Is Iran seeking a historic compromise with the United States?
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei has announced that Iran is prepared for a full prisoner swap with the United States with no preconditions. He said there are already contacts with the United States on this issue, but Washington still has not responded despite the basic readiness that Tehran has expressed. In any case, Rabiei stated that the Iranian Interests Section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington is prepared to pursue such a deal.
Rabiei added that, given the extent of the coronavirus crisis in the United States and “the exposure of the Iranian prisoners to many dangers in the American prisons,” he hopes the U.S. administration will prioritize human life over political considerations. Rabiei said Iran has information that the Iranian prisoners are not receiving treatment and are in grave condition.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on May 11 that he had already raised the proposal of a prisoner exchange in September 2018 while participating in the UN General Assembly session. According to the proposal, he stated, “Iran is prepared to exchange all the American prisoners in return for Iranian prisoners in the United States and in countries under its influence; but Washington is yet to respond.” However, in an interview to Iran’s YJC news agency on May 12, Zarif said no talks were being held with the United States. “The Americans have proved that they are unworthy and one cannot trust negotiations with them. The whole world has reached that conclusion. The time has come for the American administration to change its behavior and not make excuses.”
The words of the senior Iranian officials came a short time after a tweet on May 8 by Ayatollah Khamenei, in which he again, as in past instances when Iran was at a strategic juncture, referred to religious-historical events from the early days of Islam. In the tweet, which marked the birthday of Imam Hassan (the Second Imam), Iran’s Supreme Leader lauded the heroism of the Shiite figure, who signed a peace treaty with the Sunni ruler Mu’awiya: “I believe that Imam Hassan was the greatest hero in the history of Islam….He was prepared to sacrifice himself, along with his good name among his comrades, to further his goals, and he agreed to peace for the sake of the future of Islam.” In 2013, in the midst of the negotiations on the nuclear deal, Khamenei coined the term “heroic flexibility,” which also appears in the book he later wrote under the title, The Peace of Imam Hassan: The Most Wonderful Heroic Flexibility in History.
Back in 2013, Khamenei’s allusion to Imam Hassan’s “heroic flexibility” was seen as a green light to promote the nuclear deal, which was eventually signed in 2015. Many even compared it to Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous phrase “ to drink from the chalice of poison,” spoken toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War on the way to Security Council Resolution 598, which led ultimately to the end of the war. “I accept the fact that I must drink the chalice of poison of adopting the resolution. Its adoption is more lethal than venom, but I must submit to Allah and drink the chalice for his sake.”
In light of its timing, with Iran at a crossroad, Khamenei’s tweet prompted many interpretations of its significance. Some claimed that these were just the usual sort of words in honor of Imam Hassan’s birthday and no great import should be ascribed to them regarding any forthcoming strategic moves by Iran. Others claimed they signaled that Iran, which is in very poor economic straits amid the sanctions and the coronavirus crisis, is (again) seeking a compromise with the United States, possibly on the nuclear issue. Some of those who responded on the social networks portrayed Khamenei and Foreign Minister Zarif, who played a decisive role in the nuclear talks with his “smile offensive,” as flexible gymnasts.
The last time Iran and the United States swapped prisoners was in 2019. The Iranians freed the student Xiyue Wang, who was jailed for three years on charges of spying; the Americans released the Iranian stem-cell researcher Massoud Soleimani, who had been charged with violating the sanctions. If a prisoner exchange is carried out, it may include Michael White, a U.S. navy veteran who was arrested in Iran in 2018, and father and son Baqer and Siamak Namazi (dual Iranian-American nationals). The United States, for its part, will expel Iranian Professor Sirous Asgari, who is suspected of stealing trade secrets.
The historical disputes and resentments between Iran and the United States are profound. The Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” has intensified them. The two countries are now in the midst of a titanic struggle that encompasses many diplomatic and military arenas and affects many countries in the Middle East. The coronavirus crisis has not brought any letup to this struggle. It has, however, greatly exacerbated Iran’s economic distress because of the dramatic decline in oil prices and the United Arab Emirates’ closing of its ports to Iran to prevent the spread of the virus. Iran had been using some of those ports to circumvent the sanctions.
