The Moral Dilemma of Prisoner Swaps


Last week’s completion of the deal between the Biden administration and Iran to free U.S. hostages from Iran in exchange for Iranian prisoners held in the U.S. and the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian funds was met with near-universal relief for the release of wrongfully held U.S. citizens and mixed reactions to the terms, likely consequences, and implications of the complex international agreement.

We felt good about President Joe Biden’s pledge to “remain unflinching” in his efforts to repatriate Americans wrongfully detained abroad and his focus on “too many remain unjustly held in Russia, Venezuela, Syria and elsewhere around the world.” And we find some comfort that the five Iranians freed by the U.S. were all charged with nonviolent crimes – the circumvention of sanctions restrictions or breaking the Foreign Agent Registration Act – so we haven’t recycled architects of terror with blood on their hands as was the case in other, similar international prisoner swap deals.

And while we question the administration’s ability to enforce Iran’s promise to use the unfrozen funds solely for humanitarian purposes and have trouble believing that “strict monitoring” by the U.S. will restrain Iran from using the money to support its terror sponsorships and other malign activities, we accept the theory – at least for now.

But we worry on a practical level about the message that the swap sends to rogue states that snatch Americans as leverage for future gain. If the Iran prisoner swap and similar recent deals with Russia are the new standard for U.S. foreign policy, we fear that the approach will prompt even more hostage-taking to exploit America’s vulnerability to the pressures of repatriation.

There are no simple answers. While the best way to deter hostage-taking would be a hard, unbending refusal to negotiate with government actors who steal people off the streets, the political and humanitarian pressures to do everything necessary to free innocent victims are intense. And the issue becomes more difficult the closer to home the wrongfully taken hostage victims are.

The case of Even Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who worked in Russia for six years, is a good example. Gershkovich was arrested last March by Russia’s Federal Security Service on allegations of espionage. Gershkovich and the Journal vehemently deny the charge, and the U.S. has repeatedly denied that Gershkovich is a spy or that he worked in any capacity for the U.S. government. Gershkovich’s arrest is a sham. But his imprisonment has political value for Russia.

Diplomatic efforts to secure Gershkovich’s release have failed. Days after the Iran swap was finalized, a Moscow city court refused to consider Gershkovich’s appeal of his pretrial detention. That ruling will require him to remain in detention at least until Nov. 30 – with no one quite sure what will happen next.

Ongoing reports of the possibility of a new U.S.-Russia prisoner swap for Gershkovich highlight further the anguishing moral dilemma of the approach and beg the question of what can be done to stop the evil cycle that relegates human life to political and economic trading tokens.


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