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As U.S. Hands Down New Sanctions On Iran, Will Goodwill Be Short-Lived?


We're going to start the program today trying to learn more about the diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran that led to this weekend's prisoner swap. Several of the Americans are in Germany tonight after flying out of Tehran. President Obama announced that his administration has settled hundreds of millions of dollars in claims with Iran.


BARACK OBAMA: The United States has never been afraid to pursue diplomacy with our adversaries. And as president, I decided that a strong, confident America could advance our national security by engaging directly with the Iranian government.

MARTIN: He's also trying to strike a balance. The president has imposed new sanctions to punish Iran for continued ballistic missile tests in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. NPR's Michele Kelemen is back with us to talk about all this. First of all, Michele, what is the latest on the Americans who were freed? Why did it take so long for them to leave? There seems to have been some hours lag between the time that we heard about the swap and when they actually left the country.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: That's right. We're told that it took some time to make sure that the wife and the mother of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian were on board and able to leave Iran. His wife had spent some time in prison herself and had some legal issues hanging over her. So they're now all in Germany. The family of former Marine Amir Hekmati says they're grateful that Amir is going to be able to return home soon to his father, who's quite ill. Pastor Saeed Abedini was also on that plane, according to his wife. One Iranian-American apparently stayed behind - that's a case we know very little about - while a fifth prisoner, Matt Trevithick, left yesterday.

MARTIN: Can you tell us a little bit more about the process? Are U.S. officials telling us any of the - sort of the backstory on this?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, this all started in negotiations that started about 14 months ago. And it came out of the nuclear talks, but they were kept on a very different tract and kept secret. They were led by a State Department official named Brett McGurk. He was meeting with Iranians in secret in Switzerland. And by the way, some of these Americans were picked up while these talks were taking place. The Iranians were asking for many Iranian nationals to be released from prison here. And U.S. officials are telling us today that they managed to whittle down that list to a small group of nonviolent offenders. These were people who were in jail or facing charges here mainly for sanctions busting.

MARTIN: Can I just briefly ask you about another name that many Americans may have heard, which is Robert Levinson? He's a former FBI agent, as I understand it, who has been - not been heard from for a very long time. Do we know anything about him?

KELEMEN: The only thing U.S. officials say is that his case was discussed in these negotiations, that the Iranians have agreed to work closely with the U.S. to help locate him. He's been missing since 2007, and it's never been clear who's been holding him and where.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Michele, the U.S. announced today that it is adding more sanctions on Iran at the same time as the announcement of the big claims settlement between the U.S. between the U.S. and Iran, a big financial settlement. Can you just briefly try to tie all those things together?

KELEMEN: (Laughter) Well, the administration was always promising that even as it was lifting these nuclear-related sanctions it was going to keep up the pressure on Iran for other bad behavior. So these targeted sanctions that were announced today were in response to Iranian ballistic missile tests. They were targeted against three companies and eight individuals. And the U.S. held off on this announcement until they got the American prisoners out. On the settlement issue, Iran's going to receive $400 million plus $1.3 billion in interest. U.S. officials say this is money that Iran paid for for U.S. military equipment before the revolution, and clearing these sorts of claims is in U.S. interests.

MARTIN: That's NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: I'd like to mention we will be speaking with Congressman Dan Kildee later this hour. The Congressman has been fighting for the release of the longest-held of the prisoners who were just released. That's former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati. And we will hear from him in a minute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.