Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, has floated the idea of prisoner exchanges on several occasions. This year, though, he has been even more vocal and persistent than usual. (Trump administration officials tell me that those public offers by Zarif are disingenuous. They say that behind the suggestion of prisoner releases on humanitarian grounds, there is always a demand for some sort of concession, usually in the form of cash or sanctions relief.)
In recent months, Zarif spoke repeatedly about an Iranian woman held in custody in Australia on charges of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Negar Ghodskani allegedly established a front company in Malaysia to purchase sanctioned electronic goods, which she then reexported to Iran for its state-run television network. She was arrested by Australian authorities on a U.S. warrant and initially resisted extradition to appear in court in the United States. While in custody she gave birth to a son, which made her case either genuinely noteworthy or useful for propaganda purposes (depending on your viewpoint).
“Nobody talks about this lady in Australia who gave birth to a child in prison, whose child is growing up outside prison with the mother in prison,” Zarif said at an event at the Asia Society in New York in April. “I put this offer on the table publicly now: Exchange them.”
The other person he was referring to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a United Kingdom citizen and aid worker who has been in prison in Iran for nearly four years on ridiculous charges that she sought to overthrow the Islamic Republic. She has been separated from her young daughter Gabriella.
But recent events have complicated matters.
Last month it was revealed that there are now three Australian citizens being held in Iran. They are a young couple who are popular travel bloggers and a university lecturer who was transparently conducting research in Iran. Two of them are also U.K. nationals. All three were in Iran on valid visas.
Two American families recently told me they thought their imprisoned relatives could be released in exchange for Ghodskani.
In August, Ghodskani unexpectedly accepted an extradition request to the United States to face trial. This stirred hope among the Westerners who have been lobbying their governments to win the safe return of their imprisoned family members.
Then, on Sept. 25 — at the height of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York — Ghodskani was sentenced by a U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to time served. By the weekend, she was back in Iran.
Every one of the people who could realistically have been part of a potential swap is still sitting in prison in Tehran. The families are left wondering what, if any, bearing the release will have on efforts to free their loved ones.
It’s possible that it could be the beginning of a trend of releases on all sides. Such staggered releases are not unheard of. It’s also possible that the United States released Ghodskani as a reciprocal gesture of goodwill for the Iranians’ release in June of U.S. green-card holder Nizar Zakka.
But there could be a more ominous explanation: that the Justice Department and State Department were acting out of step. If this proves to be true, it could suggest that the Ghodskani case was simply a one-off, with no broader implications for the future of the hostages.
That seems unlikely, given the intensity with which the current Iran team at the State Department is monitoring every aspect of the two countries’ relationship.
The fact remains, though, that an Iranian national has been granted her freedom and allowed to return home while at least eight individuals from the United States and Australia — as well as one from the United Kingdom — have yet to receive the most basic rights of representation, unimpeded consular access, due process and a fair trial that Ghodskani was afforded. (And yes, I know that the process wasn’t entirely politics-free — but the basic principle still stands.)
We shouldn’t expect justice from Iran’s legal system, nor should we deny anyone his or her rights under our system. And we must uphold our commitment to the rule of law regardless of external considerations.
That said, it will be a serious miscarriage of the very notion of justice if it turns out that an Iranian citizen, convicted of an actual crime, was set free and allowed to go home without the United States and our allies succeeding in winning the freedom of any of its innocent citizens locked up in Iran.