Give President Obama credit. His Iran nuclear deal may be disastrous but the packaging was brilliant. The near-simultaneous prisoner exchange was meant to distract from last Saturday’s official implementation of the sanctions-lifting deal. And it did. The Republicans concentrated almost all their fire on the swap sideshow.
And in denouncing the swap, they were wrong. True, we should have made the prisoner release a precondition for negotiations. But that pre-emptive concession was made long ago (among many others, such as granting Iran in advance the right to enrich uranium). The remaining question was getting our prisoners released before we gave away all our leverage upon implementation of the nuclear accord. We did.
Republicans say: We shouldn’t negotiate with terror states. But we do and we should. How else do you get hostages back? And yes, of course negotiating encourages further hostage taking. But there is always something to be gained by kidnapping Americans. This swap does not affect that truth one way or the other.
And here, we didn’t give away much. The seven released Iranians, none of whom has blood on his hands, were sanctions busters (and a hacker), and sanctions are essentially over now. The slate is clean.
But how unfair, say the critics. We released prisoners duly convicted in a court of law. Iran released perfectly innocent, unjustly jailed hostages.
Yes, and so what? That’s just another way of saying we have the rule of law, they don’t. It doesn’t mean we abandon our hostages. Natan Sharansky was a prisoner of conscience who spent eight years in the Gulag on totally phony charges. He was exchanged for two real Soviet spies. Does anyone think we should have said no?
The one valid criticism of the Iranian swap is that we left one, perhaps two, Americans behind and unaccounted for. True. But the swap itself was perfectly reasonable. And cleverly used by the administration to create a heartwarming human interest story to overshadow a rotten diplomatic deal, just as the Alan Gross release sweetened a Cuba deal that gave the store away to the Castro brothers.
The real story of Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016 — “Implementation Day” of the Iran deal — was that it marks a historic inflection point in the geopolitics of the Middle East. In a stroke, Iran shed almost four decades of rogue-state status and was declared a citizen of good standing of the international community, open to trade, investment and diplomacy. This, without giving up, or even promising to change, its policy of subversion and aggression. This, without having forfeited its status as the world’s greatest purveyor of terrorism.
Overnight, it went not just from pariah to player but from pariah to dominant regional power, flush with $100 billion in unfrozen assets and virtually free of international sanctions. The oil trade alone will pump tens of billions of dollars into its economy. The day after Implementation Day, President Hassan Rouhani predicted 5 percent growth — versus the contracting, indeed hemorrhaging, economy in pre-negotiation 2012 and 2013.
On Saturday, the Iranian transport minister announced the purchase of 114 Airbuses from Europe. This inaugurates a rush of deals binding European companies to Iran, thoroughly undermining Obama’s pipedream of “snapback sanctions” if Iran cheats.
Cash-rich, reconnected with global banking and commerce, and facing an Arab world collapsed into a miasma of raging civil wars, Iran has instantly become the dominant power of the Middle East. Not to worry, argued the administration. The nuclear opening will temper Iranian adventurism and empower Iranian moderates.
The opposite is happening. And it’s not just the ostentatious, illegal ballistic missile launches; not just Iran’s president reacting to the most puny retaliatory sanctions by ordering his military to accelerate the missile program; not just the videotaped and broadcast humiliation of seized U.S. sailors.
Look at what the mullahs are doing at home. Within hours of “implementation,” the regime disqualified 2,967 of roughly 3,000 moderate candidates from even running in parliamentary elections next month. And just to make sure we got the point, the supreme leader reiterated that Iranian policy — aggressively interventionist and immutably anti-American — continues unchanged.
In 1938, the morning after Munich, Europe woke up to Germany as the continent’s dominant power. Last Sunday, the Middle East woke up to Iran as the regional hegemon, with a hand — often predominant — in the future of Syria, Yemen, Iraq, the Gulf Arab states and, in time, in the very survival of Israel.
And we’re arguing over an asymmetric hostage swap.
Charles Krauthammer is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.