July 14, 2024

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Washington, DC – The prisoner swap between the United States and Iran is a step towards de-escalating tensions between the two countries, experts say, but it does not point to an imminent thaw in frosty relations.

Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran programme at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington, DC, called the prisoner exchange a “transactional deal”.

The agreement also included the release of five Iranian prisoners in the US and the unfreezing of $6bn in Iranian funds blocked in South Korea due to American sanctions.

“Everybody is basically reconciling themselves with the fact that the best they can do for now is to take small steps toward preventing a crisis,” Vatanka told Al Jazeera.

“So that’s all it is. There is no big vision being articulated by anybody that could tell us that something in terms of a breakthrough is in the pipeline. There is no sign of that.”

Five American citizens previously detained in Iran were flown out of the country on Monday as part of the agreement, which was facilitated by Qatar and other countries.

They landed in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Monday afternoon and were expected to be “soon be reunited with their loved ones—after enduring years of agony, uncertainty, and suffering”, US President Joe Biden said in a statement.

The standoff

But as Biden and other members of his administration hailed the release of the detained Americans, US officials have said repeatedly that the prisoner deal will not change Washington’s approach to Tehran.

The US and Iran have experienced heightened tensions since 2018 when former US President Donald Trump nixed a multilateral deal that saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against its economy.

President Joe Biden came into office in early 2021 promising to revive the Iran nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

But as several rounds of indirect negotiations failed to restore the pact, Washington continued to enforce its sanctions regime against Tehran and piled on more penalties.

JCPOA talks were eventually put on hold, and attempts to revive them were complicated by the crackdown on protesters in Iran as well as accusations that Tehran was providing Moscow with drones for use in Ukraine.

Biden administration officials also have stressed that Iran will only be allowed to use the unfrozen funds for humanitarian purposes amid criticism from Republican legislators who accused Washington of paying a ransom for hostages — against stated government policy.

Just days ago, as the prisoner swap loomed, the US imposed sanctions on dozens of Iranian officials and entities over human rights abuses during a crackdown on antigovernment protests in Iran last year.

The US also issued sanctions against former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence as the prisoner swap was underway on Monday. “We will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region,” Biden said.

Iran prisoner release
Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz, who were released during a prisoner swap deal between the US and Iran, arrive at Doha International Airport in Qatar, September 18, 2023 [Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters]

US elections

Still, supporters of diplomacy are hopeful that Monday’s agreement could serve as a step towards restarting negotiations on the nuclear file, as well as other issues.

Sina Toossi, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy think tank in Washington, DC, said while it remains unlikely that Iran and the US will reach a broader agreement soon, the prisoner swap is an “important first step”.

“This is going to bring Americans home. This is going to allow for humanitarian relief to go to the Iranian people who desperately need it,” Toossi said of the prisoner exchange, as US officials have stressed that Iran will only be allowed to use the unfrozen $6bn for humanitarian purposes.

“And this creates the grounds for the US and Iran to get away from this dangerous, hostile, confrontational policy they have had, and hopefully move towards a broader diplomatic deal,” Toossi told Al Jazeera.

But he said reviving the JCPOA is “untenable” at this stage, especially with a looming US presidential election in November 2024.

He said Biden is unlikely to make concessions to Iran ahead of the vote, which would invite attacks from Republican hawks; at the same time, Iran would want to hold on to its own leverage in case Trump – the heavy favourite in the Republican 2024 nomination race – returns to power.

Republicans are already decrying the prisoner exchange and accusing Biden of improperly handing money to Tehran. Biden administration officials have stressed that Iran will only be allowed to use the unfrozen funds for humanitarian purposes.

But Toossi accused Republican lawmakers of spreading disinformation about the deal, stressing – like senior Biden administration officials have – that the funds are Iran’s own money. “There’s a lot of efforts to deliberately mislead the public about the nature of this kind of agreement and past similar agreements,” he said.

‘Containing the crisis’

On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US is currently “not engaged” with Iran but will “continue to see if there are opportunities” for diplomacy. However, he stressed that the prisoner swap is not connected to the nuclear talks.

“Let me be very clear that this process and the engagements necessary to bring about the freedom of these unjustly detained Americans has always been a separate track in our engagement – or for that matter lack of engagement – with Iran,” Blinken told reporters.

The relationship between Washington and Tehran in recent months has been characterised by an ebb and flow of signs of de-escalation on one hand, and spiking tensions on the other.

Earlier this month, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, known as the IAEA, said in a confidential assessment that Iran slowed down its production of near weapons-grade enriched uranium, The Associated Press news agency reported.

US media reports in recent months also said the two countries had reached an informal understanding to avert confrontations and partly curb Tehran’s nuclear programme, but Biden administration officials have denied reaching any kind of agreement with Iran.

INTERACTIVE Iran Prisoner Swap-1695041275
(Al Jazeera)

However, last month, the US sent thousands of troops to the Gulf region in response to allegations of Iranian harassment of international ships in the strategic waters. The US also seized a tanker carrying Iranian oil earlier this year that it said was being sold in violation of its sanctions.

According to Vatanka at the Middle East Institute, the parties for the most part remain focused on “containing the crisis”.

“There will be continuing efforts on both sides to test the other’s resolve: more sanctions, more Iranian actions in the region, and back and forth,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But neither side clearly wants this to get out of control and result in a shooting war. That much they agree on.”

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