Prisoner Exchanges And Hostage Diplomacy In US Foreign Policy – Analysis


By Kristian Alexander and Gina Bou Serhal

(FPRI) — Evan Gershkovich was in Yekaterinburg in March 2023 reporting for The Wall Street Journal when he was arrested by Russia’s Department for Counterintelligence Operations (DKRO) and charged with espionage. This marked the first time a journalist from the United States had been held on such charges since the Cold War. According to the Wall Street Journal, who vehemently deny the allegations against Gershkovich, the DKRO has “intensified its operations in recent years as the conflict between Moscow and Washington worsened.” Russia also charged Paul Whelan, a former US Marine, with spying in 2018, and detained Trevor Reed, another former Marine, for assaulting a police officer in 2019. 

These arrests highlight the extent to which America’s adversaries are willing to violate international and human rights laws to gain diplomatic leverage at the expense of high-profile American targets. The history of prisoner exchanges in US foreign policy is intertwined with the concept of hostage diplomacy, the deliberate strategy of using individuals, often foreign nationals, as pawns in international disputes. This tactic, used by both state and non-state actors, involves the capture or detention of individuals from one country and leveraging their release as a bargaining chip to achieve political, diplomatic, or economic goals. 

Hostage diplomacy is seen as a violation of international law and human rights, as it places innocent individuals in harm’s way for political gains. In the past, authoritarian regimes who have historically been at odds politically with the United States, mainly China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, have presented arbitrary arrests of Western journalists and nongovernmental organization staff stationed in their countries as the basis for claims of espionage or threats to national security. 

Similarly, in an attempt to exert political leverage over Washington, US adversaries will often exploit hostage-taking as a means of “asymmetrical warfare”—particularly nations such as Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, who have achieved a “pariah status” on the global stage, according to a recent Soufan Center report. The report further indicates such actions do not occur “in a vacuum,” but rather underscore the nature of today’s complex global security environment whereby post-Cold War great-power rivalries continue to transcend the limits of multilateral cooperation.

The recent Hamas-Israel prisoner exchanges have taken place through mediated negotiations involving various actors, including Egypt, Germany, the United States, and Qatar. The International Committee of the Red Cross has also been involved to help facilitate the release process in Gaza.

Hamas has seemingly succeeded in imposing its will and forcing the Israeli government to engage in prisoner exchange deals, leading to the release of both Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. The exchanges resulted from prolonged negotiations and have been accompanied by temporary ceasefires to facilitate the process.

For Hamas, the release of Palestinian prisoners had the potential to boost its public support, particularly in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where many of the freed Palestinians have returned.

On the other hand, the prisoner exchanges have presented a complex challenge for Israel. While the release of Israeli hostages has been a priority, the exchange has also involved the release of Palestinian prisoners, some of whom have been involved in violent crimes and terrorist activities. Many, however, were held under arbitrary detention without trial. 

This has sparked debates about the moral equivalency between the two groups and has raised concerns about the potential security risks associated with the release of these prisoners. 

Historical Background: Prisoner Exchanges and Hostage Diplomacy

Throughout US history, several incidents have underscored the complexities of hostage diplomacy and the role of prisoner exchanges. One of the most prominent examples occurred during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when American diplomats and embassy staff were held hostage at the US embassy in Tehran for 444 days. This event marked a turning point in US-Iran relations and demonstrated the challenges of hostage diplomacy. It also set the stage for subsequent developments in the realm of prisoner exchanges.

North Korea has a history of detaining foreign citizens, often on dubious charges, as a means of exerting pressure on other governments. The dictatorship has arrested several South Korean and Japanese citizens, but is perhaps most infamous for the imprisonment of American college student Otto Warmbier in 2016. Warmbier fell into a coma soon after his detention, and when he was finally released in 2017 he was in a vegetative state. He died shortly after. 

