Hints of interactions between American and Iranian diplomats over the last few months finally became public on June 14 when the Foreign Minister of the Sultanate of Oman, Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, told the media that Iran and the United States were finalising a deal on the release of American prisoners in Iran, and that there was “seriousness” on the part of the two countries to come to a fresh deal on the nuclear issue. An Iranian spokesperson also confirmed that indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran had taken place in Muscat. U.S. interactions with Iran began last year when the U.S. Special Envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, met the Iranian Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. After that, the White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, Brett McGurk, visited Oman in February, March and May, where he met Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator on the nuclear issue, Ali Bagheri-Kani, in “proximity” talks.
What the nuclear arrangement entails
Following Mr. McGurk’s last visit in May, the Omani ruler, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, visited Tehran on May 28-29. He was perhaps carrying a message from the U.S. on a new agreement on the nuclear issue for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This was in line with the earlier role played by Oman in the run-up to the nuclear agreement in 2015.
Ayatollah Khamenei then addressed this matter publicly on June 11. He did not call for the revival of the earlier agreement but sought a new one which would ensure that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remained in place; he affirmed that Iran had no interest in a nuclear weapon and would cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.
According to media reports, the proposed agreement, expected to be finalised in a few weeks, will be informal and unwritten — Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called it a “mini-agreement”, while Iranian officials see it as a “political ceasefire”. Under the arrangement, Iran will freeze its nuclear enrichment at 60%; it will not attack U.S. military contractors in Syria and Iraq, will improve cooperation with the IAEA’s inspectors, and will not provide ballistic missiles to Russia. Iran will also release the three U.S. citizens in its custody.
In return, the U.S. has pledged to avoid new harsh sanctions on Iran, not to seize oil tankers in the Gulf waters, and not pursue anti-Iran resolutions in the United Nations. The U.S. is also expected to defreeze Iran’s bank accounts of about $80 billion in various banks outside the country, and will immediately allow the release of $7 billion in South Korea and $2.7 billion in Iraq.
Since this is an unwritten agreement, the Joe Biden administration will not have to seek Congressional approval. And, since it does not call for easing of existing U.S. sanctions, the Republicans will find it difficult to attack the deal in the forthcoming presidential campaign.
The U.S. has long recognised that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) in its original form could not be revived. In the U.S., there were now demands for a broader agreement that would address Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, its “malign” role in the region and support for terrorism, matters on which there would be no headway with Iran. U.S. officials had also recognised that sanctions were no longer effective in influencing Iran’s responses to American pressures.
Thus, what the proposed arrangement focuses on are widespread concerns relating to Iran’s uranium enrichment programme that had reached 84% and its stockpile of thousands of installed centrifuges. The U.S. military had estimated that Iran was just “several months” from a weapon, while Israeli sources thought it was one to two years away. Iran’s progress towards a weapon had led to real concerns about a region-wide conflagration as Israel, with or without the Americans, was expected to take pre-emptive military action.
Another positive implication from the U.S. and Israeli perspective is that the deal with Iran could end Saudi Arabia’s own nuclear aspirations.
What could happen on the ground
Mr. Netanyahu has said that Israel will not be bound by this arrangement. This could be posturing: with their anti-democratic initiatives, both the Prime Minister and his government have much reduced clout in Washington today and are unlikely to garner backing to overturn the deal.
Iran is entering into the arrangement with no illusion that it will have a long-term value; at best, it will survive the present Biden administration. But it will help to release billions of dollars that Iran could use to ameliorate the dire living conditions of millions of its citizens. It will also enable it to continue selling some of its oil in world markets; the U.S. has so far turned a blind eye to these sales to moderate oil prices to the extent possible.
Regionally, the arrangement will facilitate further improvement in Iran’s ties with Saudi Arabia, with the prospect of the kingdom’s normalisation of relations with Israel being placed firmly on the back burner. Iran also retains the option of continuing to expand its political and economic ties with Russia and China.
A piquant thought: if the “good faith” arrangement holds through this administration, it could prepare the ground for serious U.S.-Iran engagement on other matters of common concern in Mr. Biden’s second term — assuming, of course, that Donald Trump is not then residing in the White House.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat