Iran Hostage Exchange Was Long In The Making Tehran and Washington swapped long-held prisoners over the weekend as U.S. and Europe lifted sanctions on Iran. Renee Montagne talks to Wendy Sherman, former lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal.

Iran Hostage Exchange Was Long In The Making

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It took barely six months for what's known as Implementation Day to arrive. That's the day the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers went fully into effect.


Over the weekend the U.N. verified that Iran has fulfilled its obligations to limit its nuclear program. And economic sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy are being lifted.

MONTAGNE: Even though all sides insisted there were no other issues linked to that historic agreement, yesterday also brought the release of five Americans who had been held in Iranian prisons. Wendy Sherman was the lead U.S. negotiator in the nuclear talks and until recently was under secretary of state for political affairs. She joined us on the line from Tel Aviv. Welcome back to the program.

WENDY SHERMAN: Always good to be with you, Renee. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, you have told MORNING EDITION - and you were quite emphatic about that - that the U.S. was careful to keep the nuclear negotiations on a separate track from the fate of the imprisoned Americans. And that seems to have happened. And yet this joint release of them and Implementation Day, it does seem like there might have been some sort of overlap. Was there?

SHERMAN: Well, what there was was parallel tracks. Every time I met on the nuclear negotiations, we discussed this humanitarian counselor issue as we called it. And we got to a place where it was clear that there might be a basis for a negotiation and that we really needed separate teams to go to work on some of the nitty-gritty. And so ensued an interagency effort to try to see if we could not get our American citizens home and find out the fate of Robert Levinson who has been missing - and last seen in Kish Island in Iran - for eight years now. The only overlap here is after we got the deal there was obviously some positive feeling that we had accomplished this. And that increased the speed at which the dialogue took place to try to resolve the fate of the American citizens who were in Tehran. So in that way the two were connected. But they were quite parallel tracks because quite frankly we didn't want Iran to say, well, let us keep a few more thousand centrifuges and we'll give you an American. We did not want our people to be leveraged for the Iran nuclear negotiation.

MONTAGNE: But what was possible was some sort of a deal that involved an exchange of prisoners because that's exactly what happened.

SHERMAN: There was indeed an exchange of prisoners. And we were very clear that there was no equity here in the sense that the Americans who were in jail in Iran were there - in our view - completely unjustifiably, unlike some of the Iranians who were in our jails who had in fact violated the trade embargo between the United States and Iran that was put in place after the 1979 revolution and American hostages taken at that time. So these were quite different groups of people. But in the end, the president of the United States I think made a very courageous and right decision that in this one time only we would do such an exchange.

MONTAGNE: In this process, has the U.S. learned anything about Robert Levinson, who is still missing?

SHERMAN: Well, I think we all heard the president say quite clearly that this is an ongoing effort. Iran has agreed to continue to cooperate in the investigation to try to determine the fate of Robert Levinson. There have been all kinds of leads. We have followed up on those leads. And we'll continue to do so. And so we are looking for additional cooperation from Iran in this regard. I think that Christine Levinson and her family have been through a terrible ordeal. And we need to find out where Robert Levinson is and bring him home.

MONTAGNE: Well, Iran has said officially that it will not negotiate with the U.S. on other issues. But in fact there has been a display of what seems like a certain amount of goodwill since the nuclear deal was signed. And I'm thinking of the quick release of U.S. Navy sailors who strayed into Iranian waters and also now this release of these five Americans. Has something changed?

SHERMAN: Yes, I think some things have changed, but not in a terribly profound way, but in an important way in the sense that we now have a channel for diplomatic communication. Sec. Kerry can pick up the phone - and does on a regular basis - to speak with Foreign Minister Zarif with whom he now has a very professional and good relationship. But I think that whether in fact there will be a really profound change in the relationship remains to be seen. There are many things that Iran does that are still very, very problematic. They have filament instability in the Middle East. They have been a state sponsor of terrorism. Their human rights record is terrible. There are a great many problems, and they continue. So we have a very long way to go here yet.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

SHERMAN: Glad to be with you always. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's Wendy Sherman. She was the U.S. State Department official who led the negotiating team that developed the nuclear deal with Iran.

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