Following America’s War on Terror and subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a rise in the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-orchestrated abductions, particularly among Westerners, began to occur. Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the former second-in-command of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), wrote in a 2012 letter to the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa that “kidnapping hostages was a profitable trade and a precious treasure.” From 2011 to 2013, AQAP was estimated to have raised nearly $20 million from kidnap-for-ransom funding and “al Qaeda and its direct affiliates had received at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008—primarily from European governments. In the last year alone [2016], they received 66 million dollars.”

As a result, former President Barack Obama issued a review of the government’s response to hostage-taking overseas. The findings of the investigation suggested the government must continue to evolve its strategies following the unprecedented shift in the abduction and brutal treatment, often ending in death, of numerous Americans captured abroad. Obama issued an executive order in 2015 prioritizing a whole-of-government approach in reforming US hostage policy including the creation of a new position, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Roger D. Carstens has been in this position since March 2, 2020. His role is to lead and coordinate activities across the executive branch to bring home US national hostages and “wrongful detainees held abroad, support their families, and end the practice of hostage diplomacy.” Carstens has characterized the US approach to hostage-taking as a complex and high-stakes diplomatic endeavor. He has emphasized that multi-agency efforts are involved in bringing home hostages, particularly in regions like Gaza where intermediaries, such as Qatar, play a crucial role. Carstens has stressed the confidentiality of negotiations, citing the fragility of deals and the potential collapse if details are prematurely disclosed. In a recent interview, he acknowledged the challenging nature of negotiating with entities like Hamas and the need for discretion.

The policy also established the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a permanent agency staffed with various government entities from the FBI, the State Department, the Departments of Justice and the Treasury, and the intelligence community whose sole purpose is to coordinate the recovery of abducted Americans abroad. The Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell aims to ensure best-practice solutions for hostage recovery plans and the tracking of abducted Americans, while trying to maintain consistent, transparent communication with families and loved ones, Congress, and the media. 

There has been a recent slew of Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas, including Whelan and women’s basketball player Brittney Griner, who was arrested in Moscow on drug-related charges in February 2022, two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Biden administration resolved the Griner case through a prisoner swap in which the United States released Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer, in return for Griner. 

The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation was established in 2014 to honor the US journalist who was killed by the Islamic State. According to the organization, there are currently sixty-four publicly disclosed hostage and wrongfully detained Americans abroad. 

As a result of the growing international recognition such cases are gaining, President Joe Biden branded the wrongful and unlawful detentions of US nationals abroad as a national emergency, issuing a new executive order in July 2022 reaffirming his commitment to ensuring the safe return of Americans held captive overseas, which he constituted as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” The orderprovided additional tools for the US government to impose costs, including sanctions on terrorist organizations, criminal groups, and malevolent actors—as well as individuals who are indirectly involved in attempting to capture or wrongfully detain American citizens abroad for financial or political gains.

A Case Study: Iran Uses “Arrest” of US Journalist as Leverage in Nuclear Talks

In 2014, Jason Rezaian, the former Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post was arrested, along with his wife, at their home in Iran. Rezaian was initially arrested on espionage charges as a result of claims he was serving as the Central Intelligence Agency’s Tehran station chief. According to Rezaian, the timing of his arrest was no mere coincidence. He was reporting on negotiations between the United States and Iran over the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and Rezaian believes his arrest was a gambit by Iran to extract concessions from the Obama administration. After serving 544 days in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison, known for its brutal conditions, Rezaian was eventually released in the hours leading up to the implementation of the JCPOA

In September 2023, the two countries participated in a prisoner swap that signified a partial thaw in their long-standing adversarial relationship. In this exchange, five American citizens held in Iran were released into custody in Qatar, where they stayed briefly before heading home to the United States. In exchange, the United States released five Iranians and unblocked $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil funds held in South Korea. However, Biden imposed new sanctions on Iran’s intelligence ministry and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for their involvement in wrongful detentions. 

The negotiations for this deal took several months and represent a noteworthy breakthrough despite the ongoing disagreements between the two nations over various issues, including the JCPOA, military support for Russia, and domestic suppression of dissent. The prisoner swap was brokered by Qatar, which hosted several rounds of indirect meetings between the United States and Iran since March 2022, and Biden expressed gratitude to the Qatari government as well as Oman, Switzerland, and South Korea, who all assisted in securing the releases.

