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Iran nuclear crisis lingers for White House despite prisoner swap


When a private Qatari jet carrying five Iranian-US nationals touched down in Doha, US president Joe Biden was finally able to claim a success after months of secretive, high-stakes talks between Washington and Tehran.

The five dual nationals had been imprisoned for years in the Islamic republic — some on accusations of spying for the US — and were finally freed and flown out of Tehran on Monday after the two arch enemies agreed to a complex prisoner exchange. Under terms of the deal, Washington released five Iranians held in the US and allowed Tehran to access $6bn of its oil money previously frozen in South Korea.

The critical question now is whether Washington and Tehran are able to build on the prisoner swap and use it as a foundation to seriously address Iran’s aggressive nuclear programme — arguably the gravest threat to Middle East stability.

The two countries have already been discussing how to de-escalate tensions alongside the prisoner deal, with the Biden administration seeking to at least to contain a crisis that has been brewing since former president Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers.

This includes Tehran tentatively agreeing to not target Americans, including through regional proxies, and to cap its uranium enrichment at 60 per cent purity. But that level is already close to weapons grade, and Iran has the capacity to produce sufficient fissile material to arm a nuclear bomb in about two weeks, according to US officials.

If Iran does put a lid on its enrichment programme, Washington would refrain from imposing additional economic sanctions on the republic.

The US has also been pressuring Tehran to stop selling armed drones and spare parts to Moscow, which Russian forces have used in the war in Ukraine. But with Tehran denying exporting weapons to Russia to use in the war, no agreement has been reached, said people briefed on the talks.

Following the successful prisoner exchange, Qatar is expected to hold talks separately with the two countries on the next steps, including the nuclear and drone issues, on the sidelines of this week’s UN General Assembly, one of the people said.

Qatar is one of the few nations to have good relations with both Washington and Tehran and facilitated the indirect negotiations that led to the prisoner deal, along with Oman.

Analysts said there could also be talks at the New York gathering between Iran and France, the UK and Germany, the European signatories to the 2015 nuclear accord.

But the scale of the distrust between Washington and Tehran, coupled with domestic political considerations in the both countries, means that achieving more tangible steps to reverse Iran’s march towards becoming a nuclear threshold state will be hugely challenging, analysts said.

Given how far Iran’s nuclear programme has advanced, the consensus among officials and analysts is that the moribund 2015 accord can no longer be revived.

Analysts add that the Biden administration has also made clear it will not seek a formal deal with Iran ahead of next year’s US elections — an attempt to avoid the political ramifications of putting any agreement before a potentially hostile Congress.

Instead, it is expected to continue to pursue unwritten understandings to de-escalate tensions, with the aim of negotiating a new nuclear agreement if Biden wins re-election.

“The administration views this [prisoner exchange] as a key step that enables the resumption of some type of nuclear negotiations this fall, with the goal of not reaching a deal, but continuing the de-escalatory steps and keeping a lid on things,” said Henry Rome, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“There’s a pretty low ceiling on what can be achieved. Attempting to freeze key steps in the nuclear programme would be the objective . . . rolling back is probably too ambitious,” Rome added.

As part of the de-escalatory measures, the US has also sought a commitment from Iran to improve its co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But progress on that front has also been chequered.

The IAEA said in a report to its members this month that Iran had slowed the pace at which it was enriching uranium to a level close to weapons grade. In the three months to August, Tehran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 per cent increased by 7.5kg — significantly less than in the previous quarter when it rose by 26.6kg, or almost a third, to reach 114kg.

But in a second report, the IAEA said there had been no progress in resolving “outstanding safeguards issues” relating to a longstanding probe by the agency into past nuclear activity. And last week, it 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 longer-term resolution.

“Iran is playing a game where it’s responsive to some US requests in the most minimal way, such as reducing the pace of accumulation of highly enriched uranium, but not accumulation, while testing the limits of what counts as de-escalation,” Rome said.

Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at Crisis Group think-tank, said that nothing had been resolved on the nuclear front, only that both sides “have been able to buy more time”.

“You cannot have a de-escalatory understanding that does nothing other than contain the issues and expect a stable situation in the course of . . . the run-up to the US elections,” Vaez said. “There’s a need for constant contact, and a process, that as well as laying the groundwork for a successor nuclear deal, is able to manage emerging differences.”

In Iran — which the west accuses of using hostage diplomacy — state-affiliated media attributed the prisoner swap to what it said was the failure of Washington’s policy of pressuring the republic. While praising Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, it said the US was forced into back-channel diplomacy with Iran.

The unfrozen $6bn of petrodollars will boost the Islamic regime as it struggles to contain soaring living costs and widespread disillusionment ahead of parliamentary elections early next year, at which it is desperate to ensure a reasonable vote turnout.

In New York for the UN General Assembly, Raisi blamed the US for the fact that the prisoner deal, which he described as a “humanitarian action”, did not happen sooner.

“We don’t trust the US because it violated its commitments [under the 2015 accord],” he told reporters. “Every step towards the fulfilment of commitments can help build trust.”


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