The recent Washington-Tehran prisoner swap and unfreezing of assets is likely linked to the coveted Saudi-Israeli normalization
In what proved to be a domestically controversial move, the US government approved the release of five prisoners held in Iran in return for releasing five Iranian detainees and billions of previously frozen assets. However, in the aftermath of the agreement between Tehran and Washington, the White House's primary focus seems to be centered around securing a Saudi-Israeli deal rather than working on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
As revealed by the anonymous diplomatic sources of The Cradle, in addition to other tidbits released in US media, the US-Iran prisoner swap appears to have been much more than meets the eye. The informal agreement, according to these anonymous sources, encompassed freezing Iranian uranium enrichment at 60% and permitting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to install cameras at several nuclear sites. On the other hand, the US' concessions included disregarding Iranian oil sales - in essence, refraining from enforcing sanctions - and allowing all Iranian assets to be released, reportedly amounting to roughly $20 billion. This is well over the widely reported $6 billion touted in the international press.
What makes this agreement so intriguing is that it was non-formal, including no known signed documents, and was contrived over several months and under the auspices of Qatar and Oman as intermediaries. From leaked information, citing unnamed sources, what we can gather - regardless of what claims are true or false - is that the prisoner swap was more than a simple exchange of prisoners and $6 billion in frozen assets. According to a report released in May by Axios, secret indirect talks between the US and Iran had been conducted in Oman, which three sources close to the news outlet claimed Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kan, was part of. Later, in June, the New York Times released a report claiming that secret negotiations were going on, aimed at concluding an informal agreement to replace the need to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
To begin with, if we are to assume that the official US narrative on the agreement is correct, despite Iranian officials having contradicted it, then the most apparent objective in mind from Washington's perspective would be to cause a thaw in America's relationship with the Islamic Republic. As various analysts have suggested, this could have also signaled hope for a revival of the nuclear deal, which fell apart after the administration of former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018. Hope had largely faded that the administration of President Joe Biden could bring the deal back to life after Biden was revealed to have said that it was officially "dead" in November of 2022.
However, given the information we have at hand, what is most likely here is that this represents a massive de-escalation following ship seizures and the beefing up of America's troop presence in the Persian Gulf back in August. Why a de-escalation now? Is it to revive nuclear deal talks? This appears highly unlikely. Instead, the prisoner exchange agreement comes simultaneously with, and is somewhat overshadowed by, developments in the ongoing discussions to reach an American-brokered normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The two nations, both powerful partners of the US in the Middle East, have never had formal diplomatic relations with each other. Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel as a sovereign country and has been at loggerheads with it over its treatment of Arabs in Palestine, which Riyadh ostensibly wants to see as an independent nation. Negotiations to finally normalize diplomatic relations have been ongoing for months now, with the US being a highly invested middleman, given that achieving such a deal would help consolidate its power base in the region. As for Iran, while Israel sees it as an existential enemy, Saudi Arabia has had a complicated relationship with it, only having re-established diplomatic ties earlier this year in a deal brokered by China.
When Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)'s 78th session, they publicly discussed the high hopes of concluding Saudi-Israeli normalization. This was followed by two Fox News interviews, one with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and the other with the Israeli PM, during which both said that the deal grows closer by the day. At Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the UNGA, he spoke at length on Iran; however, there was no mention of the recent US-Iranian prisoner exchange.
In fact, Israel has remained silent on the informal deal. This is especially interesting, considering that Tel Aviv* routinely attacks the prospect of any agreement with Iran, let alone one that allows for tens of billions in funds to be transferred back into the hands of Tehran. In June, Netanyahu spoke over the phone with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during which he discussed Iran at length and proclaimed that he opposes and will not be bound by any agreement struck between Washington and Tehran.
On September 5, Antony Blinken spoke with the Israeli premier again, allegedly discussing Iran as the primary subject of the call. While the precise details of the calls are impossible to apprehend, there had to be a good chance that the prisoner swap agreement was mentioned, as reports had publicly been leaked to the press regarding Iran-US talks. With so much focus placed upon Iran by Israel, it makes no sense that Tel Aviv would remain silent on the prisoner exchange, especially given the release of Iran's formerly frozen funds.
Not silent on the unfreezing of Tehran's billions were Republican politicians in the US Congress. If the Biden administration were to have accepted a renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal, one of its major hurdles would have been passing the deal in Congress, including the deeply opposed Republican-led House of Representatives. In fact, any attempt to try and pass a deal, at this point, could reflect negatively on the Biden White House, which matters more now as we head towards the 2024 presidential election.
Therefore, by striking an informal agreement with Tehran, the US de-escalates and addresses some of its worries surrounding Iran's nuclear program. More importantly, however, the US government could be trying to create a fertile environment for the conclusion of an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement, both by calming Iran down to de-escalate regional tensions and, possibly, leveraging concessions to ease Tehran's pushback against the normalization directly. Whether this strategy will work or not is yet to be seen. Still, it is clear that the key foreign policy goal for Joe Biden is securing the normalization agreement, which is why it makes sense that the most powerful nation that opposes it - Iran - should be addressed and taken seriously.
*Russia recognizes West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as shown on the Russian Foreign Ministry's Consular Department website