The deal stipulated the release of five US citizens with dual nationality from Iranian custody in exchange for the return of five Iranians. Two of the Iranian detainees returned to Iran, two remained in the United States at their request, and the fifth joined his family in an undisclosed country. Among the released US citizens is Siamak Namazi, who had been held since 2015. Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized that there is no higher priority for Biden than ensuring the return of unjustly detained Americans. Namazi’s case gained international attention, and he was described as the “longest-held Iranian-American imprisoned in Iran.” His family is part of the Bring Our Families Home campaign, which advocates for the release of wrongful detainees and hostages. Namazi’s image is featured in a fifteen-foot mural in Washington, D.C., along with other Americans wrongfully detained abroad. Since the onset of his presidency, Biden has overseen the release of thirty-five Americans wrongfully detained overseas.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Nasser Kanaani announced the release of the frozen assets, which were originally back payments owed to Iran from South Korea for past crude oil purchases that were blocked due to US sanctions. South Korea stopped purchasing Iranian oil after former President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018. In November 2018, South Korea was granted a waiver from the United States on Iranian oil imports and financial transactions. However, in 2021, the row between Iran and South Korea worsened over billions of dollars in Iranian oil funds frozen by US sanctions. Tehran demanded the release of approximately seven billion dollars of its funds held in South Korean banks.

The Republican opposition in the United States criticized the move, calling it a ransom payment. Senator Tom Cotton stated: “First Joe Biden used 9/11 as an excuse to flee Afghanistan. Now he desecrates this day by paying ransom to the world’s worst state sponsor.” The White House defended the deal, emphasizing that Qatar would maintain control of the assets and ensure the funds are used for humanitarian purposes and not items under US sanctions including food, medicine, and agricultural products.

The status of US-Iran relations remains uncertain. While European allies hope that progress on the detainee issue may lead to more productive nuclear talks, expectations remain low, given Iran’s recent stance and actions regarding its nuclear program. US-Iran relations have been marked by tensions and challenges, with Washington expressing concerns about Iranian foreign policy, including support for terrorism and the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Tehran, on the other hand, has accused the US of undermining its government and pursuing a hostile agenda.

Qatar has played a significant role in mediating prisoner swaps between the United States and Iran, involving the transfer of funds and the release of detainees. The Qatari government has facilitated shuttle diplomacy and served as a mediator to broker deals between the involved parties. In the case of the US-Iran prisoner swap, Qatar mediated the transfer of nearly seven billion dollars in Iranian funds, which was a key component of the agreement. The funds were to be administered by Qatar and used for humanitarian purposes, as per the terms of the agreement. The Qatari mediation has been instrumental in enabling the release of detainees and the transfer of funds, contributing to the resolution of hostage-related issues between the United States and Iran.

Methods Employed in Prisoner Exchanges

Prisoner exchanges hold significance beyond the mere release of individuals. They often serve as a springboard to create diplomatic channels and rebuild trust between nations with strained relations. Hostage releases are often promoted by administrations to demonstrate how much they care about their citizens, but they also show that the government can use diplomacy, rather than military action, to resolve conflicts. Prisoner exchanges can set the stage for discussions on critical issues, as exemplified by the recent swap between the United States and Iran, which rekindled indirect dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program.

The United States has different methods to procure the release of prisoners. However, diplomatic negotiations are typically the primary means of securing the release of detainees. These negotiations may involve direct talks with the detaining country or intermediaries facilitating discussions. Intermediaries often play a crucial role in maintaining a level of confidentiality and providing a channel for communication, especially when official diplomatic relations are strained.

Individuals with diplomatic expertise and a track record of international negotiations have played pivotal roles in facilitating the release or exchange of US hostages. One such individual was Bill Richardson, a former US diplomat and politician who died in September 2023. Richardson served as the governor of New Mexico and as a US ambassador to the United Nations, and he used this experience to establish rapport with international counterparts. Through his nonprofit, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, Richardson was able to secure the release of dozens of Americans held captive abroad. 

