Behind the lies of Congressman George Santos. Diane talks to the owner of the small weekly paper that first broke the story, and a Washington Post journalist who is following the money to see who financed Santos's political rise.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and four other Americans imprisoned in Iran were freed over the weekend. Their release comes just after most international sanctions against Iran were lifted as part of the nuclear agreement reached last summer. U.S. officials said negotiations over the imprisoned Americans occurred over the past 14 months but were on a separate track from the nuclear talks. Guest host Susan Page speaks with Iran analyst Robin Wright about the secret negotiations between the U.S. and Iran and the latest on the freed Americans.
- Robin Wright Analyst and joint fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center; author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World"; contributing writer to The New Yorker
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian and four other Americans imprisoned in Iran were freed over the weekend. Their release comes just after most international sanctions against Iran were lifted as part of the nuclear agreement reached last summer.
MS. SUSAN PAGEU.S. officials said negotiations over the imprisoned Americans occurred over the past 14 months, but were kept on a separate track from the nuclear talks. Joining us by phone from Washington to talk about the prisoner swap, Robin Wright. She's an analyst and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center. Robin, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGreat to be with you.
PAGESo these Americans who are now free, are they okay?
WRIGHTWell, they're all in a period of readjustment, frankly. Three of them have been in Germany trying to get medical assessment. One has flown home. He's opted not to talk yet. And one of the Iranian-Americans actually decided to stay in Iran. He apparently does not have family here and the United States was not even aware that he had been detained until the Iranians passed them a diplomatic note saying that they had this man.
PAGENow, Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter, is the one that is the most familiar to all of us, but I understand that one of these prisoners was actually someone who you worked with at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Tell us about him.
WRIGHTMatthew Trevithick was my research assistant in 2009 when I was working on a book and we remained friends. And, in fact, 15 months ago, we went to the Syrian border together for a piece I was working on for The New Yorker. He's a very gregarious, outgoing guy who spent two years working at the American University in Sulaimani, which is in Iraqi Kurdistan.
WRIGHTHe, then, spent four years in Afghanistan working at the American University there. And he had been to Iran on vacation and decided that he found it very interesting. He had learned a good bit of Farsi when he was in Afghanistan and he decided to take an intensive language class. And he had a visa. He was in the class for four months and he had just about completed it when he was picked up.
PAGEAnd have you had any contact with him since he was released?
WRIGHTI have with the family, yes.
PAGEAnd they say he's doing okay?
WRIGHTThey say he's doing okay.
PAGEWell, that's good to hear. You know, this was a surprise, these secret negotiations that were going on for 14 months. Tell us how they came about.
WRIGHTWell, during the nuclear negotiations, the top U.S. negotiator, Wendy Sherman, had conversations every time with her Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of the talks with the six major nations. And after a year of this, it became clear that they weren't going to get any place tangible unless the created a second, separate channel that could then negotiate separately and not tied to the progress of the nuclear talks.
WRIGHTThe one thing both sides didn't want is for their citizens in prisons in both countries to become linked to the fate of the nuclear talks. And so in late 2014, Brett McGurk of the State Department was tapped as the man to hold these very secret talks with people that were not from the foreign ministry. They came from the intelligence and security outlets in Tehran, people who were more hardline and more in control of both the judicial and intelligence operations and so could -- we're more in tune or more capable of solving the problem outside of the nuclear talks.
PAGENow, these were kept really secret, secret even from some of the U.S. negotiators who were working on the nuclear talks?
WRIGHTYes. Wendy Sherman and one other on her team knew and the rest of the nuclear team was not aware of it. And, in fact, I heard about it from the Iranians, not the Americans.
PAGEYou know, I understand that some U.S. news organizations learned of these talks, were asked not to report on them and abided by those requests to try to help insure the safety of these Americans who were being imprisoned. What can you tell us about that?
WRIGHTWell, look, this has always been the case dating back to the seizure of 52 Americans held at the American embassy in Tehran between 1979 and 1981 when many journalists were aware of who the CIA operators where, who the defense intelligence operators where and no one released the data on who they were. A lot of us knew who the six Canadians -- the six Americans hidden by the Canadians were. We could add up the numbers of who was missing, but nothing was released.
WRIGHTSo I think there's always been a tendency for the press when human lives are at stake to try not to make them more vulnerable than they already are.
