Sep 20, 2023

The Iran prisoner swap.

Freed US national Emad Shargi (C R) greets a family member. (Photo by JONATHAN ERNST/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Freed US nationals Emad Shargi (C R) greets a family member. (Photo by JONATHAN ERNST/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Plus, a video on the Ashton Kutcher controversy and a reader question on the Espionage Act.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Breaking down the prisoner swap with Iran. Plus, we release a video version of my piece on Ashton Kutcher, some reader feedback, and a question about the Espionage Act.

Two emails I got yesterday.

One, from a conservative reader who was unsubscribing: "Your latest story about the impeachment inquiry shows how left leaning you are. You claimed in your pitch that you are unbiased. Clearly you’re not. Good luck with that."

A second, from a liberal reader who was unsubscribing: "I'm leaving because I didn't appreciate your take on the US Open climate crisis protesters and I couldn't find another way to express this on your website/in the email. Those two things together didn't sit right with me. Also, the planet is dying and any action is good action."

That Ashton Kutcher piece. 

On Friday, we shared a paywalled subscribers-only edition where I wrote about the character letters Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis wrote on behalf of their friend and convicted rapist Danny Masterson. The piece drew a huge response, and at the urging of my team I decided to turn it into a YouTube video. If you missed the piece, are not yet ready to subscribe, or for whatever reason would prefer to watch than read it, you can find that video here: 

Quick hits.

  1. The House Oversight Committee will hold the first hearing of its impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden next week, and is expected to subpoena Hunter Biden's bank records. (The hearing)
  2. U.S. officials say they found debris from the F-35 fighter jet that went missing on Sunday after a pilot ejected himself off the coast of South Carolina. (The debris)
  3. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has alleged India carried out an assassination of a Sikh community member on Canadian soil in June. Canada then expelled a senior Indian diplomat in retaliation. (The accusation)
  4. U.S. gas prices hit an average of $3.88 per gallon, their highest level since October of 2022. (The prices)
  5. House Republicans pulled a vote on a short-term spending deal after divisions within the party left them short of the support needed to avert a government shutdown. (The vote)

Today's topic.

The Iran prisoner swap. On Tuesday, following two years of negotiations, five Americans freed by Iran arrived back in the United States, ending their detainment a day after they were swapped for five Iranians who were being held in the United States. The U.S. also released $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue that had been frozen in overseas accounts.

Of the prisoners returned to the U.S., three were Iranian Americans and two have not been publicly identified. All five had been charged with unsubstantiated allegations of espionage. Siamak Namazi was detained while visiting his family in Tehran in 2015 on accusations of spying and cooperating with the U.S. government. Namazi's mother, who was not a U.S. citizen but had been prohibited from leaving Iran, also left the country with her son.

Emad Sharghi moved to Iran from the United States and was arrested on spying and security-related charges. He spent eight months in prison before being cleared, but Iran banned him from travel. In 2020 he was summoned by the Revolutionary Court and sentenced to 10 years on espionage charges. He was not imprisoned, but was sent to jail after being caught attempting to flee in 2021.

Morad Tahbaz is an Iranian-American environmentalist who also has British citizenship and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for "assembly and collusion against Iran's national security" and "contacts with U.S. enemy government… for the purpose of spying." Like Namazi's mother, Tahbaz's wife also left Iran after having previously been banned from traveling.

"Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home," President Biden said in a statement on Monday. "As we celebrate the return of these Americans, we also remember those who did not return. I call on the Iranian regime to give a full account of what happened to Bob Levinson," he said, referring to a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran 16 years ago.

The Iranians who were being held in the U.S. are Mehrdad Moin-Ansari, Kambiz Attar-Kashani, Reza Sarhangpour-Kafrani, Amin Hassanzadeh, and Kaveh Afrasiabi. Two of the detainees decided to return to Iran, two opted to stay in the United States, and one flew to a separate country to reunite with his family. All five prisoners had been charged with non-violent crimes, and each was granted clemency. Two were set to be released in 100 days, and the other three were awaiting trial.