Richardson could engage with nations that were not typically open to formal diplomatic channels. He met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1995, Cuban President Fidel Castro in 1996, and Myanmar’s junta in 2021. This often led to criticism from human rights activists, but Richardson continued his “fringe diplomacy” and was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, including in August 2023. 

Conditions for Prisoner Exchanges

Although the United States has maintained a longstanding policy of providing no concessions to terrorist groups during hostage crises, there remains some flexibility when negotiating with a state who has wrongly detained a US citizen, even arbitrarily for political purposes. There are numerous factors that can create opportune conditions for prisoner exchanges. 

There has to be a willingness on the part of both the detaining country and the country seeking the release of its citizens to engage in dialogue. This willingness signifies a readiness to explore diplomatic solutions to the crisis. The convergence of geopolitical interests may create favorable conditions for exchanges. For example, the release of American prisoners may be sought in exchange for economic assets, concessions, or the resolution of broader international issues.

The involvement of neutral third-party mediators, such as Switzerland, Qatar, or an international organization, can facilitate negotiations by providing a trusted space for dialogue and helping to bridge gaps between the parties involved. The participation of an outside mediator, however, blurs the line of the US government’s policy of no concessions in hostage situations.

For decades, relations between the United States and Iran have remained fraught, mainly over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its regional influence, and its ability to project power through supporting its vast network of regional proxies. By default, hostage diplomacy often becomes interwoven into the geopolitical dynamic of the two adversaries.

When engaging with a non-state actor, such as terrorists or criminals, compared to a nation-state, hostage diplomacy efforts are viewed with even further scrutiny, considering conflict resolution typically relies on frameworks based on diplomatic protocols and international law. Negotiating with non-state actors, or “rogue” states is often viewed as ethically or morally unacceptable, and undermines established international norms.

Furthermore, US law prohibits ransom payments to groups or individuals considered “foreign terrorists” as designated by the State Department, yet there is no such limitation when negotiating with nation states.

Humanitarian considerations often play a significant role in creating the conditions for prisoner exchanges. The desire to reunite detained individuals with their families and to secure their well-being can be a motivating factor.

A notable case is the exchange of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in 2014. Bergdahl was a US Army soldier who was captured by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network in Afghanistan in June 2009 and held for nearly five years. The exchange took place on May 31, 2014, when the US government secured Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Humanitarian considerations played a role in the decision to negotiate the exchange. Bergdahl’s health and well-being during his captivity were a significant concern and there were fears for his life.


The recent exchange between the United States and Iran is a case study in the complex dynamics of prisoner-exchange talks. Negotiating the release of detained Americans requires meticulous consideration of the benefits and the potential pitfalls. On the one hand, such discussions lay the groundwork for future diplomacy with the state that is detaining the prisoners, and serve as an example for future conflicts with other countries. Engaging in such negotiations, however, can send a message to other bad actors that wrongfully detaining Americans can be fruitful.

Success hinges on the commitment of the involved parties, and the broader geopolitical context within which they unfold. In navigating this terrain, nations must balance the imperatives of diplomacy, humanitarianism, and security, striving for outcomes that uphold international norms. In parallel, the United States must continue to prioritize preventative measures such as travel advisories or potential travel bans for Americans to deter undesirable actions in potential hostage hotspots. Raising the cost in terms of financial repercussions should be imposed on those who exploit hostage diplomacy by undermining international law and human rights for their own political or financial gains. 

One such option is for states to adopt legislation that punishes and deters human rights abusers and those involved in significant corruption, similar to the US Magnitsky Act, passed in 2012. The Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program, which was subsequently adopted in various forms by several countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, and Japan was designed as an enforcement mechanism for governments to legally freeze assets, implement travel bans and visa denials, and impose sanctions on individuals and entities from all over the globe who are found guilty of infringing on the rights of others for political, economic, or coercive gains. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

About the authors:

  • Dr. Kristian Alexander is a senior fellow and director of the International Security & Terrorism Program at Trends Research & Advisory in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
  • Gina Bou Serhal is a researcher at Trends Research & Advisory in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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