Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – It is coming out that the US and Iran have been talking privately in Oman about a range of bilateral issues, including prisoner exchanges and Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program. This news emerged, according to Barak Ravid at Axios in the form of a complaint from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who hates the idea of these talks between Washington and Tehran.
The UN Security Council successfully negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions (JCPOA) in 2015 with Iran, which closed off all the plausible pathways by which Iran could turn its civilian uranium enrichment program into a military program aimed at making a bomb.
The odious Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2018 and subjected Iran to the most severe financial and trade blockade ever imposed by one country on another in peacetime. This, despite Iran’s faithful adherence to the terms of the treaty according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran went on observing the treaty for another year after Trump trashed it, but eventually started violating its provisions. Iran had signed the treaty in order to get sanctions relief, which it never did because the Republicans in Congress wouldn’t lift the sanctions. US sanctions scared Europe from investing in or trading much with Iran. So Iran had mothballed 80% of its civilian nuclear program and ended up with much more severe sanctions than ever before. Boy was Tehran peeved.
The Biden administration had the opportunity to restore the JCPOA early in 2021, but neglected to move forward with any speed, and then a new hard line government came into power in Iran, which set the negotiations back further. As an outside observer I would say that it seemed to me that the Biden administration just didn’t prioritize the Iran issue, and was content to let the Trump sanctions continue– even though this American virtual blockade put the two nations on a war footing.
Now at last there seems to be some movement from the American side. Perhaps the Iranian role in the Ukraine War has reminded the Biden team that Iran is a valuable player on the world stage, with a population the size of Germany’s and a GDP the size of Poland’s, and maybe it isn’t a good idea to just drive it into the arms of Russia and China.
So there were quiet meetings in Oman this spring.
The Iranian news agency Tasnim reports that this news is correct. The spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, Naser Kanani, said, “We have clear and principled views on the issue of the JCPOA. As has been announced, while Iran has made the policy of neutralizing sanctions — relying on its internal capacities and relations with its neighbors — its top priority, it has never halted diplomatic processes and exchanging messages at different levels through intermediary parties and friendly countries with the opposite side.
In order to secure the interests of the Iranian nation, the Iranian side never left the negotiating table and always showed its readiness to conduct serious negotiations to reach a satisfactory conclusion; and our criterion has been the performance of the other side, not what is said in the media.”
What Kanani says is true. Iran was ready to negotiate for genuine sanctions relief, not the sleight of hand pulled by Washington in 2015-2016. They also wanted to know that any deal they made with Biden wouldn’t just be summarily canceled by the next administration. Of course, these are things that no American administration can promise.
Kanani pointed out, “Regarding the JCPOA, the 13th government has announced a clear policy from the beginning that the JCPOA is not the whole issue of our foreign policy, but only one of the issues.”
He means that matters like prisoner exchanges have continued to be important for the government, as well as normalization of relations with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the stabilization of post-war Syria.
The US hasn’t been a central figure in Iran’s relations with other Middle Eastern states, which are rapidly improving with the help of China and Saudi Arabia.
Kanani seems to be saying that yes, the government of President Ibrahim Raisi is talking to Biden through intermediaries, and no, that isn’t any surprise.
If Iran and the US could dial down the level of tensions between the two, the world would be much better off. The two have come close to being in a shooting war in recent years, especially after Trump murdered Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in 2020. Henry Kissinger, who just had his 100th birthday, used to say that ‘Diplomacy is a game that is played with the pieces on the board.” Iran is a big important piece on the board. Will the Biden administration prove able to play this piece? A lot hangs on the answer.