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After more than two years of tortuous, halting talks, the Biden administration may finally be making some progress in its efforts to de-escalate tensions with Iran, secure the freedom of US nationals imprisoned in the Islamic republic and potentially put a lid on a long-running nuclear crisis.
Last week, Iran transferred four Iranian-US citizens, including businessmen Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison to house arrest as the first phase of a prisoner swap. Under the agreement, the detainees, plus another dual national also under house arrest, will eventually be free to leave the Islamic republic. Washington, meanwhile, will allow Tehran to access $6bn of its frozen oil funds held in South Korea and release five Iranian prisoners.
The deal smacks of hostage diplomacy and will justifiably cause concerns that it will encourage the regime to keep cynically using human pawns as a tactic in its decades-long hostility with the west. But the release of the dual nationals is a welcome step — Namazi had languished in Evin for eight years; Shargi and Tahbaz for five years, all on spying charges.
A successful prisoner exchange may help build a degree of trust where none exists and support efforts to contain a nuclear crisis that has been simmering dangerously since former US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers.
US and Iranian officials have been discussing other de-escalatory measures that would include Tehran putting a cap on its uranium enrichment levels and co-operating more with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Washington is also pushing the republic to stop selling armed drones to Moscow, which Russian forces have used to brutal effect in the war in Ukraine. In return, the US may turn a blind eye to Iranian oil exports, which have been stymied by sanctions.
Those discussions are not complete and they are not designed to produce a new nuclear deal. But they would amount to progress by stopping at its current capabilities a nuclear programme that could inflame the Middle East. Iran is enriching uranium at its highest ever levels and has the capacity to produce sufficient fissile material to develop a nuclear bomb in about two weeks if it chose to do so.
If the programme continues unchecked, Israel or the US at some point would feel compelled to respond militarily. The risk of a miscalculation that could trigger a conflagration is also real. Any attempt to delay this prospect should be seen as diplomatic pragmatism. A more desirable solution — to breathe new life into the now moribund 2015 Iran nuclear deal — is sadly out of reach at this time.
When Trump launched his “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic republic he offered no political off-ramp. Iran responded to the pressure by acting provocatively: it mobilised proxies to destabilise and attack its enemies, and ramped up its nuclear activity. In Tehran, the calculation is that its leverage comes from stoking crises and making its foes aware they will pay a cost. There is no reason to believe that malign behaviour would change.
As expected, Iran hawks in the US are already criticising the Biden administration for agreeing to unfreeze the $6bn. The prisoner deal is not contingent on the de-escalatory measures, but could still fall apart. There are questions about how sustainable the steps to contain the nuclear crisis would be even if they were secured. The underlying challenge of preventing Iran becoming a threshold nuclear state remains unresolved. Any moves to de-escalate tension and reduce the risk of war should be welcomed.