Inside the secret talks that led to a US prisoner exchange with Iran
In 2019, when US relations with Iran were at a low point, a non-governmental group called The Richardson Center mediated a prisoner swap between the two countries that brought home Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American graduate student.
Mickey Bergman, the group’s vice president and executive director, helped direct the talks. He describes the negotiation on this episode.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
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JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:
From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, welcome to The Negotiators. Each week, we feature one person telling the story of one dramatic negotiation that either succeeded or failed. I’m Jenn Williams, one of the deputy editors here at Foreign Policy.
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JENN: This week, we’re going to hear about a prisoner exchange negotiated in 2019 between the United States and Iran. Relations between the two countries at the time were at their lowest point in decades, in part over Iran’s nuclear program. President Trump had pulled the United States out of a nuclear deal with Iran and expanded economic sanctions. In the midst of all that tension, a small organization, headed by a former US governor, set out to try and win the release of Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American imprisoned in Iran. Wang was a graduate student at Princeton in 2016 when he traveled to Iran for research. Iranian authorities arrested him on charges of espionage and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. The organization that mediated his release is called the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. It’s headed by Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, US congressman, and ambassador to the United Nations. Mickey Bergman, the group’s vice president, conducted much of the negotiation. He begins the story by describing a phone call he received from Wang’s wife in 2018.
We had the family of Xiyue Wang approach us around March of 2018. That is the typical way we work; so we work on behalf of families. So we do not work on behalf of governments. We don’t get paid by governments. We’re a non-for-profit, non-government organization, and our mandate comes from the families. And in this case, it was Hua — who was Xiyue Wang’s wife — that reached out to us. She was trying to explain what her situation is; what her husband’s situation is. Xiyue Wang was a Princeton Ph.D. student, and his Ph.D. focus was on the Persian culture, and he was in Iran as a part of his research work. And he was arrested in Iran. And so Hua was sharing some of the frustrations of some of the walls that she felt like she’s been hitting, and was very curious and eager to see if there’s something that we can do to be helpful with this.
When you meet with a family, it is very, very intense, because here you are meeting somebody that you’ve never met before, and you can only imagine the situation which they’re in — emotionally, physically. And you’re trying to talk them through this, and to ask questions to get information that you know that they’ve been asked a million times already. And they’re frustrated with it. But you want to make sure that you get the information that you need, while at the same time explaining to them what it is that you think you might be able to do. And those conversations are really, really hard. A call with a family would typically take about an hour, an hour and a half. I can’t schedule another thing after that for quite a while, because I absorb a lot of those emotions, and I need to find a way to defuse them myself.
With every case that we take — and we get a lot of phone calls and approaches — we have to do our own due diligence, because we are in the business of trying to help families of unlawfully detained or hostages. But we are not in the business of helping criminals get out of prison. So there’s a lot of Americans out there that for one reason or another, break the law in countries that are not United States, and that’s not what we do — we’re not trying to get them out of jail. And so, the first avenue that we take is looking at what is publicly available. So you start looking at documents that are public on the story behind the detainment, the story about the person. And in this realm, you see a lot of misinformation, a lot of partial information, but you’re starting to get a little bit of a picture of what are the different claims around a specific arrest. The second avenue that we take is actually trying to work with our own colleagues inside the US government, mainly with the Department of State, because the people are held in other countries. And there is something called the Privacy Act, so they are not allowed to share any specific information with us about the case, and they absolutely adhere to that guidance. So what we do have is a level of trust and familiarity with individuals in which — I ask a simple question. I would ask them, “Hey, this family has approached us about this case. I just need to know if there’s a red flag around it.” So if there is somebody who is a pedophile and went to a country, you know — for sex tourism, for example — and got arrested, people in the Department of State will know very clearly, very quickly that there is true evidence against this person. And it doesn’t mean that the person gets deserted and unaccompanied and not helped. But we are not in the business of helping criminals get out of prison.
