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View From The White House On Iran Prisoner Exchange


We're going to turn back now to the big diplomatic news tonight. Five Americans who had been held prisoner in Iran are now free. In exchange, the United States has agreed to release seven Iranians who were convicted or charged with sanctions violations and will drop the hunt for 14 others. This all comes as the international sanctions against Iran's nuclear program are being lifted under the controversial agreement brokered by the Obama administration. Joining us now to talk about all this is NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, this was already a big weekend for American and Iranian negotiators with the nuclear deal reaching its payoff. Now, to take it up a notch, we throw in this prisoner exchange. So just talk a little bit about how all this came together at the same time.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Sure thing. Well, the White House has been under pressure to win the release of these prisoners, four of whom are dual citizens, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, a pastor, Saeed Abedini and a former Marine, Amir Hekmati, who had been accused of spying on Iran. Rezaian's brother and Hekmati's sister were both in attendance on Tuesday when the president gave his State of Union speech. During the nuclear talks themselves, the White House always tried to keep the hostage issue - or the prisoner issue - separate. But there was a channel going along with talks on the sidelines. And we're told by administration officials that those talks accelerated after the nuclear deal itself was concluded last summer. Of course, earlier this week, we also had the swift release of those U.S. Navy sailors who'd been detained in Iranian waters. And the White House sees that and this as a side benefit of the diplomatic engagement with Iran.

MARTIN: You know, but with this swap, as you just told us, you know, five Americans are being freed. But so are the seven Iranians, and that is already evoking some pushback, particularly from people in the president's - who are not in the president's party - and Republican candidates. But there are other people who are upset for a lot of other reasons. You want to talk about that?

HORSLEY: Sure. Well, the administration stresses that the Iranians who are being released were charged, or in some cases convicted, of sanctions violations, not terrorist-related activity or violent crimes. But as you say, there are critics who will say the Obama administration made a bad bargain here and gave up too much. Of course, some of those same critics would say the same about the nuclear deal itself. In addition to the seven Iranians, the U.S. is dropping its efforts to extradite 14 other Iranians believed to be overseas, though the U.S. says they didn't really think there was much chance that those folks were going to wind up in U.S. custody anyway.

MARTIN: But this isn't the first time we've heard questions about this whole issue of exchanging of prisoners, correct? Tell us a little bit more about that.

HORSLEY: No, it's not the first time. The president was criticized for releasing five Taliban members in exchange for the freedom of Bowe Bergdahl. Likewise, when the administration renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba, it agreed to release several members of the so-called Cuban Five, who were held prisoner in this country. That coincided with Cuba's release of Alan Gross, although the White House went out of its way to say that Gross was freed on humanitarian grounds and tried not to characterize that as a swap. Nevertheless, there have certainly been some who complain the White House gave up too much, got too little in return. And you're hearing echoes of that criticism today in regard to Iran.

MARTIN: Scott, we only have about a minute left. Now, you've - you know, you cover the White House, you follow this president closely. Does the fact that the president has only a year left in office, do you think that that kind of factors into his approach on these issues?

HORSLEY: Yeah, you're seeing a president who wants to take care of as much he can while he's got some time left. We're seeing an uptick, for example, in the number of prisoners being released from Guantanamo and sent to third countries - more released just this week. So the Guantanamo head count's now under a hundred. Eventually, we may see the president make a bid to move some of the hardest cases at that prison to a military base on the mainland. Yesterday, we saw the Interior Department order a temporary moratorium on coal leases as part of the president's controversial climate strategy. So Obama says he's got a lot to do left in the year he's got left, and so fasten your seatbelts.

MARTIN: That was NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.