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Q&A with sociology professor Charles Kurzman on American-Iranian prisoner swap

On Jan. 16, the Iranian government released four American prisoners as part of a prisoner swap between the United States and Iran.

Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini returned to the United States, while a fourth prisoner, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, elected to remain in Iran. In exchange, the United States government released seven Iranian civilians charged with violating economic sanctions.

The exchange comes on the heels of a controversial nuclear weapons agreement between Iran and a group of nations, led by the Obama administration.

Charles Kurzman is a professor of sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. The Daily Tar Heel's staff writer Sam Killenberg spoke with Kurzman about the prisoner swap, the Iran nuclear deal and the implications of both for future Iran-U.S. relations.

The Daily Tar Heel: Why were these people imprisoned to begin with?

Charles Kurzman: Relations between the U.S. and Iran have been difficult for many years, and many officials in the Iranian government are concerned that Americans may be traveling to Iran to spy on the country or to instigate revolts against the Iranian government. I don't know anything specific about the particular individuals, the reasons for their detention, but the overarching motives are pretty clear. 

DTH: Why do you think the prisoners were released?

CK: It appears that these releases are related to the nuclear deal that the U.S. and its allies struck with Iran last year, which has generated a personal relationship between officials in the two governments and has demonstrated the benefits of deescalation of tensions between the two countries.

DTH: Do you think that the deescalation of tensions could be mutually beneficial?

CK: I'm excited to see thawing of relations between the U.S. and Iran. Those of us who study Iran and care for the country have been frustrated for years at poor relations between the two governments that have been hampering scholarly communication, cultural engagement and specific partnerships. I'm hoping that further deescalation and improvement in relations may allow us to ultimately normalize our relations with Iran — to the point where those of us who are interested in the country can travel there, and vice versa. Students can go in both directions and cultural organizations can increase their connections. It would be terrific if we were able to get past political differences to see our commonalities and common interests.

DTH: How do you think that governments have been able to reach these recent deals? 

CK: I think these are long-standing negotiations. It appears that the current office-holders of both countries are committed to improving relations and removing possible trigger points for conflict. But there are also people in both governments and on the political spectrum…who are hostile to detente and who are not optimistic about these improvements, not optimistic that the other side can be trusted.

DTH: How do you think the Iran nuclear deal will influence international relations in the next few years?

CK: I think we're all waiting to see how it plays out. So far it seems that both sides have lived up to their commitments. I think many of us are watching and waiting and hoping that further steps will continue to be taken. As this process continues as it has over the past several months, it appears that Iran’s relations are going to improve. 

DTH: How do you see the state of relations between the United States and Iran changing and evolving in the coming years? 

CK: Well, let’s wait and see. We now have a framework for negotiation, for forging agreements and for implementing them, and if that framework continues to hold, I'm hopeful that we will continue to see improved relations between the two countries. Often the news focuses on the most recent events and sometimes there’s a longer history. Both parties are well aware of that. It’s very present in their minds, and I think that's the case here.

state@dailytarheel.com

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