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Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi. Photograph: Iranian Presidency/Zuma Press Wire/Shutterstock
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi. Photograph: Iranian Presidency/Zuma Press Wire/Shutterstock

Iran prisoner release deal may signal new direction in western diplomacy

Diplomatic Editor

Joe Biden is taking risks with detainee swap, but US can now test the waters with Tehran on its nuclear programme

Soon after her release, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remarked that freedom for a former Iranian political prisoner is never complete since those freed always recall those left behind.

But when five Americans released from Iranian captivity touch down in Qatar on their way back to their families, the mood will be simple, joyous and emotional. By contrast, the drawn out diplomacy that has led to this moment has been the polar opposite – complex, fraught and calculating.

Iranian-US relations, always one long bargain, are in flux, with currents heading in different directions, some towards confrontation and others towards a de-escalation of tensions. It has been unclear for months whether Joe Biden’s administration favoured one option above the other, or indeed preferred the status quo.

But in taking the decision to release $6bn of Iranian oil proceeds frozen in a South Korean bank account by US sanctions the US president prioritised securing the release of the five, some of whom have been in jail for a decade. That is a tribute to the public campaigns calling for their release, but it may also signal a new direction in western diplomacy to Iran.

Biden has taken a double risk; he is taking flak from Republicans who argue the deal will encourage further state hostage-taking and who feel emboldened to claim that confrontation with Iran remains the only viable strategy, as it has ever since Donald Trump in 2018 abandoned the nuclear deal signed in 2015 by Barack Obama.

He also faces criticism from less partisan sources. The deal, after all, has been struck at a time when the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, is selling Iranian-made drones to Russia to hammer down on Ukrainian cities. Some in the diaspora feel that by acting so soon after the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini in a Tehran police cell, the Biden team has shown it puts American self-interest ahead of Iranians’ struggle for human rights. It is at minimum a pragmatic admission that Raisi is politically secure, and the protests are over.

In New York, on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, Raisi’s aides say that Iran will push the US to see if the prisoner swap can lead to wider de-escalation in the region. The obvious place to start would be Yemen. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels were in Riyadh last week for unprecedented peace talks. But Biden would also like to see an elusive normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, something the US president will discuss with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when they meet in New York.

Netanyahu is more focused on using his set-piece speech to the general assembly to issue a fiery warning to the west never to trust Iran, or settle for some touted new informal agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear programme.

The essence of the informal agreement – a modest Plan B in comparison with the comprehensive 2015 nuclear agreement – is that Iran would agree as a starting point to keep its stock of enriched uranium to 60% purity, close to but below the weapons grade threshold that is necessary to make a nuclear bomb. In return there would be some easing of US sanctions. There is some preliminary sign that Iran may be willing to do that, although in reality that may become part of an indefinite negotiation with the west.

Israel, an implacable opponent of the 2015 deal, regards this Plan B as disastrous. At least the original deal, before Trump walked out, restricted the purity to which Iran can enrich uranium to 3.67%. The Israeli national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, warned last week that Israel will have no choice but to act if Iran enriches uranium above 60% purity.

His hostility is partly because Israel also thinks Plan B is unenforceable.

The Vienna-based UN nuclear weapons inspectorate last week was told by Iran in an unprecedented move that a third of its most experienced inspectors would be stripped of their visas, an Iranian response to the UK and European decision not to lift sanctions on Iranian ballistic missiles trade this October, as the original timetable in the 2015 deal stipulated.

The head of the nuclear inspectorate, Rafael Grossi, was clear how this will damage his organisation’s work. He said last Friday: “These inspectors are among the most experiencedagency experts with unique knowledge in enrichment technology. Iran has effectively removed about one-third of the core group of the agency’s most experienced inspectors designated for Iran.”

Earlier in the week, Grossi, an instinctive deal maker, had at a press conference tried to sound the alarm about Iran’s growing breaches of its undertakings, saying he feared they were being “routinised” by the west.

Kelsey Davenport from the Arms Control Association said primarily due to the Iran’s lack of transparency “Iran’s nuclear policy is still trending in the wrong direction”, and if this does not change in the next few months, any window opened for new diplomacy will quickly close.

Against this gloomy backdrop, perhaps the best that the US can do is test the waters in Tehran to see if the prisoner swap changes Iran’s current look east policy, and so permit the tentative informal agreement to become something broader and more substantial.

More on this story

More on this story

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  • Five Americans head home in $6bn US-Iran prisoner swap deal

  • US?and Iran expected to complete $6bn prisoner swap deal

  • US-Iran prisoner swap: the detainees freed in exchange agreement

  • Mahsa Amini’s father detained on anniversary of death, rights group says

  • ‘It is not possible to organise in Iran’: jailed activist warns of totalitarianism after Mahsa Amini protests

  • Today in Focus
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  • US?and UK issue sanctions on Iran one year on from Mahsa Amini’s death

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