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With a Prisoner Swap and $6 Billion, Iran’s President Has Changed the Subject

7 minute read

Without the diplomatic immunity conferred on visiting heads of state, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi might be in a real pickle. His resume is littered with corpses—thousands of men and women whose summary executions in 1988 constitute “grave war crimes,” according to the Swedish court that last year sentenced a former guard to life in prison for assisting in the deaths Raisi had, along with two other Iranian officials, ordered.

Instead, Tuesday found Raisi at the plenum of the U.N. General Assembly, claiming the moral high ground during what he would likely count as a successful visit to the Great Satan. By the time he left New York City, the news was no longer the one-year anniversary of the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, whose killing in September of 2022 ignited months of spontaneous protests across the Islamic Republic. The subject had changed to the release Monday of five U.S. citizens, in exchange for access to $6 billion, informal assurances on the status of Iran’s nuclear program, and the reciprocal release of five Iranians. The Council of Foreign Relations invited Raisi to a stop by, and he also passsed an hour with a group of U.S. journalists.

“There’s that theater. There was an opportunity to change the subject from talking about the anniversary of the protests," says Vali Nasr, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who advised the Obama Administration on Iran. "The American media would be focusing on this instead.”

Read more: Mahsa Amini's Death Still Haunts the Iranian Regime

The regime’s security forces needed four months to reclaim the streets from protesters, killing more than 500 and arresting tens of thousands in the process. For several weeks, the uprising, led by young women, was so widespread and intense that a prominent dissident said it might actually topple the theocracy that has ruled the nation of 88 million since 1979.

“I think this particular year, for Raisi, it’s very important to show that Iran is still standing after the protests last year, and that it’s not isolated,” says Nasr. “That’s an important message that they want to send to constituents at home, to the protesters, to the reporters, to Iranians abroad, and to other governments."

The White House helped. Though the Biden Administration voiced strong support for the protests, it also has made a priority of freeing Americans imprisoned abroad. Eventually it not only re-engaged with the mullahs, it also arranged a windfall, ordering the release from South Korean accounts of $6 billion in oil revenue frozen by U.S. sanctions. Transferred to the safekeeping of Qatar, the middleman in the hostage deal, the money may be used only to buy food or medicine. But that frees up $6 billion in Iran’s $53 billion annual budget—effectively boosting it by 11%.

“Raisi is normalizing evil with some success,” says Roya Boroumand, an Iranian exile whose father was assassinated, and who has invested years in tallying the number of people the Islamic Republic has killed. (“We’re around 26,000,” she says. “But it’s certainly much more.”) Boroumand says the trappings of legitimacy around the annual U.N. gathering are "directly harming the people who get killed in the streets, because it makes them more vulnerable. It makes the state more arrogant: ‘I've killed more than 1,000 people, and I'm getting money back for returning people I have wrongly detained, and they sit and talk to me.’”

One of those detained was Siamak Namazi, a dual American and Iranian citizen who ran a consulting business in Tehran. Named a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum, in Tehran he also received reporters endeavoring to untangle Iranian politics, which for a couple of decades appeared to be a genuine contest. Though ultimate power in the country is held by unelected, hardline clerics, reformers regularly won elected offices, including that of President, thereby keeping alive the hopes of a population chafing at the hardliners' domination of almost every element of life.

That hope officially ended with Raisi’s 2021 election—in a contest that, because unelected hardliners decide what names will appear on the ballot, did not even include a reform candidate. His ascension sealed the retrograde and brittle rule that protesters rose up against a year ago, and that Raisi spent the week assuring everyone will remain. Most of the protesters, he said, were naive youths misled by outside influences, including Western media.

“Not only are they not backing down, but they're toughening the laws,” Boroumand notes. The confrontation “is going to become more bloody because these girls are not backing down either.”

And yet the impression, for now, is of a return to the status quo ante. Nasr says the prisoner exchange and the $6 billion will buy peace through the uncertainty of the U.S. presidential election, which may return to office Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran’s tacit understanding with the Biden Administration, Nasr says, is that in the meantime Iran will neither advance its nuclear program nor direct the militias it controls to attack U.S. forces in the Middle East. “The larger argument is this at least establishes some sort of baseline so the U.S. and Iran can hold on to a ceasefire for the next year and a half, which gets us through the U.S. elections," he says. "If they can ever dream of addressing other issues, they had to do this much.”

Read more: Iranian Women Are Still Fighting

Raisi's visit gave Israel an opportunity to post "Butcher of Tehran" cutouts around Manhattan. On the nearest corner to the hotel where he met invited journalists on Monday, dozens of protestors chanted the names of the prisons where as many as 5,000 people were hanged without trial in the space of three months in 1988. The massacre was a pivotal event in the history of the Islamic Republic, so outraging the deputy of then Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini that a new successor had to be found. Raisi, who held the title of deputy prosecutor for Tehran, was one of the three officials who briefly questioned the prisoners, deciding who would live or die, before sending them to the gallows.

A colleague with whom I often worked, years later when I was covering the country, had been an inmate in Evin Prison at the time. He said he had been ordered to cut down the bodies. When he freed the first, the head hit the pavement with a sound he says he cannot forget.

In the meeting with journalists, each was allowed one question. I asked Raisi his views on universal jurisdiction, the legal concept under which countries may prosecute war crimes that were committed elsewhere. It’s how Sweden tried and convicted Hamid Noury, the former guard. I was asked to repeat the question. He had been implicated in war crimes; would he have come to New York without diplomatic immunity?

His answer came through a translator, and sounded a bit like a threat.

“The ones who should be concerned—not even traveling throughout the globe but even staying in their own homes—are not the ones who have not trampled upon any laws nor disrupted the balance of society, the peace of society,” Raisi said, his voice rising. “The ones who on the other hand should be concerned are the ones who are promoting and propagating the disruption of balances in societies."

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