With a new prisoner release deal, Biden seeks to reboot Iran negotiations


Tehran and Washington have entered a new phase of regenerated relations following the news that the US will unfreeze billions in oil revenue for the Iranian regime.

The new deal, announced over Sunday and Monday, comes after months of negotiations between US and Iranian diplomats — negotiations that the Biden administration at least publicly has been working overtime to downplay. It will result in the freeing of five Americans who the US government says are held on trumped-up charges in the country.

US officials announced this week that Iran would gain access to roughly $6bn in revenues currently held up in South Korea, supposedly set to be delivered through intermediaries in Qatar and restricted solely for humanitarian purposes. But the funds will doubtlessly allow the regime to free up money elsewhere in its budget as it continues to recover from the damaging economic effects of Covid-19 as well as months of youth-led protests over the murder of a young woman in police custody.

“As we have said previously, the US has agreed to allow the transfer of funds from South Korea to restricted accounts held in financial institutions in Qatar and the release of five Iranian nationals currently detained in the United States to facilitate the release of five US citizens detained in Iran,” a spokesperson for the State Department told CNN.

According to The New York Times and Axios, the latest development in US-Iran diplomacy came after a round of talks that have been going on since this past spring. It’s the second go for the Biden administration, which had originally resumed discussions aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal signed by Barack Obama’s administration but saw those talks fall flat.

Officials, including with the US, who spoke to the Times characterised the newest round of talks as less aimed at reaching the kind of landmark agreement that was accompanied by pomp and circumstance in 2015. The president himself had even last year declared the possibility of resuming the Iran deal “dead”. He was caught on video telling a supporter in a revealing ropeline moment that the US was no longer pursuing that goal, though he could not announce so publicly.

“It is dead, but we are not gonna announce it. Long story,” said Mr Biden before the November elections last year. His top Iran envoy, Rob Malley, had made similar but less decisive comments.

What Democratic optimists are now hoping for is an informal agreement that will ensure an unsteady peace in the region continues, at least for the time being, while much of the US’s foreign policy focus remains on Ukraine, Russia and China.

That strategy has more than a few supporters on the left, who do not wish to see the Middle East thrown back into all-out warfare just after the United States completed a bloody, dysfunctional and endlessly-scrutinised exit from Afghanistan in 2021. The US military pullout two years ago saw that country handed back into the hands of the same Islamist militants the US had fought to free it from after two decades of war and failed nation-building.

“I think that having discussions on this issue is important,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said of US-Iran talks in the spring of 2022. His pickup for the White House is important: Mr Schumer originally opposed the Iran nuclear accord signed under the Obama administration.

“There were problems with the Iran deal originally and many of us have urged in these discussions the Biden administration deal with those problems but I think the discussions are important and good.”

There appears to have been somewhat of a shakeup this spring and summer, however, as Mr Malley was forced to step back from his role due to a review of his handling of classified materials. He has yet to resurface at State, and has been scrubbed from all agency social media — though he is still listed as the special envoy to Iran on State.gov. With Mr Malley’s at least temporary departure and the news of the prisoner release deal this week, the question can be posed as to whether those attempts at reaching an informal deal will result in the next headlines to break.

The Independent reached out to the State Department for comment regarding this article before publication.

As recently as June, the agency was denying that even an informal deal was on the agenda for the near future.

“Rumors about a nuclear deal, interim or otherwise, are false or misleading,” said an agency spokesman that month at a news conference.

“Our No. 1 policy is ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon, so of course we’ve been watching Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities,” they added. “We believe diplomacy is the best path to help achieve that, but we are preparing for all possible options and contingencies.”

As news of the prisoner release agreement’s price tag broke across Washington, it drew criticisms from lawmakers in both parties. One was Bob Menendez, Democrat chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who made it clear that Americans who violated travel advisories to visit countries like Iran continuously risked putting the US in this situation.

“This is an example of why we have to go ahead and make it very clear to Americans that they cannot travel to certain places in the world where they are likely to ultimately become a hostage,” he said, noting that he had “concerns” about the deal creating more incentives for Iran to take future hostages.

Mitt Romney, a Republican, added: “If we’re paying a billion dollars per kidnapped individual, then you’re going to see more kidnappings. That’s why you don’t negotiate with terrorists; that’s why you don’t negotiate with kidnappers. The idea of basically paying to release, in this effect, a hostage is a terrible idea.”

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a group representing Iranian dissidents that won allies in the Trump administration (including ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) but has been frozen out under Joe Biden, also condemned the move. The US, it said, needs to respond with “firmness” to demands of hostage-takers, which are increasingly targeting the US and other wealthy western nations which, unlike others, tend to pay steep ransoms to protect innocents.

“The Iranian regime has been stepping up terror and hostage-taking against the West to cover its Achilles heel, which is internal uprisings seeking regime change,” said Alireza Jafarzadeh.”[But] the regime has found the West’s Achilles heel, which is a lack of spine to confront terrorism and blackmail.”

“For the West to end Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism, there is only one proven path, and that is to hold the regime accountable for its crimes and recognise the right of the Iranian people to end the rule of the clerics.”