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Sunday 22 December 2019

Finally, a breakthrough in US-Iran relations

Saleem Zahid.

The breakthrough in US-Iran relations came at the most unexpected time. President Donald Trump is undergoing an impeachment process and needs massive support from his voters over the validity of his radical approach to governance and foreign policy. A thaw in the US-Iran ties comes as a blessing. 

Meeting of US and Iranian Envoys at the UN

After trading barbs at the UN Security Council meeting on 19 December, US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft reached up to her Iranian counterpart Majid Takht-Ravanchi to condole the death of a two-year-old girl. 

Mr. Ravanchi had spoken at length of how US sanctions had made medical care difficult for the Iranian people. The little girl died from a rare skin related disease, he said, because the country could not import special bandages for her. 

Despite coming hard upon each other during their speeches, a compassionate exchange of words was a welcome sign among the two bickering foes who have been at odds since the 1979 revolution in Iran. 

The exchange might seem insignificant but when seen with other corroborating events, there really has risen a possibility that we might be looking for a softening of stances on both sides.

Iranian President’s Visit to US Ally Japan

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited US’s close ally Japan on 20 December and discussed the 2015 nuclear deal with Japanese leadership. His visit comes at a time when European nations, along with Japan, are scrambling to revive the deal which the US unilaterally canceled in 2018. 

With the high profile visit, speculations gained significant traction that Iran was seeking a line to the US. Japan has maintained cautious relations with Iran and was one of the largest buyers of its crude oil till US sanctions stopped it from doing so. This year, on the formation of a US-led maritime security coalition to protect the Strait of Hormuz from the threat from Iran, Japan decided not to be a part of it. 

Japan enjoys the confidence of both the US and Iran and is well-positioned for acting as a trusted intermediary in solving one of the most longstanding security issues of the Middle East. 

Right after the Iranian delegation departed, Japanese President Shinzo Abe briefed President Trump in a lengthy phone call, giving confirmation to the presence of an indirect channel between the US and Iran.

Iranian president’s visit to Japan is a sign that he may finally be willing to come to the table. Backing for this notion comes from the fact that Iran’s request for the meeting came at a relatively short notice. Meanwhile, Iran also wants to show that it is not cocooning away from the world and is instead open to discuss thorny issues. 

Prisoner Exchange with the US

Earlier this month, the US and Iran exchanged prisoners in another thawing development. An American graduate student Xiyue Wang, held by Iran for three and a half years, was released in exchange for Masoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist working on stem cell research and charged with exporting proteins not allowed for Iran. 

The American student was charged by the Iranian government for espionage but his relatively early release and his frequent calls with his family in the US show that he was only being kept as a bargaining chip. 

The prisoner exchange corroborates with other events that indicate the breakthrough in US-Iran relations. Just as the Iranian leader’s visit to Japan was held at a short notice, this exchange was the result of merely weeks of negotiations between American and Iranian officials. Such a process otherwise takes months and even years to bear positive results. 

US officials took the exchange positively with public appreciations. Brian Hook, US special representative for Iran, was especially upbeat on future diplomatic prospects. He expressed hope that the event may lead to broader discussions on consular affairs between the two nations. 

The Pinch of Salt

Ever since the prisoner exchange, Brian Hook has been sending positive signals to the Iranians. A week after the exchange, he declared that the US was open to dialogue. In the same breath, however, he stated that Iran remained a threat to international peace and security.

In the latest show of toughening up, the US imposed sanctions on Iranian judges who, according to it, carried out ‘miscarriage of justice in show trials’ against participants of the recent protests in the country. 

Although these sanctions primarily involved visa restrictions, other tougher ones have been disastrous for Iran’s economy. The oil-rich nation today exports only to a handful of countries that don’t cooperate with US policies. 

The US has blamed Iran for carrying out a proxy war against Saudi Arabia and, most recently, of carrying out direct attacks on Saudi oil refinery Aramco. Though the recent diplomatic overtures are a convincing signal of a breakthrough in US-Iran relations.

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