I’m RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari. Here’s what I’ve been following during the past week and what I’m watching for in the days ahead.
( RFE/RL) – Iran said it is engaged in indirect talks with the United States over a possible prisoner swap and the lifting of crippling American sanctions.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said on June 12 that a prisoner swap could be agreed “in the near future” if Washington shows “the same seriousness and goodwill.”
At least three dual Iranian-American citizens are currently held by Tehran, including businessmen Siamak Namazi, who has been in prison since 2015.
Kanaani said the basis for the indirect talks, mediated by Oman, is the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the agreement and reimposed sanctions in 2018. In response, Tehran has expanded its sensitive nuclear activities, raising fears in the West that it could build a nuclear weapon.
Washington has not denied that it is engaged in indirect talks with Tehran. An unnamed U.S. official told Reuters that the two sides are not discussing a possible interim deal that could involve Tehran agreeing to suspend its nuclear activities in exchange for some sanctions relief.
“We have made clear to them what escalatory steps they needed to avoid to prevent a crisis and what de-escalatory steps they could take to create a more positive context,” the official said, without offering details.
Tehran’s confirmation of indirect talks came after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said over the weekend that “there is nothing wrong with an agreement [with the West],” although he added that “the infrastructure of our nuclear industry should not be touched.”
The UN’s nuclear watchdog said recently that Tehran had resolved some outstanding issues that the agency had raised.
Why It Matters: Iran and the United States appear to be renewing their engagement after a monthslong pause.
The sides have held talks over reviving the nuclear deal since President Joe Biden assumed office in 2020. But the negotiations have proved protracted and inconclusive, with Washington accusing Tehran of making unrealistic demands.
After the antiestablishment protests erupted in Iran in September 2022, Washington said the nuclear deal was “not on the agenda.”
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, told me that a prisoner swap “could open the door to more de-escalation, which in turn could create time and space to discuss a way forward.”
“Both sides seem to have realized that the ‘no deal, no crisis’ status quo could quickly turn into a ‘no deal, big crisis’ situation that neither side wants,” Vaez said.
What’s Next: It is not clear if Tehran is ready to take steps that would lead to a de-escalation, including allowing UN inspectors greater access to its nuclear sites and releasing detained Americans.
But Khamenei’s comments appear to have prepared the ground for “renewed engagement with the West,” according to Vaez.