Very quickly, in the case of Wang, we concluded that — even though we can’t know for certain — that this case was a case in which Iran basically detained Wang because of their interest in influencing US policy, and that it was clearly stated that only an intervention by the US will get him out. And these are two very strong indicators that a detainment is unlawful.
So we decided to take the case, and at that point, I’m supposed to try and come up with a strategy of — what are the things that we can do to try and, kind of, poke and see what we can get? And with the Iranians, at that point, I did not have any connections or previous relationships. This is a general statement about this work: It’s very hard to establish a trusting relationship in the middle of a crisis. Therefore, it’s so important to establish trusting relationships and to build them and to maintain them before there is a crisis. So when there is a crisis, you can call on those, and you can already have that sense of trust, which means that you can exchange ideas and conversations with a trusted partner without them feeling that they’re risking something; that you will expose them. And that trust that you build over time — you know, for us, it can be through humanitarian work, it can be through just meaningful engagement. But it’s important to know it’s not fake trust. You’re not just pretending that somebody can trust you. You actually need to demonstrate and to act as if they can trust you and that you can trust them. Which means that we spend a lot of our time not only on resolving and negotiating the release of prisoners, we spend a lot of time on engagement, on building up relationships — especially when there is no prisoners around. At some point, we actually used a colleague that has the relationship with the Iranians, and have built that trust with them, and had him basically vouch for me and for the governor in order to get a meeting and to establish, kind of, a relationship. And that manifested itself around the summer of 2019 in a dinner that we had with the Iranian representative to the United Nations.
This was a private dinner that we hosted. It was only five people in the room. Introducing ourself to begin with — the governor has a way of doing that with a lot of humor, which is always very helpful. And we started, kind of, exploring and saying, “Look, you know, we know things are bad on the bilateral between the US and Iran.” Don’t forget, this is 2019, so this is — this is at the height of the Trump administration and the maximum-pressure approach. And then we argue for the humanitarian angle — you know, trying to convince them that they’re better off finding a solution for it that can benefit them, rather than holding an American, because God forbid something might happen to that American in prison. But the conversation goes — it starts with a soft conversation. We’re talking about humanitarian needs — what is it that we can do to help? And it’s important to realize, these conversations can never start with, “Oh, what do you need me to give you in order for you to give me the prisoner?” Because, from the perspective of the captor, that person is never a political prisoner. They’re a criminal that is paying for their crimes. And if you attack that, then you won’t have the conversation that you want to have. We’re not engaging here in a direct, you know, “Give me X, I will give you Y.” Instead of that, our framing of the conversation is: What is a set of humanitarian gestures — that are independent of each other — that we can do in order to create goodwill, in order to change the direction of the communications and the bilateral relations between the two countries? Is it about finding avenue to have medicine supplied? Is it about access to food? Are there any things, you know — anything that is specific that we can try and help on the humanitarian level of the policy concession, in order to create that good will that might enable us to move forward and have a good-will gesture on the other side, which, for us, should be the release of the Americans? So that was — again, it was initial conversation, initial dinner. A lot of ideas were surfaced on that dinner, but it was also very clear to us that we need to find an opportunity to actually meet with the foreign minister himself when he is in town.
When it came specifically — when we started working on, on Wang’s case, we actually had a conversation with the national security adviser at the time, which was John Bolton, to let him know, “Hey, we’re stepping in on this, and we’re going to engage.” Sometimes there are places in which we can come up with the right leverage independent of the US government, and figure out a way to get an American back. But sometimes — and that we knew clearly in the case of Iran — what will be needed in order to resolve it will have to come from the US government. Except that the US government cannot directly engage in these conversations. And so our role, in this case, is to basically almost brainstorm informally with our counterparts of what might a solution look like, and then try to bring it to the US government. And then the US government can make a decision whether that’s good enough for them or not good enough for them. And knowing that that’s going to be the end game, it would be silly of us not to brief the government early on about our meetings and about what we’re doing.
