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The New Iranian Hostage Crisis

The current chief Iranian negotiator is Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary of the Iranian Human Rights Council, the director of the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, and an advisor to the supreme leader.  He is the eldest of five very powerful brothers including Ali (who negotiated with the George W. Bush administration) and Chief Justice Sadeqh Larijani.  Mohammad Larijani has plenty of experience  in direct, bilateral negotiations with the United States.  He goes back to the Reagan years, having met with Robert McFarlane in Iran in May, 1986.

Mohammad recently gave himself a rhetorical award for courage, declaring that Iran would negotiate with the United States “even at the bottom of hell,” should that be in its interests.  He needn't worry about the venue;  his most frequent trips have been to Switzerland.

Meanwhile, talks go on at lower levels, such as the so-called "Track Two" meetings involving think-tank intellectuals and former U.S. officials such as Thomas Pickering and Frank Wisner, and at least one recent get-together in Switzerland involving a former G.H.W. Bush official.  Moreover, the Swiss government -- our official diplomatic proxy for discussions with the Iranian regime -- has been active. The Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Livia Leu Agosti, spent several hours with a Khamenei aide shortly before the November elections, and a few days after Obama's victory, Mohammad Larijani flew to Switzerland to meet with Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter.

The Iranian-Swiss talks produced an outline of what an acceptable agreement might look like.  Both sides were to make good-faith gestures at the outset.  The Iranians promised to let the IAEA return to inspect Parchin, and they agreed to new talks with the so-called 5 + 1 (US, Germany, France, England, China, and Russia).  The Iranians have delivered on both counts.

For their part, the Iranians had several demands, including easing sanctions.  But their number one requirement for an American gesture  is right out of the historic playbook:  hostage releases.

Both Americans and Iranians are in captivity.  The Iranians insist on the return of the 48  "pilgrims" captured by the Free Syrian Army in Damascus last August.  Those men are not pious tourists at all;  they're mostly from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps,  and their superiors in Tehran badly want them back, in no small part because some of them are senior officers who know a great deal about Iran's global operations.

In exchange, the Iranians are offering to release several Americans under arrest in Iran.  The most recent American arrested there is Saeed Abedini, a pastor who reportedly converted to Christianity in the United States; the list includes a former Marine, perhaps a former FBI agent, and an elderly Iranian-American scholar.  And there are others, whose names have not appeared in any account I have read, who the Iranians believe to be CIA agents.

Even if the White House is willing, it may well be impossible for the United States to deliver.  FSA spokesmen have been bitterly critical of America's failure to help them;  why should they release such valuable prisoners  at a time when they are fighting Iranian-backed killers from the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah?

Nobody knows how the secret negotiations will work out, or indeed whether they will resume in the near future.  But everyone should know that direct Iran-U.S. talks are very old news, that they've continued as recently as the last couple of months, and there's no particular sign that any breakthrough is imminent.

UPDATE:  Thanks to Instapundit, the one and only!

BIG UPDATE:  The Iranian killers released!  http://pjmedia.com/tatler/2013/01/09/the-prisoner-swap-in-syria/