PAGEWere these high risk negotiations for the White House and were there some in the administration that didn't think it was the right thing to do?
WRIGHTThis is arguably the highest risk diplomatic initiative of the Obama presidency because it's so many levels with so many very complicated issues, whether it was the nuclear talks and the simultaneous prisoner swap talks, that judicial issues, you know, things on verifying nuclear programs, the timing, this was, you know, incredibly complicated. And given the rocky history, remember the arms for hostage swap during the Reagan administration in 1985 and 1986 when the United States sent a team from the National Security Council to Tehran to negotiate the release of Americans imprisoned in Lebanon by Iran's ally, Hezbollah.
WRIGHTAnd, of course, the Americans did win freedom for three, only to have three more picked up immediately afterwards. It was the greatest embarrassment of the Reagan presidency. So in that context, learning how to game Iran's volatile revolution, trying to deal with people you've never dealt with before in a country with which you haven't had diplomatic relations for almost four decades is a huge risk and if it had backfired, it would've, in this political season, it could've been catastrophic for the administration.
PAGENow, we've got an email from Claude in Cleveland Heights who asked us, why did that one prisoner, that one American, decide to stay in Iran when, presumably, he could've left with the others? Why did he decide to stay?
WRIGHTI certainly don't know. It was a choice of the individual. Apparently, he does not have family here. The interesting thing is that the Iranian-Americans who were imprisoned in the United States opted to stay in the United States so it's not unprecedented.
PAGEWell, tell us about that. The Iranians who were freed in this swap, who are they?
WRIGHTWell, six of them are Iranian-Americans and one is, I gather, a full Iranian citizen. And they were all charged with sanctions-busting crimes and violations of trade embargos imposed on Iran. In many cases, crimes that are not now crimes or are lesser crimes because the lifting of some of these sanctions by the United States. And the Iranians came to the talks with a list of 40 people, but the U.S. stood tough, despite a lot of pressure and said no one who had engaged in -- whether it's murder or assassination attempts, as in the case of the assassination attempt by an Iranian agent against the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
WRIGHTAnd the U.S. said only people who were involved in far lesser crimes connected to sanctions operations.
PAGEWere any of the Iranian prisoners, prisoners being held in the United States, were any of them linked to terrorism?
WRIGHTNo. And that was the first bottom line. The U.S. would not allow anyone involved -- with connection to any form of extremism, murder and, you know, the other major crimes.
PAGEOur thoughts are still with the family of Robert Levinson. He's an American who's been missing in Iran, not part of this prisoner swap. Do we know where he is or what his situation is?
WRIGHTNo. And it's very interesting. When you talk to U.S. officials, they say that there is still a channel open to deal both with Robert Levinson and Siamak Namazi who was picked up in October and who was not among those who were freed. So there are at least two case still to be determined. But they are separate. Robert Levinson was picked up in 2007 on Kish Island. There's some initial reports that he was taken to Tehran, but the Iranians claim that they do not know his whereabouts and because of the nature of the intelligence they provided to the United States, Washington has found the information credible or so they claim.
WRIGHTThere have been reports over the years that Levinson may have been taken to an area called Baluchistan, which is an unruly area that straddles both the Iranian and Pakistani borders, but that's never been confirmed and, frankly, the United States has no idea.
PAGEWe hope there's a day when we can welcome him back to the United States as well. Just one last question. You know, is this -- we have the nuclear agreement. We now have this prisoner swap. Is this a new era, do you think, of U.S./Iran relations? Could it, for instance, make it easier to get Iran to help to deal with the situation in Syria?
WRIGHTWell, that's the key question. It is clear that two and a half years of negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif have created a whole different environment. We still do not have formal relations between Tehran and Washington and we are not likely to any time soon. We have serious problems with Iran over its missile program, its human rights abuses and its support for extremist movements, including some that are involved in the Syrian civil war.
WRIGHTBut this -- the two men spent more time talking to each other during those two and a half years than to any other foreign leader anywhere in the world. So there is that contact and diplomacy has produced. Whether it can go any further is the real question right now and we may know a little bit more on January 25 when the Syrian peace talks begin in Geneva. Iran will be a player and the United States believes there's prospect for real peace in Syria unless the Iranians are party to it.
PAGERobin Wright, thanks so much for joining us.
PAGEShe's an analyst and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking about that Democratic presidential debate, how it fared, what comes next. Stay with us.
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