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A U.S.-Iran $6 Billion Prisoner Exchange: Ransom Or Realpolitik?

With $6 billion freed up to go in the coffers of the corrupt and repressive regime in Tehran, nobody is happy. But sometimes there is no alternative to the imperfect nature of international diplomacy.

Photo of statues exchanging a frozen handshake

We live in a political world...

Pierre Haski


PARIS — We find ourselves in the kind of scenario John Le Carré would have written about: five prisoners on one side, five on the other, brought to the same place at the same time for an exchange of freedom — simultaneously, $6 billion are transferred to bank accounts. The significant difference is that Cold War prisoner exchanges of Le Carré stories usually took place in Berlin; here, we are in Doha, Qatar, and the prisoners are American and Iranian.

The agreement carried out Monday is making a big splash. Principally because it has been a long time since there have been positive news between Washington and Tehran, and one can legitimately wonder if there will be any repercussions on the impasse regarding the Iranian nuclear issue.

But this exchange is also controversial: it has its critics in the United States who accuse the Biden administration of paying a "ransom" and putting all Americans at risk.

Indeed, the financial arrangement is unique: it does not involve American money, but rather $6 billion of Iranian oil revenue that had been frozen in South Korea due to sanctions. The money was transferred to accounts in Switzerland and Qatar, and Tehran can only access it for its most essential needs. Still, returning money to Iran is met with resistance among Biden's Republican opponents.

No goodwill

U.S. negotiators had made the release of their citizens a condition for any nuclear deal. An obstacle has therefore been removed, but it doesn't mean that a deal is within reach.

The optimism of negotiators, following Joe Biden's election, has long since faded. And the international context has completely changed: the supply of Iranian drones to Russia for use in Ukraine has destroyed the little goodwill that remained on the Western side.

The doors of diplomacy are not closed, despite appearances.

Last week, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom — the three European signatories of the 2015 agreement – announced that they would not lift sanctions against Tehran, which were supposed to expire on Oct. 18 under the original treaty. They argue that Iran is in violation of the nuclear agreement, and the sanctions will remain in place.

A last chance for diplomacy

The possibility of a new nuclear agreement seems difficult to envision, especially with the U.S. election just a year away and the potential victory of Donald Trump. Tehran is well aware that, as in 2018, Trump is likely to cancel the agreement once back in the White House.

Nevertheless, yesterday's prisoner exchange demonstrates that partial agreements are still possible: the doors of diplomacy are not closed, despite appearances. This possibility for agreement reminds us of the six French nationals and the Swedish EU official still held in Iran.

There is a complete discrepancy between symbols, popular emotions, and state diplomacy.

Another major criticism of the prisoner exchange agreement is its timing: 48 hours after the anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, the young woman killed by the morality police for wearing her veil incorrectly.

Once again, there is a complete discrepancy between symbols, popular emotions, and state diplomacy. The fact that the Islamic regime is recovering billions of dollars at a time when Iranians are paying the price for their quest for freedom leaves a bitter taste in the context of prisoner releases. But it has a name: realpolitik.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

War, Corruption And The Overdue Demise Of Ukrainian Oligarchs

The invasion of Russia has forced Ukraine to confront a domestic enemy: corruption and economic control by an insular and unethical elite.

Photograph of three masked demonstrators holding black smoke lights.

May 21, 2021, Ukraine: Demonstrators hold smoke bombs outside the Appeal Court of Kyiv.

Olena Khudiakova/ZUMA
Guillaume Ptak


KYIV — Since Russia’s invasion, Ukraine's all-powerful oligarchs have lost a significant chunk of their wealth and political influence. However, the fight against the corruption that plagues the country is only just beginning.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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On the morning of September 2, several men wearing balaclavas and bullet-proof waistcoats bearing the initials "SBU" arrived at the door of an opulent mansion in Dnipro, Ukraine's fourth largest city. Facing them, his countenance frowning behind thin-rimmed glasses, was the owner of the house, the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.

Officers from the Ukrainian security services had come to hand him a "suspicion notice" as part of an investigation into "fraud" and "money laundering". His home was searched, and shortly afterwards he was remanded in custody, with bail set at 509 million hryvnias, or more than €1.3 million. A photo of the operation published that very morning by the security services was widely shared on social networks and then picked up by various media outlets.

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