As part of the deal, Iran will also get access to $6 billion in funds that were being held in a restricted account in South Korea. That money was transferred to another restricted bank account in Qatar after Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed a waiver to release the money without it being impacted by U.S. sanctions. U.S. officials say Iran will only be able to use the money for humanitarian purchases like food, medicine, and agricultural products.

However, some Republicans were critical of Biden for making the deal, saying it could encourage Iran to take more prisoners. Republicans also said that even if this money is spent on humanitarian goods, it will free up money already being spent on those goods for other activities — potentially helping fund terrorism and Iran’s proxy battles across the Middle East.

The agreement marks a notable defrosting of Iran-U.S. relations, which have soured since the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. However, there has been reporting that Iran wants a return to the deal, and that the U.S. had signaled such diplomacy would not be possible while Americans remain wrongfully detained in Iran.

Today, we're going to break down some reactions to the swap from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

The right is uniformly opposed to the deal, arguing that it will make America less safe.

  • Many argue that Iran will use the money as it pleases, and we can expect them to fund terrorism with it.
  • Some argue the swap will encourage more hostage-taking from foreign adversaries.

In National Review, Shay Khatiri and Andrew Ghalili said the deal is "as bad as you'd expect."

"The agreement requires the Islamic Republic to use the funds only for humanitarian purposes, and it entrusts Qatar to be an honest guardian of this clause. But Qatar, the Islamic Republic’s fellow fundamentalist, Jew-hating state sponsor of terrorism, is an untrustworthy partner," they wrote. "Moreover, money is fungible. In fact, Ebrahim Raisi, the president of the Islamic Republic, told CNN’s Lester Holt on Tuesday that his regime will use the money as it wishes to and without constraints.

"In comparison, during the administration of President Donald Trump, the Islamic Republic agreed to release one U.S. citizen in exchange for one of its agents," they added. "An honest journalist would ask the administration about the disparity between the two agreements, and why the current administration made much greater concessions. The only two explanations are that either the current administration is far worse at diplomatic negotiations or that there are secret, side agreements. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive."

The New York Post editorial board said the Biden administration just put the world on notice: It will negotiate with terrorists.

"That’s the takeaway from the utterly craven move to free $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds and five Iranian prisoners in return for five US citizens held captive by Tehran," the board said. "The American hostages released here were all innocent travelers held for years in places like Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison on faked charges... We’re glad our hostages are coming home, but this guarantees Iran (and other hostile regimes) will snatch some more. It looked like a terrible deal even before the details emerged, but the jaw-dropping ransom of $1.2 billion per hostage is simply insane."

"Not to mention that’s a gift to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism," the board added. "Yes, the cash is meant for humanitarian purposes, but (insult to injury!) Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has already said he’ll ignore Biden’s 'orders': 'Humanitarian means whatever the Iranian people needs, so this money will be budgeted for those needs, and the needs of the Iranian people will be decided and determined by the Iranian government.'" The money gives Tehran "more breathing room as it pursues its twin aims of regional hegemony and nuclear breakout."

In The Washington Examiner, Michael Rubin asked how Iran will spend its "Biden billions."

"In 2016, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took the money for itself as a return on the investment of the operations to seize Americans in the first place. Money is fungible, and the ransom increased the guards’ off-book operations, potentially supporting everything from efforts to finance the Houthi rebellion in Yemen to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to advancing Tehran’s drone program to expanding the missile program that then-Secretary of State John Kerry had legalized in order to win Iran’s acquiescence to temporary enrichment restrictions," Rubin wrote. Iran's president already declared he'll spend it as he sees fit.

"First, the regime will buy an off-the-shelf air force," and it has long sought high-end Russian fighter jets. "A more dangerous prospect is that the Iranian regime, which, according to the State Department, is still the world’s greatest state-sponsor of terrorism, might fund various terrorist proxy groups," Rubin said. For instance, Hamas's Hebrew University bombing that killed five Americans "cost the group $50,000 to plan and execute. An ordinary suicide bomb belt, meanwhile, only costs $1,500. Six billion dollars flowing into Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps coffers, therefore, is enough to finance 120,000 restaurant bombings or four million suicide bomber belts."

