When a private Qatari plane carrying five Iranian and American nationals landed in Doha, US President Joe Biden was finally able to claim a success after months of secret, high-stakes negotiations between Washington and Tehran.
The five dual nationals had been imprisoned for years in the Islamic republic – some accused of spying for the United States – and were finally released and evacuated from Tehran on Monday after the two sworn enemies agreed to a complex exchange of prisoners. Under the deal, Washington released five Iranians detained in the United States and allowed Tehran to access $6 billion of its previously frozen oil revenues in South Korea.
The crucial question now is whether Washington and Tehran are able to build on the prisoner swap and use it as a basis to seriously tackle Iran’s aggressive nuclear program – arguably the gravest threat to the stability of the Middle East.
The two countries have already discussed how to defuse tensions alongside the prisoner deal, with the Biden administration seeking to at least contain a crisis that has been brewing since former President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal 2015 signed by Tehran with world powers.
This implies that Tehran provisionally agrees not to target the Americans, including through regional proxies, and to limit its uranium enrichment to 60% purity. But that level is already close to military level, and Iran has the capacity to produce enough fissile material to arm a nuclear bomb in about two weeks, according to U.S. officials.
If Iran halts its enrichment program, Washington would refrain from imposing additional economic sanctions on the republic.
The United States has also pressured Tehran to stop selling to Moscow armed drones and spare parts that Russian forces have used in the war in Ukraine. But because Tehran has refused to export weapons to Russia for use in the war, no deal has been reached, people briefed on the negotiations said.
Following the successful prisoner exchange, Qatar is expected to hold separate talks with the two countries on next steps, including nuclear and drone issues, on the sidelines of this week’s UN General Assembly, said one of the sources.
Qatar is one of the few countries with good relations with Washington and Tehran and facilitated the indirect negotiations that led to the prisoners deal, alongside Oman.
Analysts say talks could also take place at the New York meeting between Iran and France, the United Kingdom and Germany, the European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal.
But the scale of mistrust between Washington and Tehran, coupled with domestic political considerations in both countries, means it will be extremely difficult to achieve more tangible steps to reverse Iran’s march toward the nuclear threshold, say analysts.
Given the progress of Iran’s nuclear program, the consensus among officials and analysts is that the moribund 2015 deal can no longer be revived.
Analysts add that the Biden administration has also made clear that it will not seek a formal deal with Iran before next year’s US elections – an attempt to avoid the political ramifications of submitting to an agreement to a potentially hostile Congress.
Instead, he should continue to seek unwritten agreements to ease tensions, with the goal of negotiating a new nuclear deal if Biden is re-elected.
“The administration considers this [prisoner exchange] as a key step that allows for the resumption of some type of nuclear negotiations this fall, with the aim of not reaching an agreement, but continuing de-escalation measures and keeping things under control,” Henry said Rome, senior fellow at the University of Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The ceiling of what can be achieved is quite low. Trying to freeze key stages of the nuclear program would be the objective. . . going backwards is probably too ambitious,” Rome added.
As part of de-escalation measures, the United States also asked Iran to commit to improving cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But progress on this front has also been mixed.
The IAEA said in a report to its members this month that Iran has slowed the pace at which it enriches uranium to a level close to that for weapons production. In the three months to August, Tehran’s stockpiles of 60 percent enriched uranium increased by 7.5 kg, significantly less than in the previous quarter when they increased by 26.6 kg, or almost a third, to reach 114 kg.
But in a second report, the IAEA said there had been no progress in resolving “outstanding safeguards issues” related to a long-running investigation by the agency into past nuclear activity . And last week he condemned Iran for barring a number of IAEA inspectors from monitoring its facilities.
Analysts said it was an example of the challenges of trying to contain the crisis without a long-term solution.
“Iran is playing a game in which it responds in the most minimal way to certain American demands, such as reducing the pace of the accumulation of highly enriched uranium, but not the accumulation, while testing the limits of this that counts as de-escalation,” Rome said. .
Ali Vaez, an expert on Iran at the Crisis Group think tank, said nothing had been resolved on the nuclear front, only that both sides “were able to buy more time.”
“You can’t have a de-escalation agreement that does nothing other than contain the problems and hope for a stable situation in the process. . . the period leading up to the US elections,” Vaez said. “There is a need for constant contact and a process which, in addition to laying the foundations for a subsequent nuclear agreement, is capable of managing emerging differences.”
In Iran – which the West accuses of resorting to hostage diplomacy – state-affiliated media have attributed the prisoner exchange to what they see as the failure of Washington’s policy of pressure on the republic . While praising Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, he said the United States had been forced to resort to backdoor diplomacy with Iran.
The $6 billion in unfrozen petrodollars will strengthen the Islamic regime as it struggles to contain the rising cost of living and widespread disillusionment ahead of legislative elections early next year, in which it is desperate to ensure reasonable voter turnout.
In New York, before the UN General Assembly, Raïssi criticized the United States for the agreement on prisoners, which he described as “humanitarian action”, not having taken place sooner.
“We do not trust the United States because it has violated its commitments [under the 2015 accord]”, he told reporters. “Each step towards fulfilling commitments can help build trust.”