Iran Frees Eleven Political Prisoners, Signals Conciliation With West

Iran made yet another conciliatory gesture toward the West today, freeing eleven political prisoners on the eve of President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations next week. The unexpected move is the third sign in as many weeks that the country’s new president is sincere in his efforts to mend U.S.—Iranian relations.

Amongst the prisoners released were Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer, as well as former deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh. Sotoudeh is one of the most famous political prisoners in the country, and was active in protesting the country’s disputed 2009 election results. Her imprisonment in 2010 attracted worldwide attention, including a public condemnation by President Obama, and the European Parliament presented her with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought last year.

Rouhani has done a number of things since his election last June to indicate a more diplomatic position toward the West. Two weeks ago, he wished “all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hoshanah” via tweet, a deeply symbolic gesture given Iran’s contentious relationship with Israel. He replaced the right-wing head of the Foreign Ministry with a moderate diplomat, then put the Foreign Ministry in charge of the country’s nuclear negotiations (they’d previously been handled by the Ayatollah’s Supreme National Security Council). And even though U.S. and Iran severed formal diplomatic ties in 1980, Rouhani and Obama have become penpals since Rouhani’s election.

All that being said, there’s lot of mending to be done between the two nations. There are still plenty of political prisoners in Iran, and though Rouhani will fly to New York next week to address the United Nations, the White House shot down rumors that he and Obama will have a face-to-face during the summit.

Still, the prospects for a friendlier U.S.—Iranian relationship are looking much better than they did last year, when then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed that the United States and Europe had “entrusted themselves to the Devil.”

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