What the left is saying.

  • The left acknowledges the concessions made by the Biden administration in the deal, but largely thinks it was worth it to bring Americans home.
  • Some suggest the U.S. is mired in a cycle of hostage taking by hostile nations and the best solution would be to stop negotiating with them.
  • Others say that both Republican and Democrat presidents have a long history of making deals like this one, but Biden is choosing to be more transparent about it now.

The Washington Post editorial board said the deal "continues a miserable cycle of hostage-taking."

The return of the five Americans is a relief, but "their release is a reminder of the nature of the Iranian government — and that authoritarian regimes, with little regard for law or life, have continued to engage in state-sponsored hostage-taking, a barbaric practice that thrives on rewards and concessions from the United States and other nations," the board wrote. The U.S. has taken "pragmatic steps to save those imprisoned," but "these sorts of deals reward noxious regimes and encourage more hostage-taking."

”The Biden administration insists the $6 billion will be disbursed for humanitarian purposes only," but these funds still represent a "benefit for the economically strapped Iranian regime — it will undoubtedly free up other funds to spend on more nefarious purposes, such as buying weapons." This episode highlights the "harsh truth is that rewarding hostage-taking breeds more of the same. Rogue states clang the jail door shut and wait for the next payoff, and they almost never suffer consequences for stealing people off the street. The best deterrent would be for the United States and other nations to refuse to negotiate for the release of such hostages."

In CNN, Peter Bergen said the "high price" of the deal was "worth it." 

Republican leaders like Mike Pence have criticized the Biden administration for the swap, but "Pence’s critique of the Biden administration ignores the fact that the $6 billion of Iranian funds belongs to Iran for its overseas oil sales, and the funds that are being unfrozen will not go to Iran but to Qatar, where the Qatari government will administer them to be used only for humanitarian purposes in Iran," Bergen said. "One can argue that this indirectly helps the Iranian government. Yet who it really helps is the Iranian people, who have suffered through decades of incompetent government by the ayatollahs."

"Since the highest responsibility of the US commander in chief is the protection of American citizens, Biden was right to approve the Iran deal." Still, "the publicity around these kind of prisoner swaps must surely act as a deterrent for Americans with any plans to travel to countries like Iran. And in the future, it would seem a sensible policy prescription that travel websites echo the US government’s warnings that any American who has plans to go to countries such as Iran, Russia or Venezuela would be taking a real risk of being wrongfully detained."

In NBC News, Dan De Luce and Abigail Williams noted that the U.S. has always made prisoner swap deals like this one, but "now we're just being honest about it."

"Biden is not the first U.S. president to make concessions to hostage takers, and to face political heat back home over his decision. What’s different this time is that Biden and his team are making no secret of the link between the funds unblocked for Iran and the freedom of five imprisoned Americans, explicitly acknowledging the trade-off," they said. A number of U.S. officials involved in the deal were also part of "a similar agreement with Iran during the Obama presidency, but this time the rhetoric is less evasive."

"Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, agreed to ​​prisoner swaps with Iran involving Iranian nationals prosecuted in U.S. courts, and held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018 after three detained Americans were released… In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s administration secretly sold weapons to Iran to try to win the release of Americans held by Iranian-backed proxies in Lebanon, a scheme that Reagan initially denied but later apologized for," they said. "Previous presidents from both parties have made uncomfortable trade-offs to get Americans out of captivity."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I don't envy the position Biden is in, but it's hard not to be concerned about this.
  • Just like the Brittney Griner swap, I think you could call this "the right bad deal."
  • Ultimately, the biggest concerns are both what Iran does with the money and whether these kinds of swaps become more common.

When President Biden secured the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, I wrote that he made the "right bad deal," but that it was still an "abject failure" that he only got Brittney Griner home from Russia in exchange for a notorious arms dealer. We could celebrate Griner's return while also admitting it was not a win. We did not come out stronger or safer, and I said then that the deal increased the likelihood of these kinds of deals being struck more often. And now we have this.

