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Source: RFE/RL

Jun 15, 2023

The Farda Briefing: Iran, U.S. Renew Engagement To Avoid 'Big Crisis'

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.

The Big Issue

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.

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Iran's relations with its northwestern neighbor Azerbaijan have devolved into scolding and heated rhetoric as Tehran objects to outside influence from regional rivals in what it considers its backyard. The discord has been fueled by violent incidents, war games, Baku's military cooperation with Israel, and objections to the prospect of Azerbaijan building a trade corridor to the West.

What We're Watching

In his first trip to Latin America, Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi met with his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicola Maduro, on June 13.

Raisi said the two countries have "common interests and common enemies." Iran and Venezuela are both under U.S. sanctions.

The countries have forged close ties in recent years. In 2020, Iran provided fuel to the country during a shortage.

Raisi arrived in Nicaragua on June 14 where he met with seniors officials. He will later travel to Cuba.

Why It Matters: Raisi's trip is aimed at bolstering Iran's ties with its Latin American allies and increasing its presence in the region.

Before departing Tehran, the Iranian president said the country's relations with "independent" Latin American countries was "strategic."

"Through its presence in America's backyard, Tehran wants to pursue its political and ideological calculations and create some kind of convergence with these countries," Iranian analyst Hadi Alami Fariman told the hard-line Tasnim news agency.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Golnaz Esfandiari

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