The US-Iran deal: prisoner swap or new nuclear agreement?

Robert Inlakesh, The Cradle, September 20, 2023 —

This week’s front-page prisoner swap and release of frozen Iranian assets may be nothing more than a sweetener toward a more sweeping US-Iran nuclear agreement.

The secret US-Iran deal revealed to the public last month has largely been portrayed as a “humanitarian agreement” – the release of US prisoners in exchange for the return of frozen Iranian funds that will bring relief to the people of Iran.

But as tidbits of new information emerge on the agreement, it has become clear that Washington and Tehran have agreed on a far more comprehensive array of arrangements.

The US, for instance, has quietly approved the release of significantly more Iranian funds than the $6 billion figure touted in the media. Dr. Mohammed Marandi, former media advisor to the Iranian nuclear negotiating team in Vienna, confirms to The Cradle that almost $20 billion of Iran’s internationally frozen assets have already been released as part of the agreement.

The reported $6 billion only constitutes Iranian funds frozen in South Korea, while an additional $11 billion was held by Iraq, with the remaining portions scattered across various other countries. These assets, Marandi says, have now been successfully released and are under the control of Iran’s Central Bank.

Based on information from Iranian and Arab diplomatic sources who requested anonymity, the US-Iran deal terms include – but are not restricted to – the following commitments from the two sides:

Iran’s commitments include:.

  • The release of the 5 Americans detained in Iran (and 2 relatives who were reportedly barred from leaving the country).
  • Capping uranium enrichment at 60 percent, accompanied by a reduction in production pace.
  • Reactivating the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s surveillance cameras at several nuclear sites.

US commitments include:

  • The release of Iranian prisoners held in the US and in various other undisclosed countries.
  • Unfreezing Iranian funds held in multiple countries, including South Korea, Iraq, and elsewhere.
  • Easing US sanctions on Iranian oil – this sanctions relief will occur informally, not requiring an official US decision, but rather a tacit acceptance of Iranian energy trades globally.
  • Iran gains access to existing provisions in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from October 2023, which permit the Islamic Republic to import and export weapons.
  • The closure of remaining IAEA “open files” regarding several Iranian nuclear, military, and civilian sites.

The closure of remaining IAEA “open files” regarding several Iranian nuclear, military, and civilian sites.

Western diplomatic sources tell The Cradle that the main reason the US initiated secret talks with Iran is because Washington has a critical need to increase oil supply in global markets.

Deescalating with Tehran can bring new energy sources online quickly to make up for lost Russian supplies. This is why one of the unpublicized US deal concessions to Iran is to ignore sanctions on Iranian oil and gas trades.

The problem for the Biden administration, since the failure of nuclear talks, has consistently been domestic political opposition toward the easing of “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran. This new backroom agreement provides a way to bypass Washington’s institutional roadblocks, and flood the market with Iranian oil supply.

Reviving a ‘dead’ deal 

Already, Washington-based think tanks are understanding that the Iran-US prisoner swap could be a softball maneuver by the Biden administration to publicly kickstart the easing of tensions with Tehran. This move is seen as a way to navigate around the stubborn resistance of congressional representatives and pressure from Israeli hawks against reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal, also known as the JCPOA.

Monday’s prisoner exchange of both Iranian and American prisoners, which received blanket coverage by both country’s media, has agitated parties opposed to any Iranian-US detente and has them scrambling to discover the hidden significance behind the breakthrough Qatari-brokered agreement.

Richard Goldberg, Director of the Iran Program at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in a 13 September interview with the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that the US-Iran prisoner swap was strategically designed to deflect congressional criticism over the renewal of the JCPOA.

He contends that by linking sanctions relief to the prisoner exchange instead of a JCPOA revival, US President Joe Biden has effectively defused tensions with Iran and sidestepped the political hurdle of presenting a new nuclear deal to Congress – a move that would have otherwise proved contentious in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential elections.

In June last year, indirect negotiations between the US and Iran officially fell apart, ending a year’s worth of on-and-off efforts to reach a consensus in Vienna. Later in the year, while on the sidelines of an election rally in November, Biden declared the 2015 JCPOA “dead.”

But just a few months later, in May 2023, secret indirect negotiations between US and Iranian officials took place in Oman.

In June, the New York Times released an article on ongoing talks between the two parties aimed at finalizing an informal agreement that could potentially replace the need to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal and “avert a nuclear crisis.”

The Cradle’s diplomatic sources confirm this was never merely a prisoners-for-cash swap, but a quiet initiative to defuse escalating US-Iran tensions – and proponents of continued conflict – by crafting a settlement that completely bypassed the naysayers.

This settlement, which would begin with some simpler humanitarian gestures to build goodwill and trust between the two parties, would then provide the foundation for negotiations over more complicated issues.

Beyond the prisoner swap 

Despite Biden’s public commitment to revive the Iran nuclear deal, his negotiating team has dismally failed to secure an agreement. This week’s prisoner exchange was seen as just the right kind of sweetener to pave a new, unencumbered path toward securing the basic requirements of the two adversaries.

But even this humanitarian gesture by both sides has failed to quell media criticism. US outlets and social media platforms have castigated the Biden administration for releasing $6 billion of Iran’s frozen assets to secure the release of just 5 US prisoners.

And while US officials claim that the funds were transferred to designated bank accounts in Qatar and restricted to the purchase of food and agricultural products, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi went public to make clear that Iran has full discretion on the use of these funds.

Raisi has described the release of the five prisoners as a “purely humanitarian action” and hinted that it could serve as a foundation for future humanitarian initiatives, code for sanctions relief.

His statement has further fueled speculation that the US and Iran are privately moving toward a broader agreement – well beyond the prisoner exchange – that will substitute the hotly-contested JCPOA.

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