Iranian oil exports — the lifeline of an economy that supports 85 million people — is the root cause of the current perilous cycle between the two countries. Iran has responded by threatening other oil exports from the strategic Persian Gulf, from which a fifth of the world’s oil flows. This is the crucial background that is often overlooked by the US media, which often portrays Iran’s oil tanker seizures as aggressive acts rather than desperate measures to defend its own economy.

Biden seems to be playing a game of carrots and sticks by offering a prisoner swap and some humanitarian economic relief to Iran while also increasing the US military presence in the region and possibly putting American troops on commercial vessels. He is seemingly trying to balance diplomatic outreach with reassurance to US regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, who have been skeptical of US military support; security threats raised by the maximum pressure campaign have even led the Saudis and Gulf states to normalize their ties with Iran.

Biden’s policy toward Iran has been marked by incoherence and inconsistency. On one hand, he has expressed a willingness to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal that his predecessor abandoned. On the other hand, he has continued to impose harsh sanctions and seize Iranian oil shipments, violating international law and provoking Iranian retaliation. As former CIA analyst Paul Pillar recently noted, “It was the United States, not Iran, that began the latest round of going after another nation’s tankers and seizing its oil.” 

This was evident in April, when the United States captured an Iranian oil tanker that is now moored off the coast of Texas, with US companies reluctant to unload it for fear of Iranian reprisals. Iran responded by seizing the Suez Rajan, a tanker bound for the US. This tit-for-tat escalation has increased the risk of a military confrontation in the region, undermining Biden’s stated goal of diplomacy and dialogue.

The Way Forward

To prevent a further deterioration of the situation and pave the way for a peaceful resolution, both sides need to demonstrate goodwill and restraint. The prisoner swap deal is a welcome gesture, but it is only a first step. The United States should seek to negotiate a nuclear agreement grounded in mutual concessions. The United States should also acknowledge Iran’s legitimate regional interests and pursue broader diplomacy in the Middle East that involves other key actors, such as Europe, China, and Turkey, and leverages the diplomatic opening created by Iran-Saudi rapprochement.

Biden has taken a courageous and significant step that could open the door for more dialogue and cooperation. But breaking the cycle of US-Iran hostility, and even implementing the prisoner swap, will be extremely difficult for the administration. Hawks will now attack Biden and accuse him of appeasement and paying ransom to Iran. Hardliners in Washington, Tehran, and Tel Aviv will try their best to undermine and derail this deal.

Therefore, it is crucial that both sides seize this opportunity to de-escalate and negotiate in good faith. The stakes are too high for both countries and the region to let this chance slip away. The alternative is a path of confrontation and conflict that could have devastating consequences for everyone involved.