So the next meeting we had was in September with Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif. It was during his visit to the United Nations and we were able, thanks to the help of former congressman Jim Slattery, to get us this meeting with Zarif. For me, it was the first time I’ve met Zarif in person. It was a very, very warm and friendly meeting. Anybody who has engaged with Zarif knows he’s a very charming and charismatic individual, very friendly. And the conversation started with him repeating to us that Iran wanted to do a global exchange of prisoners. Meaning that all prisoners — Americans that are in Iran, Iranians that are in the United States, but also Iranians that are in Australia or Iranians that are in Europe. He wanted a comprehensive deal that just — everybody lets everybody go. That was kind of his concept. And I think they thought about it because they knew of how much President Trump was talking about the high value he places in bringing back American prisoners. And they were surprised that the United States just completely dismissed that concept from the start. It was a nonstarter. And sitting in that meeting, we tried to explain to him that, while it is true that President Trump wants to bring back Americans that are imprisoned, he does not want to appear as if he’s paying for it or giving something in return. And the foreign minister looked at us and said, “Well, if that’s the case, I don’t think we can solve this.” And we said to him, “Look, actually, you can. You just need to break it into one at a time, and you need to find, for each of those, a package of humanitarian gestures that are happening simultaneously. And if we can identify what that is, we can start knocking off that list.” And he — to his credit, he said, “Well, that’s actually can be interested.” And so that’s where the conversation started, about breaking down from that concept of global exchange of prisoners into individual cases, and what are the certain packages that might fit for that.
I’ve learned something very important about our Iranian counterparts, and that is the importance of them of symmetry. It’s a matter of high priority to them that we are seen on equal footing. It means that if we are looking at releasing an American who is an academic in Iran — which Wang was; a Ph.D. student doing his research there — the gesture that needs to happen simultaneously is a release of an Iranian academic. And that’s when we started zooming in and looking at the case of Soleimani. You know, his name first surfaced for us in that meeting, but of course, the foreign minister needed a few days to figure out whether that’s going to work for him.
Soleimani, he’s a professor. He was arrested in the United States for a violation of sanctions. A couple of his students were trying to move back some vials with specific material that was relevant to their research. Whether it was a legitimate case or not, that remains [LAUGHS] — remains in question, but that’s the reason he was detained. But he was pretrial in the United States. He has not stood trial yet.
And so at that point, Governor Richardson and myself went into the White House, and we spoke to National Security Council, and told them what it is that we think might be doable. And ask them, kind of — to get an indication from them whether this is something that they might be willing to do. And the initial response was very positive. They said, “Well, you know, of course, we need to run it up the flagpost,” but we left the White House thinking, “Oh yeah, we have it.” And so we knew that the new national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, was supposed to call the governor a few days later to confirm whether this is a go or no-go from the American side. And that’s where things started to get a little complicated, because we were waiting for that call, and the call was not coming.
JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators. [LIVELY INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC] We’ll be right back.
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JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m Jenn Williams. So: Mickey Bergman is making some progress on a deal that would bring Xiyue Wang back to the United States and send Masoud Soleimani home to Iran. When we left off, Bergman was waiting for a phone call from the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. Bergman picks it up from there.
MICKEY: After a while, when we haven’t heard back, we realized that there’s something about human nature: When you don’t have good news, you don’t like to have those conversations. And it’s true about Americans, and it’s true about Venezuelans, and it’s true about North Koreans. It’s just our nature. If you have good news, you will call the person. If you don’t have good news, or if you have bad news, you’re much more reluctant. So you take the fact that they are not calling back, and saying, “OK, there’s something — something went wrong here.” And that’s an interesting thing, because you think — typically you would think that the hardest negotiations are happening with the captors. And that’s not always necessarily the case, because the negotiations here, inside the government, are also very, very complicated.
