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Opinion Iran’s foreign minister says he is willing to trade hostages. What’s the U.S. response?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York on April 24. (Richard Drew/AP)

This week, Iran’s foreign minister returned to the city that he once called home, and he made his old neighbor, Donald Trump, an offer that the president can’t refuse.

At the Asia Society on Wednesday, Mohammad Javad Zarif — who worked in Iran’s United Nations mission for years and professes to feel most comfortable in New York — made clear his readiness to complete a swap with the United States for Americans held in Iran, in exchange for Iranians held here.

“I put this offer on the table publicly now: Exchange them,” Zarif responded when asked about the fate of foreign and dual nationals imprisoned in Iran. “I am ready to do it and I have the authority to do it.”

I was in the room, and for me, who was among the previous batch of Americans held hostage in Iran, I had mixed feelings.

On the one hand, it was a blunt acknowledgement by Zarif that Iran practices hostage-taking. Such a public proclamation could be seen as a way of normalizing that appalling behavior. On the other hand, Zarif’s admission is a necessary prelude to starting talks on freeing the prisoners. And I can’t help feeling that that’s what matters most.

Zarif’s ploy might just work. He is, in a sense, speaking the president’s transactional language.

In fact, Trump has consistently shown that he’s keen to free Americans from captivity at the hands of foreign governments. Zarif thinks Trump wants to negotiate with him and his bosses in Tehran, but claims that national security adviser John Bolton and other Iran hawks in the administration are getting in the way.

As unsavory as discussing individual human fates in this way may feel, put the politics of U.S.-Iran relations aside for a moment and think simply about innocent Americans separated from their families. Washington bureaucrats are getting in the way.

There should be no hesitation. The State Department could get this done this week — if it wanted to. But it doesn’t want to. (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is among those in the administration who are standing in the way of any talks with the Tehran regime.)

The State Department issued a statement following Zarif’s comments saying, “The Iranian regime can demonstrate its seriousness regarding consular issues, including Iranians who have been indicted or convicted of criminal violations of U.S. sanctions laws, by releasing innocent U.S. persons immediately.” That statement came just a few days after the department announced that all countries will have to stop importing Iranian oil or be subject to U.S. sanctions.

The response succeeds in one thing: prolonging the separation of Americans held in Iran from their loved ones.

I take the tepid response as an indication that the Iran hawks in the Trump administration might consider Americans held in Iranian prisons as politically beneficial to its policy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran.

Ask yourself: why has the administration — which prides itself on bringing home Americans unjustly detained abroad — been nearly silent on the plight of those American citizens being held in Iran, when they have been so public in their boasting of attempts to bring citizens held in other countries home?

Publicly, State Department officials claim they are unwilling to trade Iranians imprisoned for serious crimes — especially on terror charges — but, in reality, it would be easy to find nonviolent offenders who pose no threat to U.S. interests and whose sentences are ending soon anyway.

My sources with direct knowledge of the discussions tell me that key decision-makers within the administration think any negotiations with Iran signal weakness, and that engaging now would look like capitulation.

For his part, Zarif claims to have made an offer of an exchange to the United States six months ago and never received a response. “If they tell you anything else they’re lying,” he said.

We should test him on that. But it appears to me that, for the moment at least, it’s politically easier for the Trump administration to have Americans suffering in prison there as it ratchets up economic sanctions and tough rhetoric toward Tehran.

Prove me wrong. Bring them home.

Read more:

Josh Rogin: No more waivers: The United States will try to force Iranian oil exports to zero

Jason Rezaian: The U.S.’s provocative move on Iran is getting mixed reviews

David Ignatius: Trump’s Iran sanctions could backfire

Jason Rezaian: Trump and Pompeo are failing the American hostages in Iran