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Source: The Telegraph

Aug 19, 2023

Joe Biden launches bid to ease tensions with Iran ahead of 2024 elections

US president lobbies the Middle East state to halt supply of drones to Russia and agree prisoner swap deal

By James Rothwell

Joe Biden has launched a campaign to de-escalate tensions with Iran as he seeks a Middle East foreign policy win ahead of US elections next year.

The US is reportedly lobbying Iran to stop sending drones to Russia as part of a wider, informal agreement that would also seek to calm friction in the Middle East between Israel, Iran and the latter’s proxy forces in the region

As part of early talks on the agreement, Washington has signed up to a prisoner swap deal with Tehran and in return is expected to release $6 billion (£4.7 billion) in frozen assets to the regime.

Under the terms of the prisoner deal, five Iranian-US citizens - including one who also holds UK citizenship - are being released from Iranian jails in exchange for the return of a group of Iranian citizens in US custody.

President Biden is also said to be seeking concessions from Iran on nuclear enrichment and may pause the introduction of fresh sanctions on Tehran, in what some officials have described as an “interim deal” on the nuclear crisis. The substance of the talks on an “unwritten understanding” was revealed earlier this week by the Financial Times.

This could lay the groundwork for more intense talks on returning to the Obama-era nuclear agreement, which eased sanctions on Tehran in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Experts said the flurry of activity on the Iran file was largely motivated by Mr Biden’s desire to show that he can win concessions from the Islamic Republic.

However, it remained unclear if the relatively small-scale agreements would lead to any substantial progress on the most complex and pressing issue of Tehran’s nuclear programme, which Israel regards as an existential threat.

“The only recent development to date is an agreement for the release of hostages in exchange for Iran‘s access to its foreign reserves under constraints managed by Doha,” Dr Sanam Vakil, the director of Chatham House’s Middle East programme, told The Telegraph.

“There are backchannel efforts under way to reach a nuclear understanding but that would not be akin to reviving the JCPOA,” she added, referring to the nuclear deal.

Economic lifeline

A significant thaw in US-Iran relations could also calm the situation on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon where there has been a surge in security incidents involving Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy militia.

Some experts also suspect that the $6 billion in frozen assets, currently in South Korea, could be used by Iran as an economic “lifeline” for its key ally Syria, which is on the brink of economic collapse under the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.

“The timing of the Biden admin’s deal with Iran... is potentially very significant. Assad needs an economic lifeline and only Iran may now be positioned to do so,” Charles Lister, the director of the Middle East Institute, said in a tweet this week.

Israel, which has repeatedly threatened to launch direct military action on Iran to destroy its nuclear programme, has already condemned the US deal on prisoners and frozen assets.

“Israel’s position is known, according to which arrangements that do not dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will not stop its nuclear programme and will only provide it with funds that will go to terrorist elements sponsored by Iran,” said Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

Jason Brodsky, the director of the campaign group United Against Nuclear Iran, expressed concerns that Mr Biden’s deal could backfire badly on him by encouraging Iran to take more hostages for use as diplomatic leverage.

“The terms of this deal are concerning … [it] will only embolden the Iranian establishment to continue this process,” he said. “What we are missing is a transatlantic strategy to deter hostage-taking, imposing penalties on the Islamic Republic and making it harder for those with American and European passports to travel there given concerns over their safety.”

Danny Citrinowicz, an Iran analyst at the Israeli security think tank INSS, said the recent deals sent some slightly positive signals as they suggested that both the US and Iran were serious about avoiding any escalations in the near future.

“In that regard, it highlights the willingness of both sides to come to some sort of solution for the short term,” he said. “The problem is it’s not a long-term solution … this is the best bad option that there is - but it’s still bad.”

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