And so we started exploring, and again, same way that I have — that you build trusted relationship with people abroad, you build trusted relationship with people in your own government. And I had a colleague of mine who is very, very solid and trusted individual, and I took him out, outside of the White House, and said, “What’s going on?” And that’s when he said, “Look, the principals wanted this to happen” — like the National Security Council actually wanted this to happen. “It fits within what the president wants to do. But the Department of Justice is absolutely against it.” And I said, “Do we know why?” And he says, “Well, we can’t really have that kind of conversation with them for whatever internal reasons and standards.” And so the next question was: Can we go to the Department of Justice? “We” meaning Richardson, myself and Slattery go and talk to the Department of Justice, just to understand what it is that is their concern about it, because maybe we can restructure it in a way that will meet their concerns. And so we had a meeting inside the Department of Justice, and we asked them, we said, you know, “Tell us. We understand that you have concerns about this. What are your concerns?” And they said, “We have two main concerns. One, the United States — we should not get into the practice of having swaps in tarmacs. It’s just not what we do, because if we do that, we run the risk that it becomes a thing. We increase the number of people that get kidnapped or taken prisoner that way, because they know they can get that.” And we said, “Well, that’s legitimate. What’s the second concern?” And they said, “The second concern is that the integrity of the judicial system in the United States has to be maintained. And if you have somebody who’s pending trial, who’s guilty of charges in violation of sanctions, we have to see through it, and we can’t just have somebody coming in and interfere with that, because then we lose credibility for our system.” And we took that, and we said, “Look, thank you for explaining to us. Let us go back and think through whether there’s something we can do to structure this deal differently, in which both of your concerns can be met.”
We went back and we started looking, and that’s where congressman Jim Slattery, who is a lawyer, actually reached out to Soleimani’s lawyers and to the prosecutor in Atlanta, to try and understand where the legal process against Soleimani stands on. And that’s when we learned that what the prosecutor would really like there is to avoid trial — is to have a plea bargain in which Soleimani pleads guilty. He preferred that on anything else. And through Soleimani’s lawyer, we kind of came up with the concept of saying, “Well, what if he pleads guilty? And then he get time served as his sentencing, and he basically gets deported from the United States?” Because that would take care of the first concern of the Department of Justice, which means he actually pleaded guilty. The judicial process in United States was independently completed. Even the prosecutor can check a box and say, “Hey, guilty. I did my job.” The second part for us — on the concern of the tarmac exchange, we had to come up with a concept in which we get through the plea bargain, the sentencing and his deportation, and then 24 to 48 hours later — for whatever excuse they want to give for their judicial system — they will release Wang for whatever reason they want to. We don’t care what it is, as long as Wang gets released. So the sequencing, it doesn’t — it creates just a little bit of a buffer, so there’s not an exchange in the tarmac. And that way we thought, “Oh, we solved the problem of the Department of Justice.” But we had to make sure that the Iranians will go for it, because their guy is going to plead guilty. You want to make sure that’s not an obstacle. And so, we went back to New York and we spoke and sent a bunch of messages back and forth to say, “Look, because of our own system, this is the way that we can make it happen. For your sake, he’s going to come home, your guy. But you have to accept the fact that, you know, it will be a plea bargain. He’s OK with it. So should you.” And that took a couple of days, but the Iranians came back and said, “Yep, that would work for us.”
And so at that point — and we are now basically late October, early November — that we knew that we have it, we have it in the works. Now, there is still a lot of smaller logistics. How do we get Wang out? The Qatari government helps us a lot. They help the United States with prisoners, whether it’s Afghanistan, whether it’s Iran and elsewhere. So we were trying to work with the Qataris on a way to make sure that there is a plane that is ready to take Wang out of Iran into Doha. And we started working all of the logistics for that. In that time, the governor, of course — beyond us briefing the White House National Security Council — he also had a call with Brian Hook, who was the special envoy on Iran at the State Department, to let him know that this is kind of in the works. And we knew that Brian Hook was not in favor of this deal. He said so pretty clearly. We didn’t know the reasons for it, but we knew he was against it. Brian Hook’s policy was the maximum pressure, and letting go and having some sort of a deal like that violates maximum pressure. It’s almost a crack in that maximum pressure. So I suspect that that was the initial, kind of, reaction to it. So we were all, kind of, very tense to see what — how this plays out, because we also got a date at that point that the judge is scheduled to sign the plea bargain on December 11th. So that’s how it all unrolled, of course, before we had our December surprise.
