WASHINGTON (AP) – A wave of diplomatic contacts and major progress reports suggest that indirect talks between the United States and Iran may be close to reaching a deal. This is despite efforts by U.S. officials to downplay the chances of an imminent deal that would bring Washington and Tehran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
With negotiations in Vienna halted, the United States and Britain have denied Iranian reports that any deal is close at hand with Iran for an exchange of American and British prisoners. Such an exchange could be a confidence-building measure to revive the nuclear deal.
A US return to the deal would be the most important and controversial foreign policy initiative of the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency. It would reignite a deal that key Biden aides struck during their years in the Obama administration, only to see President Donald Trump step down and try to prevent the United States from ever returning. Returning to it – and making the necessary concessions to do so – would infuriate Republicans and likely destabilize Israel and the Arab Gulf allies.
Even as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab dismissed prisoner exchange reports at a press conference in London on Monday, senior US diplomats were in the Middle East to meet Arab leaders from the Gulf. And two of the biggest supporters of the nuclear deal in Congress – Democrats Chris Coons and Chris Murphy – were on tour in the region.
These talks follow a week of high-level meetings in Washington between Biden; his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan; Blinken; his assistant, Wendy Sherman; Iranian special envoy Rob Malley; and others with the head of the Israeli spy agency and the main national security aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Israelis are adamantly opposed to any American 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 on Friday with Mossad leader Yossi Cohen to which Biden made an appearance. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Cohen had been briefed on the Vienna talks “and the progress being made there.”
Later on Friday, and on Saturday, reports emerged from Iran and Iran-related media that an agreement had been reached on what the United States would provide in return for Iran’s return to compliance. 2015 agreement, which eased sanctions by billions of dollars. in exchange for brakes on its nuclear program. On Sunday, reports of the prisoner exchange deal were released.
U.S. officials were quick to characterize the reports as premature and inaccurate, although the broad outlines of the potential sanctions relief are well known and Washington has made no secret of its eagerness to release Americans held in detention. Iran.
Administration officials have allowed limited progress to be made in the talks in Vienna, where Malley heads the US delegation. Malley was a key figure in the Obama administration’s negotiation of the initial nuclear deal in 2015, as were Sherman and Sullivan, who respectively led those talks and participated in secret meetings that paved the way for the deal. .
The Biden administration has reacted strongly to the Iranian reports. The State Department said “we are not on the cusp of a breakthrough” and dismissed the prisoner exchange request as bogus. “Unfortunately, this report is false,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said on Sunday.
Sullivan himself has been cautious in public commenting on the talks, noting that things stand in an “unclear place in Vienna”. At a virtual Aspen Security Forum meeting on Friday, he stressed that the talks were a “real negotiation” while acknowledging that the indirect nature of the talks had made the company somewhat “ineffective”.
“I guess good faith is always in the eye of the beholder and we think the Iranians have come in earnest to have serious discussions about the details and the teams are working on those details now,” he said. declared.
So the surge in diplomatic activity as negotiators prepare for a fourth round of talks in Vienna has given supporters of the deal that Trump withdrew in 2018 with cause for hope. And this caused great anguish among the opponents.
To complicate any potential resolution in the short or medium term, there is the large number of opponents lined up to try to derail a deal. In addition to 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, hard-line elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps appear to be using the Vienna talks to thwart a candidacy by Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif in this year’s presidential elections.
Critics of the deal have challenged the negotiating tactics of Malley and his colleagues, saying they are abandoning the influence over Iran that Trump created when he withdrew from the deal and imposed new ones radical sanctions. In fact, any return of the United States to the deal would require the relaxation of many of these sanctions, including possibly those that were imposed for non-nuclear reasons, such as terrorism, ballistic missile activity. and human rights violations.
Supporters of the deal, on the other hand, criticized the criticism, accusing the other side of rejecting diplomacy and encouraging war. They argue that sanctions relief is the only way to bring Iran back into line with the deal and close its path to a nuclear weapon.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Chicago contributed to this report.
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