When President Barack Obama flew to Boise for a speech last winter, he met privately with the wife of an Iranian-American pastor held prisoner in Iran since 2012. Freeing her husband, he promised, was one of his top priorities.
A year later, Obama called Naghmeh Abedini. Her husband, Saeed, was free and would soon be coming home, the president told her. It was a short but emotional phone call.
“I could see his love and compassion as he spoke last year and again today,” Naghmeh Abedini wrote on her Facebook page on Sunday.
But the president’s compassion came with a price. To secure the release of Saeed Abedini and other Americans held by Iran, Obama freed seven Iranian and Iranian-American men charged with or convicted of violating sanctions against the Islamic republic. Obama again decided to trade for Americans in captivity despite concerns, even inside his own administration, that it might encourage others to target Americans.
Several leading Republican presidential candidates, including Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, criticized the trade.
“Governments are taking Americans hostage because they believe they can gain concessions from this government under Barack Obama,” Rubio said in Iowa. “It’s created an incentive for more people to do this in the future.”
But the families, supporters and administration officials said sometimes a trade is worthwhile. Aides said Obama was haunted by the possibility that Abedini and other Americans would spend years in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. While he refused to release violent criminals or terrorists, Obama deemed the release of a few sanctions-busters a reasonable trade-off, despite the complaints of critics.
“You hear that a lot and I understand the point,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who flew to Germany with the family of Amir Hekmati, another freed American. “This is a complicated world, and we can attempt to deny the way the world works or we can deal with the reality that there are people out there that we don’t like that we have to deal with.”
There are few more difficult dilemmas for a president than deciding whether to barter for the freedom of Americans held abroad at the risk of submitting to international blackmail. During the Cold War, it usually involved soldiers or spies, sometimes at Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, as in the Tom Hanks movie “Bridge of Spies,” which recounts the trade for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
But in recent decades, presidents have confronted civilians held by terrorists or hostile governments as geopolitical pawns. President Jimmy Carter agonized over embassy workers held hostage by Iran for 444 days and sent an ill-fated rescue mission. President Ronald Reagan was so consumed with American hostages held in the Middle East that he traded arms with Iran to secure their release.
Other countries have traded as well. Israel has routinely exchanged imprisoned Palestinians for its own people. In 2011, Israel freed 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including some it deemed terrorists, for Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who had been held by the militant group Hamas for five years.
Obama made clear over the weekend that meeting relatives of prisoners had an effect.
“I’ve seen their anguish, how they ache for their sons and husbands,” he said.
The Iran trade was just the latest of several by Obama. In 2010, on the tarmac of a Vienna airport, his administration swapped 10 Russian sleeper agents arrested in the United States for four Russians held by Moscow for their connections to the West. In May 2014, it traded five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, of Hailey, a U.S. prisoner of war now charged with desertion.
And in December 2014, it traded three Cuban spies for a Cuban who had worked as a U.S. agent.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the Iranians released by the United States were in some cases close to completing their sentences while the fugitives were beyond American reach. “What we gave up, we believe, were people who were about to get out anyway and people that we couldn’t get our hands on,” he told Fox News.