Since the outbreak of the virus, Iran has conducted “corona diplomacy” that seeks to erode the U.S. sanctions on humanitarian grounds. So far, however, this effort has recorded only partial successes that have not significantly alleviated Iran’s economic plight. Nor has Iran managed so far to free up any of its assets abroad that are frozen because of the sanctions, or to deepen the wedge between the European countries – which are still signed onto the nuclear deal – and the United States. The European mechanism for bypassing the sanctions, INSTEX, indeed was used once (at the end of March and beginning of April) to transfer humanitarian aid, more than a year after it was declared, but this is not enough to improve Iran’s bleak state of affairs or to compensate for the heavy losses due to the reimposed American sanctions.
Despite its difficult situation at home and abroad, Iran continues to adhere to the key objectives of its strategy: to advance the nuclear program and to expand its regional influence through subversion in the Persian Gulf, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Iran continues to operate in these hot spots even after the high-profile assassination of IRGC-QF Commander Qasem Soleimani, through its proxies against the interests of the United States, its Sunni allies (primarily Saudi Arabia, by aiding the Houthis in Yemen), and Israel. Simultaneously, Iran has kept defying the United States in the Gulf with a string of provoked incidents involving U.S. vessels; while in Iraq, Iran acted behind the scenes to appoint Mustafa al Kazimi as prime minister on May 9 and to encourage the Shiite militias it supports to keep monitoring and targeting U.S. interests in Iraq. Iran is continuing its military activity in Syria as well, despite recent reports that Iran was reducing its presence and expenditures in Syria. This week Abu Faisal Sirlak, an “adviser” to the IRGC, was killed in Syria.
Iran has not abandoned the nuclear deal. It keeps acting within its framework and using it to pressure the United States. At the same time, it is gradually eroding and breaching many of its crucial components (by hoarding uranium, raising the enrichment level, and engaging in centrifuge R&D), thereby probably shortening the breakout time towards a nuclear weapon if it eventually decides to withdraw from the deal. In the international diplomatic arena, Iran and the United States are heading for a confrontation in the Security Council in October, when the arms embargo on Iran is supposed to be lifted in line with Security Council Resolution 2231. The United States has already launched an effort to keep the embargo in place.
Behind the scenes, Iran is working with Russia, China, and some EU countries which oppose the American move to thwart it. On May 9, the second anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the Iranian foreign minister sent a letter to the UN secretary-general in which he accused President Trump of repeated violations of the UN Charter and called on the secretary-general to hold the United States responsible for actions that damage UN credibility. The Iranian ambassador to the United Nations said the United States was subjecting Resolution 2231 to ridicule while also threatening other countries.
In sum, it appears that Iran and the United States continue to be on a collision course. President Trump, who is under harsh criticism at home for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, jeopardizing his second term as president, will try to leverage his “maximum pressure” policy to secure some sort of agreement with Iran and then glorify it as part of his election campaign. Khamenei, for his part, is (again) hinting that he will facilitate a compromise measure that perhaps will give Iran some relief from its distress, while demonstrating what he calls “heroic flexibility” toward the United States.
The Iranian leader is caught between the hammer of his burning desire to be remembered as one who successfully withstood the American “maximum pressure” and the anvil of Iran’s worsening condition. He is still telling the Iranian negotiating team to keep the nuclear deal alive at least, he hopes, until the end of Trump’s first – and as far as he is concerned, last – term in office, while promoting the policy of the “resistance economy” and enhancing self-production to counter “intrusive elements” such as sanctions.
Throughout its revolutionary years, Iran has faced repeated international and regional pressures and has overcome them despite the heavy price it has paid and is still paying. Even if he allows a period of calm between Iran and the United States, Khamenei will not want to be remembered as someone who gave in to America, and he will keep adhering to Iran’s basic objectives. He is aware of the growing calls in the United States, particularly in the Democratic camp, to ease the Iranian people’s distress in the face of the coronavirus, and the party’s candidate, Joe Biden, now appears to be supporting a return to the nuclear deal.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Acumen Risk Advisors.