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The U.S.-Iran prisoner swap 'was the right deal to make,' deputy special envoy says

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For eight years, the Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi was imprisoned in Iran. He spent most of that time behind bars at Tehran's Evin Prison, where he described sleeping on the floor in a closet-sized cell. Well, today he is walking on U.S. soil again, one of five U.S. prisoners released in a controversial deal with Iran. In exchange for Iran freeing Namazi and the other Americans, the U.S. agreed to grant clemency to five Iranian nationals in custody here in the U.S., and the U.S. gave Iran access to $6 billion in Iranian oil money that was essentially frozen in a South Korean bank. Well, Abram Paley is the State Department's deputy special envoy for Iran. He was on the plane home with the detainees, and he is here in our studio now. Welcome.

ABRAM PALEY: Thank you very much. Great to be here on this happy day, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tell me about that plane ride.

PALEY: It was incredible, and what an emotional day to see and hear the strength and compassion that these Americans had as they were returning to see their family members after so many years. And...

KELLY: You were there waiting in Doha as they transited from Tehran through Doha, and then you were on the long flight home to D.C.

PALEY: That's exactly right. So we were there in Doha on the tarmac and saw and witnessed the first moments that they had breaths of fresh air after years in prison. They were, you know, on their way home, escaping this terrible, horrible ordeal and back to see their families.

KELLY: How are they doing? I mean, describe their state of health, their state of mind.

PALEY: They're doing well. They're in good spirits. They could not be more happy to be back with their loved ones, and so it was just an amazing moment to see this joyous occasion in person.

KELLY: Pull back the curtain a little bit on how this deal came to be, because speaking of Doha, this is where the talks took place. And when I say talks, the U.S. was there. Iran was there. You both had teams there. You never met face to face. You stayed in different hotels. How did it work?

PALEY: From Day 1 of this administration, the president and the secretary have been very clear that they will do whatever it takes to bring Americans home. And then finally, in Qatar, we found a path forward. And through principled diplomacy, principled negotiations, we were happy with what we ended up with.

KELLY: This was actually the Qataris shuttling back and forth between your hotels?

PALEY: That's exactly right. So the Qataris shuttled back and forth and played a key role in helping bridge the gap between us and the Iranians. And what we came out with was a deal that we think was wonderful for these people to be reunited with their families and a good deal for the American people.

KELLY: Even as Americans obviously are celebrating the return home of five fellow Americans, you will have seen criticism of this deal. And I want to invite you to respond. One concern is this deal will only encourage more Iranian hostage taking. Will it?

PALEY: This deal was about bringing these Americans home, and it did just that. Being able to be there and witness the moments when they saw their loved ones for the first time, when they were able to hug them made it clear that this deal was the right deal to take. This...

KELLY: But if you were sitting in Tehran watching this unfold, would you think, hey, that worked, we got something for that?

PALEY: I can't speak to the Iranians and their perspective. The perspective I can speak to was the loved ones that saw their family members after years on that tarmac, and that made clear that this was the right deal. This was the deal that got them out of prison and did not let them rot away in Evin Prison.

KELLY: I mentioned the other piece of this deal, which was that Iran got access to $6 billion. That money, as I understand it, is now sitting in a bank account in Qatar. The U.S. says Iran can only use it for food, for medicine and so forth. But I want you to listen to - this is Republican Congressman Michael McCaul. He chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This was him speaking on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL MCCAUL: We all know money's fungible. And then the president of Iran just came out and said, I'm going to spend it however I want to. And of course he is, and guess where it's going to go. It's going to go into terror proxy operations. It's going to go into building their nuclear - you know, their nuclear not defense system but offensive system.

KELLY: Abram Paley, how can you be sure that that won't happen?

PALEY: So after years of principled diplomacy, we came away with a deal that we are confident in. As we've said and as the Treasury Department has said, we will have strict oversight over these funds, and we'll be able to see what it's being used for. And if Iran is not using it for the purposes that are laid out, we will have ways to lock these funds out.

KELLY: Is Iran clear on that? Because Congressman McCaul is correct. It is true that Iran's president, President Raisi, just said in an interview with NBC News that Iran is going to spend this 6 billion, quote, "wherever we need it."

PALEY: I can't speak to what the Iranians are saying. I can say that I'm not surprised. They need to spin this for their own domestic audiences. All I can say is I know what the terms of this deal are, and I am confident that these funds will be used only for humanitarian purposes.

KELLY: I mean, just one more point on this. Is it out of the realm of possibility that Iran could use this $6 billion on food, on medicine, on humanitarian things but divert money it was spending on those things to things like funding proxy groups or its nuclear program?

PALEY: You know, at the end of the day, this deal is about bringing these Americans home, and it did just that. And to be able to sit there and watch the smiles on their faces and the faces of their loved ones showed that this was the right deal.

KELLY: Does this open the door to any other kind of talks, any other kinds of progress, any other kind of discussion between the U.S. and Iran?

PALEY: This deal was about this morning on the tarmac in Fort Belvoir. It's not about any change to our overall Iran policy, which has remained the same. Iran remains an adversary. Iran remains a state sponsor of terrorism. This deal was about getting these Americans home.

KELLY: Might it, at the very least, provide some kind of floor to a relationship that has been awful?

PALEY: It's hard to say at this point, and we'll see. All I can say is that today, these five Americans are reunited with their loved ones.

KELLY: Abram Paley is the State Department's deputy special envoy for Iran. Thank you for joining us.

PALEY: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mallory Yu
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.