Could a U.S.-Iran Deal Lead to a Nuclear Thaw?

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Could a U.S.-Iran Deal Lead to a Nuclear Thaw?

News of Iran’s upcoming release of U.S. nationals and the unfreezing of Iranian assets has stirred speculation of a new nuclear deal. But there are many obstacles to such a breakthrough.

The United States and Iran are negotiating a prisoner swap that involves the release of billions of dollars in Iranian assets, and now reports indicate Iran is slowing the pace at which it is enriching uranium. What’s going on? 

There is reporting that the United States and Iran have concluded a deal regarding the exchange of five dual citizens imprisoned in Iran—who were recently transferred to house arrest—for $6 billion of Iranian funds frozen in South Korea. News reports have also indicated that an unspecified number of Iranian citizens imprisoned in the United States could be on the exchange list. While the deal has been widely publicized, the transaction has not been concluded. It is not clear what the remaining obstacles are. For the past few months, the two sides have been holding indirect talks, brokered by Oman, over both the prisoner swap and possible revisions to the 2015 nuclear deal.

What are the prospects for a new, informal U.S.-Iran agreement freezing or limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions at least for a few years?

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The United States left the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. For the next year, Iranian authorities remained committed to their obligations, but then they gradually began to scale up both nuclear-power capacity and production. Among the provocative moves that Iran has made is enriching uranium up to 60 percent purity, close to weapons grade. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest quarterly report to member states said that Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity grew again during this last quarter, but far slower than in the previous quarter.

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The Iranian foreign minister recently suggested that the two sides are working on the text of amendments to the original Iran deal, but thus far, no confirmation of such efforts has been given. It is often hard to credit reports coming out of Tehran of progress in nuclear talks. In recent years, it has hinted at progress that has not come about.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have moved to normalize relations this year. Is there any connection between that and Iran’s other diplomatic moves?

The key actor in the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal was China. Iranian and Saudi officials had been negotiating for a long time under the auspices of Iraq, but those talks failed to produce an agreement. As the largest purchaser of Saudi oil, China seeks to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf, and it was concerned about a potential clash between the two Gulf states.

Iran’s pragmatism in the Gulf is not yet apparent in other parts of the Middle East. It continues to assist various militias in Iraq and Syria and remains hostile to Israel. The agreements normalizing relations between Israel and multiple Arab states in the past few years have also caused considerable consternation in Tehran.

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What should we look for in Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s upcoming visit to New York and address to the UN General Assembly?

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the UN General Assembly in September 2022.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the UN General Assembly in September 2022. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

President Raisi has not distinguished himself during his tenure as an activist president in command of the national agenda. He seems to be more of a passive actor with limited imagination and is rarely capable of taking initiative. His speech at the United Nations is likely to echo his previous comments at international forums, such as his 2022 General Assembly address that railed against Western sanctions on Iran. In a recent press conference he said, “Some find solutions in the smiles of America and a few European countries…But we do not wait for those smiles and do not hinge public livelihood upon the will of those states.” He will be uncompromising, even strident.

There is a lot of diplomatic noise around the Iran issue today in the region, the United States, and beyond, and Raisi and Iranian foreign ministry officials will hold their share of meetings in New York. It is unlikely that these will be in person with the American side, although the Iranians could have discussions with their European counterparts.

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