US-Iran prisoner swap could pave the way for talks on bigger issues
The Washington Post September 18, 2023
DUBAI — Faced with crippling sanctions at home and eyeing upcoming U.S. elections, Iran agreed to a prisoner swap that freed five Americans, five Iranians and granted Tehran access to $6 billion of its reserves frozen abroad Monday.
After years of escalating tensions with the United States, Iran may have seen Monday’s prisoner swap as a last chance to secure access — albeit limited — to funds at a time when the country’s economy is sputtering after years of international sanctions and economic mismanagement, according to analysts.
There is also hope that these small steps could lead to discussion of more substantive issues such as a return to the nuclear deal — though that could be hampered by uncertainty of what sort of leadership will be running the United States after the elections.
“The Iranians seem reluctant to give away most of their leverage to restore the nuclear deal not knowing who the next U.S. president will be,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director for the International Crisis Group. “Nobody really wants a deal, but they’re still going to talk about it.”
The Biden administration has pledged to revive a nuclear agreement with Iran, but if a Republican wins the 2024 presidential election, Iran policy will likely experience a dramatic shift, as happened when Donald Trump took office and withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.
After announcing the swap, Iranian leaders characterized the negotiations as evidence of Washington capitulating to their demands. The agreement “could have happened long ago if the American side cooperated and did not relate [the swap] to other issues,” said Nasser Kanaani, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman.
He also said the $6 billion in Iranian funds arrived in Qatar on Monday and the “assets will be available to the government and the nation.” Iran has said it will have full discretion over the money’s use, while U.S. Treasury describes it has a carefully monitored humanitarian channel supporting the “Iranian people’s access to food, agricultural goods, medicine, and medical devices under strict due diligence measures.”
The willingness of the two countries to agree on Monday’s swap shows Washington and Tehran have decided the escalating tensions between the two countries won’t serve either side, analysts and officials say. But that understanding is fragile and could easily collapse.
A detainee deal was “the lowest hanging fruit” of issues the two sides could agree on, said Vaez. The United States and Iran “have not resolved anything, they’ve just agreed to keep a lid on their differences.”
Successfully carrying out the prisoner swap “ensures the sustainability” of current U.S.-Iran relations, preventing tensions from spiraling out of control, rather than establishing a new dynamic, he said.
The agreement that facilitated the swap does not address issues beyond the prisoner exchange, the transfer of Iranian funds and how the funds will be monitored. But the months of talks that led up to the deal could pave the way for future negotiations.
“We see this as building trust between the two sides,” said an official familiar with the negotiations who, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic exchanges.
Officials from the United States and Iran negotiated the terms of the swap for more than a year after talks on a wider range of issues, including nuclear agreements, came to a “standstill” in June 2022, according to an individual with close knowledge of the talks. Qatar hosted the talks and its diplomats shuttled between the two parties.
“Representatives from the United States and Iran stayed at two separate hotels in Doha with no direct interactions or face-to-face contact,” the individual said.
Qatar became a key mediator in the deal, and its foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani recently said the swap is “a step” he hopes “will lead to wider dialogue on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Domestic politics in the two nations, however, have long bedeviled attempts at drawing closer and frustrated both sides as they have sought to find common ground on the comparatively simpler matter of a prisoner swap — much less renegotiating a nuclear deal.
Jared Genser, a lawyer for the family of Siamak Namazi, the Iranian American who had been held in Tehran for nearly eight years, called it a “terrible dance.”
“There are times the U.S. was trying to sit down with Iran and Iran was moving in the other direction, or times when Iran wanted to sit down with the United States, but the U.S. was moving in another direction,” he said, describing how political willingness to engage has ebbed and flowed on both sides over the course of three administrations in Washington.
“To get them to move together at the same time is very very hard to do,” he said.
Iranian media with close links to the country’s hard-liners portrayed the prisoner swap as an attempt by a weakened President Biden trying to distract attention from low poll numbers ahead of the elections, rather than some kind of hopeful breakthrough in relations.
The future of U.S.-Iran relations remains fragile moving forward.
Eric Brewer, with the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank and a former U.S. intelligence official who worked on nuclear nonproliferation, said he believes the swap signals a “tentative” deescalation, but warns there is “always the risk that it collapses.”
Many of the factors that have caused talks on nuclear issues to come to a standstill in recent years, remain, he said.
“Even if we get back to that point, we still have to solve all those problems,” he said, like Iranian military support for Russia and brutal repression of protest movements. “And we’ve also probably got some new problems that have emerged since.”
So, over time, reaching a deal could become more difficult.
“With sanctions enforcement easing and Iran having success at mending fences in the region and a stronger partnership with Russian and China,” he said, “then Iran might believe that it can keep its advanced nuclear program at an acceptable cost.”