After nuke deal, prisoner swap, what is next for US-Iran ties?

By Dave Clark and Nicolas Revise ,AFP

WASHINGTON — Was this weekend’s nuclear deal and Washington’s surprise prisoner swap with Tehran the final high point of a one-off diplomatic initiative or the start of a real realignment? Some 35 years after U.S.-Iran ties were broken amid the chaos of the Tehran hostage crisis, might the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil lynchpin be on the brink of a real detente? Most experts see a formal restoration of diplomatic ties as far off and progress as fragile, but Washington at least is ready to see how far the diplomatic track will take it. “We do believe we should test whether or not there can be additional cooperation, or at least constructive dialogue,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters. On Saturday, the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed Iran had put a nuclear bomb beyond its immediate reach and the U.S. and EU lifted their most draconian economic sanctions. At the same time — in a surprise gesture — Tehran and Washington revealed they had reached a deal to exchange two groups of prisoners held in each other’s jails. U.S. diplomats insisted, to widespread skepticism, that the two breakthroughs were entirely separate.

The Iran nuclear deal was the product of years of careful negotiations between Tehran and the P5+1 — the permanent U.N. Security Council members and the European Union. The prisoner swap, by contrast, came after 14 months of back-channel negotiations, conducted in secret between U.S. envoys and Iranian diplomats and intelligence officials. But taken together, the initiatives have fed speculation that U.S. President Barack Obama is rewiring U.S. networks in the Middle East to end the decades-long standoff. Detente with Iran would make it easier to resolve the crises in Iraq, Syria and Yemen — even if it would unsettle traditional U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia. “Deeply encoded in Obama’s software, the answer was Iran,” Joseph Bahout, a Middle East scholar at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, told AFP. “His team thinks that Iran is a natural future partner.” If the tensions between the Shiite Islamic republic and the Sunni Gulf monarchies subside, other conflicts fed by their proxies and their funding might be solved. “I think that we have shown that over time, very persistent diplomacy can yield results,” said the Obama administration official, defending the outreach. The next test of whether Iran will continue to accommodate some U.S. ambitions will be the U.N.-mediated Syrian peace talks due to resume later this month in Geneva.