WASHINGTON (AP) – A flurry of diplomatic contacts and reports of significant progress suggest that indirect US-Iran talks could be close to an agreement. This is despite US efforts to reduce the chances of an upcoming deal that will bring Washington and Tehran back in line with the 2015 nuclear deal.
During the Vienna talks, the United States and Britain denied Iranian communications that there is an agreement with Iran for the exchange of American and British prisoners. Such an exchange could be a confidence-building measure to revive the nuclear deal.
Returning the United States to the deal would be the biggest and most controversial foreign policy initiative in the first months of Joe Biden̵
Even as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rejected reports of an exchange of prisoners at a press conference in London on Monday, with senior US diplomats among Arab leaders in the Middle East. Both of Congress’ biggest supporters of the nuclear deal – Democratic Sensor Chris Koons and Chris Murphy – toured the region.
These discussions follow a week of summits in Washington between Biden; his national security adviser Jake Sullivan; Blinking; his deputy, Wendy Sherman; Iran’s Special Envoy Rob Mali; and others with the head of Israel’s spy agency and Israel’s top national security aide, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Israelis are strongly opposed to any US rapprochement with Iran, which they see as an existential threat to the Jewish state. At least three separate meetings were held with the Israelis last week, including one Friday with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, to whom Biden appeared. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Cohen was aware of the discussions in Vienna “and the progress that is being made there.”
Later on Friday and Saturday, there were reports from Iran and Iran-related media that an agreement had been reached on what the United States would provide in exchange for Iran’s return to the 2015 agreement, which provided billions of dollars in easing sanctions. in exchange for curbs under the nuclear program. Reports of a prisoner exchange deal surfaced on Sunday.
U.S. officials were quick to judge the reports as premature and inaccurate, although the broad outlines of potential sanctions easing are well known, and Washington has made no secret of its desire to release Americans detained in Iran.
Administration officials have admitted that limited progress has been made during talks in Vienna, where Mali heads the US delegation. Mali was a key figure in the Obama administration’s talks on the initial nuclear deal in 2015, as were Sherman and Sullivan, who chaired the talks and participated in secret meetings that paved the way for the agreement.
The Biden administration has reacted sharply to Iranian reports. The State Department said “we are not on top of any breakthrough” and rejected the request to replace prisoners as untrue. “Unfortunately, this report is incorrect,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klein said Sunday.
Sullivan himself was cautious in public comments about the talks, stressing that things were “unclear in Vienna.” At a virtual meeting of the Security Forum in Aspen on Friday, he stressed that the talks were “real negotiations”, while acknowledging the indirect nature of the discussions, which made the initiative somewhat “ineffective”.
“I guess good faith is always in the eye of the beholder, and we believe that the Iranians have come in a serious way to have serious discussions about details, and the teams are already working on those details,” he said.
Thus, the increase in diplomatic activity as negotiators prepare for the fourth round of talks in Vienna, gave hope to supporters of the deal, from which Trump withdrew in 2018, and this caused great concern in the deal.
Complicating any potential resolution in the short or medium term is the significant set of opponents lined up to try to thwart a deal. In addition to the Gulf Arabs and Israel, there is strong opposition from Republican members of Congress, who are already trying to pass legislation to block it. In Iran, elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s rigid corps appear to be using the Vienna talks to thwart Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s candidacy in this year’s presidential election.
Critics of the deal have challenged the negotiation tactics of Malei and his colleagues, arguing that they are releasing the lever for Iran that Trump created when he withdrew from the deal and imposed new broad sanctions. In fact, any return of the United States to the deal will require easing many of these sanctions, including those that may have been imposed for non-nuclear reasons, such as terrorism, ballistic missile activity and human rights abuses.
Proponents of the deal, on the other hand, have lashed out at the criticism, accusing the other side of rejecting diplomacy and war cheerleading. They say easing sanctions is the only way to bring Iran back into line with the agreement and close its path to nuclear weapons.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madani of Chicago contributed to the report.