Joe Biden will be patting himself on the back after agreeing a prisoner swap with Iran last week. True: it will mean giving an evil regime $6 billion (£4.75 billion), but these are oil revenues sequestered under sanction laws. So the President can claim that his deal won’t cost the US taxpayer a cent. No doubt he is already looking forward to the warm glow of friendly media as he welcomes the hostages home. Perhaps he hopes to boost his popularity in the race for the White House. But the reality is that Biden’s murky prisoner swap will only damage American prestige, encourage the Iranians to take more Western hostages, and help fund the regime’s nuclear ambitions.
The terms of the deal are understood to include moving $6 billion from South Korea to Qatar. Iran will be given access to the cash for “humanitarian” purposes – though policing this will be problematic. The deal is also likely to include the repatriation of a number of Iranians held in the US for breaching sanctions. Only then will US hostages be released.
This is not, of course, the West’s first such Faustian pact with Iran – nor will it be the last. Last year, Boris Johnson handed over nearly £400 million in frozen assets in exchange for two British hostages, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori. The hunger strike campaign by Nazanin’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, won over British public opinion, forcing the then prime minister to overrule Foreign Office reluctance to countenance such ransom demands.
The Biden administration was reportedly nettled by Downing Street’s decision to agree a separate deal, having hoped to include the British pair in a comprehensive package to revive the moribund Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. Now, however, the State Department accepts that its hopes of resurrecting the 2015 deal are dead and is settling for a prisoner swap.
One downside of Biden’s deal is that it lends credibility at a crucial moment to one of the most dangerous rogue states in the world, enabling Iran to extend its malign influence. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided a showcase for Iranian drones, a mainstay of Putin’s assaults on cities. By defying UN sanctions on Russia with impunity, Tehran has inserted itself into yet another conflict with the West.
It is also building a new arms industry and reviving Ayatollah Khomeini’s dream of a global insurgency against “the Great Satan”. In the Persian Gulf, Iran’s navy is preying on commercial tankers, threatening global maritime traffic. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has long been in the vanguard of such piracy.
Ubiquitous in Syria, Yemen and throughout the Middle East, the IRGC is also infiltrating Western countries. Here the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, last week described the IRGC as the most serious present threat to British national security. Having evaded proscription as a terrorist organisation, its tentacles reach deep into the UK. MI5 has foiled some 15 plots by the IRGC to assassinate or kidnap Iranians living in Britain.
Inside Iran, meanwhile, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has ordered Ebrahim Raisi, his hardline President, to crush all opposition. As the Iranian Revolution’s hanging judge, Raisi became notorious for his death sentences. Now “the Butcher of Tehran” is cracking down again on a wave of protests against the harsh “chastity and hijab” law.
By carving out a pivotal role between Russia and the West, Iran has elevated itself from a pariah to a regional power. Once it has nuclear weapons, it will be a global one. And by bribing Iran to release hostages for electoral gain, Joe Biden risks signalling weakness, not only to the Middle East, but to America’s foes everywhere.