Former Hostage: Under Deal, Iran Has Less Incentive To Hold Americans

Former Hostage: Under Deal, Iran Has Less Incentive To Hold Americans

10:33am Jul 18, 2015
Sarah Shourd in 2011. Hostages, to Iran, are "like money in the bank that eventually gets cashed in — you just don't know when or how long it will take," she says.
Sarah Shourd in 2011. Hostages, to Iran, are "like money in the bank that eventually gets cashed in — you just don't know when or how long it will take," she says.
Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images

President Obama responded sharply this week when a reporter asked if he was "content" to celebrate the nuclear deal with Iran when at least three and possibly four Americans are being held in Iranian jails.

"Nobody's content," he said, "and our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out."

At least one former American hostage thinks the deal is worth signing, despite the remaining hostages.

Sarah Shourd was one of three Americans who were arrested while hiking in an area near the Iraq-Iran border in 2009. They were imprisoned — Shourd for 14 months, her friends for two years.

"It's a good deal," Shourd tells NPR's Scott Simon. "It's a great deal, and it's going to ease tension on both sides. It weakens the hard-liners in Iran, and hopefully it will lead to more regional cooperation between the U.S. and Iran and other countries to combat ISIS."

Shourd, now an author, speaker and playwright, wrote this week in the Daily Beast that the deal is "the right thing" to do, and reduces the incentive for Iran to take and hold hostages.

"For the Iranian government, imprisoning Americans provides an important kind of security ... a bargaining chip they have to use as leverage," she wrote.

She tells Simon that the nuclear deal makes that bargaining chip less valuable.

Click on the audio link above to hear their conversation, including Shourd's description of how her mother helped secure her freedom.


Interview Highlights

On her support for the nuclear agreement

I wish that, of course, these Americans had been released a long time ago and never held in the first place, but from my own experience around the negotiations for our release, I know that tying a hostage situation directly to other negotiations is very problematic.

On the Iranian government's trustworthiness

I think governments are pragmatic entities. Iran has a lot to benefit from this deal. They need it very badly. Easing the suffocating sanctions against ordinary Iranians is something that both [Ayatollah Khamenei] and [President Hassan Rouhani] absolutely needed to deliver.

But I think this nuclear deal is a win-win for everyone. The thing is, if the hostages had been directly tied to this case — there's no doubt that they're connected; the reason Iran holds American hostages is to use them as leverage. They're like money in the bank that eventually will get cashed in — you just don't know when or how long it will take. The good thing about the nuclear deal is it decreases the incentive for the Iranian government to continue to use this tactic. ...

It's not a win-win situation to hold a hostage: It makes them look very cruel; internationally they get a lot of criticism. Once that criticism reaches a peak, that's usually when people get released.

On her apparent equanimity toward Iran

People say that. I hope I don't come across in any way as condoning anything that the Iranian government did to us, or what they do to their own people. I just — in order to survive that year in solitary confinement, I had to see this as part of a historical trajectory that I was an innocent victim of, that it wasn't personal, that it wasn't anything I'd ever done in my life that lead me to that place.

I guess I just like to focus on the bigger picture, and I think with this nuclear deal, it's important to step back and to look at our foreign policy and ask ourselves, what has all of this been for? Who has it benefited? Why has this taken so long, and how can we avoid this kind of dead-end foreign policy in the future?

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The proposed nuclear deal with Iran was reached this week while three Americans, and possibly a fourth, are still an Iranian jails, including a U.S. journalist. President Obama was asked why he reached an agreement without obtaining their release and he told a press conference this week, quote, "nobody's content, and our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out." We turn now to Sarah Shourd. She was one of three Americans who were hiking in an area near the Iran-Iraq border in 2009 and imprisoned - Ms. Shourd for 14 months, her friends for two years. Sarah Shourd, who's now an author, a speaker and a playwright, joins us from Oakland, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

SARAH SHOURD: It's great to be here.

SIMON: You wrote in The Daily Beast this week that you support this nuclear deal even though it doesn't involve the release of the American prisoners who are in Iran. Why?

SHOURD: Well, I mean, it's a good deal. It's a great deal and it's going to ease tension on both sides. It weakens the hard-liners in Iran and hopefully it will lead to more regional cooperation between the U.S. and Iran and other countries to combat ISIS. I wish that, of course, these Americans had been released a long time ago and never held in the first place. But from my own experience around the negotiations of our release, I know that tying a hostage situation directly to other negotiations is very problematic.

SIMON: But based on your experience - and not just your experience alone, but for that matter other Iranian prisoners, political prisoners and other prisoners of the regime - does Iran have a regime that can be trusted?

SHOURD: Well, (laughter) it's a difficult question. I'm not really sure how to answer it. I mean, I think governments are pragmatic entities. Iran has a lot to benefit from this deal. They need it very badly. Easing the suffocating sanctions against ordinary Iranians is something that both the Ayatollah and the president absolutely needed to deliver. But I think that these - this nuclear deal is a win-win for everyone. The thing is, if the hostages had been directly tied to this case - there's no doubt that they're connected. The reason Iran holds American hostages is to use them as leverage. They're like money in the bank that eventually will get cashed in, you just don't know when or how long it will take. The good thing about the nuclear deal is it decreases the incentive for the Iranian government to continue to use this tactic - to need or want or see it as desirable to hold hostages - because it's not a win-win situation to hold a hostage. It makes them look very cruel. Internationally, they get a lot of criticism and once the criticism reaches a peak, that's usually when people get released.

SIMON: Looking back on events, what do you think led to your release?

SHOURD: My release - I believe that the Iranian government really didn't know what to do with the three of us. There was a lot of dispute between President Ahmadinejad's office and the hard-liners and the judiciary. And after a year, they had a way out basically that - my mother was behind the strategy of emphasizing my health problems. I did find a lump in my breast, but the Iranian officials took me to get it examined and I knew - and they knew - that I didn't have cancer. But they were still able to use that as a way out because they were just under a tremendous amount of pressure. And it was a way to save face, to look compassionate before the president went to New York for the U.N. General Assembly that he attends every year.

SIMON: I must say, you sound very understanding for someone who was kept in prison by that regime for 400 and - in solitary confinement for 410 days.

SHOURD: (Laughter) People say that. I don't really - I hope I don't come across in any way as condoning anything that the Iranian government did to us or what they do to their own people. I just - in order to survive that year in solitary confinement, I had to see this as part of a historical trajectory that I was an innocent victim of. That it wasn't personal, that it wasn't anything I'd ever done in my life that led me to that place. I guess I just like to focus on the bigger picture. And I think, with this nuclear deal, it's important to step back and to look at our foreign policy and ask ourselves what has all of this been for. Who has it benefited? Why has this taken so long and how can we avoid this kind of dead-end foreign policy in the future?

SIMON: Sarah Shourd, activist and former U.S. prisoner in Iran. She joined us from Oakland, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHOURD: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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