Trump Should Reject Iran’s Prisoner-Swap Offer

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On his latest trip to New York, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made the usual rounds of think tanks and TV studios, and delivered the now-familiar mix of scare and snark. Amid an escalating conflict over sanctions with the U.S., about the only new proposal he managed to air was an exchange of prisoners. The Trump administration should dismiss that suggestion out of hand.

Four Americans are known to be held in Iran’s prisons, and a fifth has been missing there since 2007. Iran claims that at least a dozen of its nationals are detained in the U.S. But there’s no equivalence here. The detained Iranians are, by Zarif’s own acknowledgment, accused of violating sanctions, and have access to the processes of American law. The Americans in Iran are held on trumped-up charges of espionage — or bogus charges like “insulting” the Supreme Leader — and have little legal recourse. That Zarif is now offering them as part of a bargain confirms suspicions that the regime in Tehran regards these Americans simply as hostages.

It’s not easy to argue in favor of leaving Americans in captivity anywhere, and especially in the hands of a regime that is known to torture prisoners. But the U.S. has a longstanding policy of not negotiating for hostages, and with good reason. Among other things, it encourages more hostage-taking — and there are tens of thousands of Americans within snatching distance of the Iranian regime and its proxy militias across the Middle East.

If Zarif’s offer is risible, the fact that he made it at all is revealing. Since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal with Iran last year, the regime has held fast to the line that it will not negotiate. But sanctions imposed by the Trump administration are now having a measurable effect on Iran’s economy: Foreign investment has dried up, and Trump’s aggressive drive to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero is cutting off its main source of revenue. Regime hardliners like Major General Qassem Soleimani, a powerful military commander, may dismiss any discussion about a prisoner swap as “pure surrender” to the U.S., but the government in Tehran can ill-afford more economic hardship.

More than likely, Zarif’s proposal is designed to relieve some U.S. pressure on the regime. This is a variation of the strategy Iran used to its advantage during the negotiations on the 2015 nuclear agreement. President Barack Obama, eager for a deal, ignored the deadly and destabilizing spread of Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Zarif may believe that Trump, equally eager to live up to his self-perception as “the greatest hostage negotiator,” might hold off from pursuing his zero-exports goal.

The president should take advantage of the opening Zarif is offering, but he should aim higher. He should offer to negotiate a grand bargain that covers Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its pursuit of ballistic missiles, and its malign influence in the region. Only when such a comprehensive agreement is reached could the U.S. agree to a prisoner swap with some confidence that the Iranians won’t simply grab more American hostages.

The message this would send the regime is that it has the opportunity not only to free a handful of prisoners, but to finally remove the economic shackles on all Iranians.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.