There is no good way to end a hostage situation with a foreign adversary like Iran. Imagine being in the shoes of the State Department or White House: You have the desperate family and friends of someone locked in a notoriously awful prison in Iran on trumped-up charges begging you to do something, anything, to secure their release. You have pressure from the media and pundits who talk about these prisoners being left behind by your administration. You have the injustice of their imprisonment hanging over you. All the pressure, right there, in your face.

I can't say confidently I know what I would do, but I'd certainly explore every possible option to get someone home. The Biden administration spent two years negotiating this deal. My presumption is they did everything they could to make it happen while also minimizing the risk to Americans and our allies like Israel.

In the Griner case, there was a real question about the risk involved with releasing Viktor Bout, an infamous international arms dealer who some experts believed was no longer a threat. In this case, the prisoners we released were nonviolent and, best I can tell, not particularly worrisome to us. It seems like a couple might simply stay in the U.S. and were set to be released in a few months anyway. If it were just that, it'd be a no brainer. Which means the real heart of this deal is the money.

We can’t really put a monetary value on a life, let alone five, but the right’s argument about sending Iran $6 billion rings true: Money is fungible. Any dollar Iran gets in this deal frees up a dollar to do whatever they want, including fund terrorism, and Iran's president has made it clear he does not respect the restrictions on this money.

At the same time, it's also true that this is Iran's money. We froze it, sure, but it wasn't sitting in U.S. bank accounts. It is not a ransom payment coming from the United States. We freeze money and impose sanctions like this on countries like Iran when we view their actions — like unjustly imprisoning people — as intolerable or violations of international law. So it's logical that we might unfreeze that money when they reverse course, when prisoners are released, or they make some show of good faith.

It's natural to immediately go to the worst-case scenarios in situations like this. This money goes to Iran, Iran turns around and dumps millions or even billions into its proxy wars and terrorist organizations, and Americans or our allies die because of what we did. But there is also a best-case scenario here: This $6 billion is genuinely helpful for the millions of people living under an oppressive authoritarian regime in Iran, and the money does actually go mostly or entirely to humanitarian needs like medicine and food. If that were to happen while we defrost some relations with Iran and open diplomatic channels to get more Americans home, all without an uptick in their proxy activity or terrorism (which has been pretty quiet recently), then this will definitely have been worth it.

Do I think the best-case scenario is more likely than the worst-case scenario? No. I don't. Which is why the exchange of this much money is tough to stomach. But since I can’t see the future, I'm hard pressed to confidently say what Iran will do next. For now, just as with Griner, we can celebrate these Americans coming home while also being concerned about what chain of events releasing this money sets off — not just in terms of what Iran does with the money, but also with the signal it sends to other adversaries.

It's one of those moments where I'm happy to be an armchair quarterback rather than the one calling the plays.

Are you interested in international news? Given our coverage today, I wanted to let you know that we have a partnership with DailyChatter, a daily newsletter that exclusively covers international news. They promote Tangle to their readers and once a week we promote DailyChatter to ours. I read their stuff every morning, and it's one of my favorite subscriptions. You can try it for two weeks for free, and then it's less than $30/year after that. Check it out here:

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Your questions, answered.

Q: Vivek Ramawsamy has made what sound like some good points about the abuse of the Espionage Act over many decades. What's your take on this take, and on the Espionage Act in general?

— Erez from Mountain Lakes, NJ

Tangle: I think he's right.

Let me share two quotes with you about the Espionage Act that I think offer some strong criticism.

First: “A relic of World War I, when the government sought to stifle anti-war dissent, the law is so vague and yet so draconian that it has become a handy weapon for federal prosecutors to use against a wide array of targets — often individuals considered politically dangerous by mainstream America.”

Second: “The law criminalized not only spying for enemies, but also any attempt to encourage ‘disloyalty’ among military ranks. Prosecutors enforced the act aggressively, using it to imprison hundreds of antiwar activists and political dissenters. The Socialist former presidential candidate Eugene Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison in part for denouncing the Espionage Act itself.”

