[On 18 September 2023, the United States and Iran exchanged a total of ten prisoners as part of a deal in which Washington additionally provided sanctions waivers to enable South Korea to transfer payment for oil it had previously purchased from Iran into restricted accounts in Qatar. Mouin Rabbani, Editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Naysan Rafati, Senior Iran Analyst at Crisis Group, to learn more about the agreement and how it fits into the broader pattern of US-Iranian diplomacy.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): What are the main components of the recent agreement reached between the United States and Iran, and what do we know about the prisoners released by their governments?
Naysan Rafati (NR): There were two main components. The first was a mutual release of detainees: Five US nationals detained by the Iranian government, the longest for eight years, were freed and left Iran accompanied by two family members, and the Biden administration gave clemency to five Iranian nationals either serving time or awaiting trial in the US. The second component was the transfer of around six billion dollars in South Korean payments for past oil purchases from Iran to banks in Qatar, where these funds will be used by Iran for humanitarian purchases. These were the final steps in a deal that was finalised in August, when the White House announced that the five Americans held in Iran had been moved from prison to house arrest, and the Iranians confirmed that the process of transferring the funds to Qatari banks, which took several weeks, was underway.
MR: How do you explain that in this case mediation was primarily conducted by Qatar rather than Oman, which has for many years been the mediator of choice between Iran and Western governments?
NR: There were quite a few parties involved the process that led to this agreement, including South Korea, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Oman, and Qatar. Achieving terms to which both sides could agree, then figuring out the choreography and steps for implementation by parties who have little direct engagement and even less trust in each other, was a complex undertaking. And in terms of the humanitarian channel, the efforts required to establish an agreed mechanism were also very substantial. It involved the identification of banks that satisfy US due diligence requirements to ensure the Iranian funds are used only for non-sanctionable purchases, and arrangements for the transfer and conversion of Iranian assets in South Korea via Switzerland to Qatar. The latter is one of only a handful of governments, along with Oman, on cordial terms with both Washington and Tehran. In that sense, Doha was the lead facilitator and key implementor of a process with two central protagonists and several supporting cast members.
MR: The prisoners released by Iran are generally referred to as “hostages”, incarcerated by dint of their citizenship in order to generate pressure on Iran’s adversaries, rather than on account of any criminal offence. Does this mean their unjust imprisonment could have been avoided if the United States had not intervened to prevent foreign states such as South Korea from fulfilling commercial obligations incurred vis-à-vis Iran in the course of legitimate transactions these foreign states were prepared to honor?
NR: That's not an interpretation I'd quite accept. From the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran and the ensuing hostage crisis, through to the present day, the Iranian government, especially the intelligence and security apparatus that blames much of the country’s internal unrest on outside influences, has frequently and unjustly detained foreign citizens and dual nationals. That remains the case even today. So while the transfer of Iran’s assets was linked to the release of those detained, Tehran’s difficulty in accessing its assets wasn’t the cause of these detentions. In some cases, it may be a cruel means of gaining leverage or bargaining chips in relation to foreign governments. In others these imprisonments represent a response to a perceived slight from another government, and at times they reflect paranoia over what outsiders are doing in Iran. But what’s consistent is that there is little in the way of due process for those detained; the allegations against them aren’t backed by evidence, and those who issue the sentences are part of a judiciary that has little credibility as an impartial or independent branch of government. There are too many examples of detainees from too many countries, over too long a period of time, to conclude anything other than that hostage taking is a tool being used by the Iranian state.
MR: This agreement was concluded against the background of a failure to restore American participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Do you therefore view the prisoner exchange as an alternative to these negotiations, or as a potential prelude to more significant diplomacy?
NR: Negotiations over the restoration of the JCPOA came close to a successful conclusion on more than one occasion last year. After they hit a dead end, and relations between the two countries took a turn for the worse over the Iranian government's crackdown against nationwide protests and its deepening military cooperation with Russia, striking a major deal became all but impossible. The recent detainee exchange notwithstanding, I think that's likely to remain the case at least through the US presidential elections next year. A more substantial agreement would almost certainly require some measure of sanctions relief, and even if the terms for doing so could be somehow hammered out - resolving not just issues that in 2022 produced an impasse but also adapting them to subsequent developments, such as accounting for the continued advances in Iran’s nuclear program – the Biden administration will have little desire to take on the domestic political fight that’s sure to follow while seeking re-election. What the detainee agreement does suggest is that the two sides are still open to limited engagement that aims to keep tensions, whether on the nuclear or regional fronts, contained, though how sustainable this is remains to be seen.
MR: Do you consider it significant that this agreement was consummated on the anniversary of the eruption of widespread protests in Iran?
This agreement had too many moving parts, especially with respect to the transfer of funds, to be tied directly to the anniversary of the protests. Once the terms were finalised in August, the process was going to take several weeks because of the complexity of moving and converting Iran’s assets via Europe, a process that included the Biden administration having to issue a sanctions waiver to participating banks. So while there are some legitimate criticisms that can be raised about this deal – perhaps most significantly, what is being or should be done about the remaining or future hostages – I don’t think the timing was intentional.