We were coming on early December. I was actually in Bangladesh at the time, part of our engagement work. And from there, I was supposed to fly to Doha and meet the governor there, and basically gear up for the release of Wang. And for us, we just learned — when it was happening — that suddenly, Soleimani’s lawyer has been denied access to Soleimani. So, you know, something was going on there. And that Wang’s wife was on the plane on the way to Germany. You know, it doesn’t take a brilliant mind to figure out one plus one. That, that the US has pulled the trigger and the deal is happening. The reason why the lawyer — Soleimani’s lawyer — was not able to see him is because Soleimani was no longer in the US. And, of course, we were completely blindsided by it, because we did not expect it to happen that way.
What we learned that took place at that point is that Brian Hook realized that this deal is about to happen, because the Department of Justice signed off on the plea bargain. And so, he decided to do it basically four days earlier — release Soleimani himself, take him to Geneva, and have the Iranians deliver Wang and do the exchange on the tarmac. And, you know, as excited as I — we were all aware that, the fact that — at least it’s happening. Even though it’s, you know, it’s not the way we envisioned it and not the way we planned it, but at least we’re happy that it was happening. There were some significant drawbacks in the way it’s been conducted. Of course, the first one is the fact that, by doing it that way, we just violated the two concerns that the Department of Justice had that we were trying to address. Number one, Soleimani left the United States not pleading guilty, because the plea bargain was supposed to be signed four days later. It hasn’t been signed, so he left as an innocent guy. His process was not completed. Number two, it was a tarmac exchange with pictures in Geneva. So the two main things the Department of Justice asked us not to do ended up happening — not by us, but by our own Department of State.
At this point, Hua, Wang’s wife, sends us a beautiful message from the plane as she’s flying to Germany. How excited she is, very thankful to all of our efforts. And our response was just like, “Hey, we’re just extremely happy that this is happening. Good luck there, and we’ll talk to you when you’re ready after.” Emotionally, I was completely torn, because I was really excited that Wang is back. Extremely excited for her, for their son, for the fact that he’s coming home. And it gives you such a great sense of like, oh wow, it’s — you know, you work on it for a long time, and finally it works. This is why I do this. On the other hand, I was very angry, because I couldn’t understand — why on earth would our own State Department basically sabotage the way that we did it? Because we were all fully transparent with them. All forthcoming. We worked on all of this. And why would they do it that way, especially if it’s going to damage the work ahead with it? And so it was a — it was a pretty intense night.
There are times when you fantasize about the return of an individual and how you are able to be there for them. I can tell you, when I was on my way to North Korea when Otto Warmbier was there, and I was trying to head over there to try and negotiate his release, we knew that my trip at the time was not going to end — in all likelihood, it was not going to end in his release. But oh boy, did I dream, as I was on that plane flying in, thinking that the empty seat next to me will be filled with Otto when I come back. But life is much more complicated than that. It very rarely happens that you’re actually at that spot. You’re also being talked out of the conversation after it happens, and you’re all being diminished by the authorities. It hurts, and sometimes it hurts more than others. As the governor likes to say, “Look, we’re in this business not for the credit,” because it’s just that moment when you’re able to see the individual when he’s back. It’s very rewarding. It fills you up with energy for the next adventure that might be completely draining, emotionally.
JENN: Mickey Bergman is the vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. After Wang’s release, Bergman and his team managed to negotiate a second prisoner exchange with the Iranians, bringing home an American Navy veteran and sending an Iranian American doctor back to Tehran.
The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today’s show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the show, you’ll hear about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a former aide to the Palestinian negotiators, Khaled Elgindy.
I think it was pretty far-reaching for an Israeli proposal. I think Olmert’s ideas were serious, and you would be insane to dismiss it out of hand.
JENN: That episode next week on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.