The second quote is from Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy’s June 2023 editorial in the right-leaning Wall Street Journal, which you linked to in your question. The first quote, however, is from a James Risen piece in left-leaning The Intercept, which was published in 2022 in support of an effort to amend the Espionage Act by Rashida Tlaib, a member of The Squad, the progressive four-woman caucus in the House. 

Each author was attacking the same law from different sides, at different times, and for different reasons — and I think they’re both right. 

Both Ramaswamy’s editorial and Risen’s article convincingly detail the ways in which the Espionage Act has been used selectively to silence political opponents and protect powerful government interests in the past. Risen advanced his argument in defense of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, while in his editorial Ramaswamy said its usage in the classified documents case to prosecute former President Donald Trump indicated that Special Counsel Jack Smith’s indictment is a political cudgel. We shared a similar argument from the Wall Street Journal in our coverage of Trump’s indictment in this case in July.

I don’t think whether or not Trump is found guilty in that case depends solely on the application of the Espionage Act, and the foundations of the classified documents indictment don’t strike me as political persecution. But regardless of how that case progresses, I think Congress should revisit and curtail the reach and scope of the Espionage Act. It's a dated law that is too broadly written and too widely applied to be more useful than dangerous, and I think critics on both sides of the aisle make that case convincingly.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) announced he'd begin rolling out automatic voter registration in the state. Now, eligible voters getting a new driver's license ID card in Pennsylvania will be automatically registered to vote. The move makes Pennsylvania the 24th state to implement automatic voter registration. Previously voters in Pennyslvania were given an option to register while getting their license, and then asked a series of 19 questions during screening. Now they will automatically be taken through 11 questions during the ID process and then added to voter rolls. The new process is expected to add tens of thousands of voters to the voter rolls in one of 2024's most critical swing states. ABC News has the story.


  • 52%. The percentage of Americans who say they support the U.S. engaging in prisoner exchanges generally, according to a 2022 YouGov poll taken after Brittney Griner was released.
  • 38%. The percentage who said they strongly or somewhat approved of Griner being released in exchange for Viktor Bout.
  • 47%. The percentage who said they strongly or somewhat disapproved of Griner being released in exchange for Viktor Bout.
  • 34%. The percentage of Americans who said the 2014 prisoner exchange that freed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban in Afghanistan was the right thing to do, according to a Gallup poll.
  • 43%. The percentage of Americans who said the 2014 prisoner exchange with the Taliban was the wrong thing to do.
  • 53%. The percentage of Democrats who said securing the safe release of U.S. prisoners should be a priority, even if it meant compromising with terrorist demands, in a 1985 Gallup poll.
  • 48%. The percentage of Republicans who said securing the safe release of U.S. prisoners should be a priority, even if compromising with terrorist demands, in the 1985 poll.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about Lindsay Graham's abortion bill.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was Bill Maher's about-face on resuming the show during the writers strike.
  • Legacy of acceptance: 650 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about Mitt Romney's retirement, with 65% approving of his decision to retire and saying his legacy is mostly good. 26% approve of his decision but think his legacy is mostly bad, 2% disapprove of his decision and think his legacy is mostly good, and 1% disapprove of his decision and think his legacy is mostly bad. 6% were unsure or had no opinion. "Even with all the 'good & bad' he leaves a legacy as someone willing to accept the other side of the aisle when he could," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Three power outages in Montana were caused by squirrels.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of the prisoner swap with Iran? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Joan Potters collects fabric scraps left over from the Greater San Antonio Quilting Guild, filling her makeshift workshop with colorful swatches. Potters, 93, uses the fabric to make dog beds for animal shelters in her area, like the San Antonio Humane Society and the Paul Jolly Center for pet adoptions. And all the effort does not come just from Potters, as missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will occasionally help her with the sewing, delivering around 30 to 40 beds to dog shelters each month. “I just am happy to do it for them and to know that some dog is going to be comfortable,” Potters said. “It makes me feel so good to know that they’re not going to be laying on cement or a hard floor or in the winter.” KSAT has the story.

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