Over recent weeks it became increasingly evident that Iran has shifted its policy and once again became open to serious nuclear negotiations with the US. Reports suggest a limited informal or unwritten understanding is being developed through indirect negotiations in Oman. Despite the hand-wringing by critics on all sides, that's definitely good news.

Confidence between the parties has grown such that, through carefully orchestrated leaks by diplomats, the basic outlines of a potential arrangement have been widely reported by the media.

The understandings begin with the long overdue release of three dual US-Iranian citizens imprisoned in Iran that Washington and much of the world consider hostages in exchange for the release of restricted Iranian funds. The US has allowed Iraq to pay Iran $3 billion for gas and electricity purchases, and South Korea $7 billion for Iranian oil already received. Both payments are limited to humanitarian purposes, specifically purchasing food and medicine. South Korean banks will receive indemnification assurances from the US Treasury Department that sanctions will not be triggered when they transfer these funds. The three prisoners may therefore be released in the near future.

Iran will reportedly limit uranium enrichment to 60 per cent, with 90 per cent considered weapons-grade. Although there are concerns Iran could potentially weaponise the enriched uranium it has already stockpiled, 60 is obviously far better than 90. In exchange, the Biden administration will commit to not imposing new sanctions on Tehran and to providing additional waivers on payments up to a total of about $2 billion, all targeted for humanitarian purposes.

Critics of the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the Barack Obama administration, especially some staunch supporters of Israel, are outraged, claiming, in their familiar mantra, that the US is giving Iran “pallets of cash”.

Then US secretary of state John Kerry and Iran’s then foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif held talks that led to the 2015 nuclear deal. AP Photo

Such concessions are well worth the risks if such a limited, and even informal or unwritten, understanding can provide a real breakthrough

In truth, the Obama administration never delivered "pallets of cash" to Iran in return for the nuclear deal or anything else, and the Biden administration isn't doing that either. It is releasing Iranian money that has been withheld as leverage precisely for purposes such as achieving a diplomatic breakthrough like this, no matter how limited.

Money, like oil, is fungible, so the restrictions to humanitarian purposes may be somewhat coy. Arguably, it still frees Iranian assets up for other uses, including military and nuclear ones. However, it is by no means certain that the Iranian regime would voluntarily be spending such funds on food and medicine. So, the payments could just as easily provide otherwise non-existent relief to innocents.

The crucial point is that such concessions are well worth the risks if such a limited, and even informal or unwritten, understanding can provide a real breakthrough. The revival of a functional dialogue between Washington and Tehran that begins to chip away at the mountainous edifice of distrust that has formed since the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal is absolutely indispensable.

That disastrous withdrawal is especially significant because these developments are unfolding in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, which could well feature a rematch between Mr Biden – who served as Mr Obama’s vice president during the implementation of the defunct nuclear agreement – and his presidential predecessor Donald Trump, who scrapped the nuclear deal in favour of a campaign of “maximum pressure”.

Those sanctions perhaps limited Iran's ability to fund the malignant activities of its network of armed gangs in neighbouring Arab countries, but they did nothing to mitigate its aggressive policies.

On the contrary, after about a year of trying to weather the sanctions, Tehran decided to strike back with its own campaign of "maximum resistance", which involved a series of nefarious but deniable "grey zone" attacks against shipping and other targets in the Gulf. That culminated in the September 2019 attack on Saudi Aramco facilities that significantly reduced Saudi oil production for several days and rocked global petroleum markets. Meanwhile, Iran’s economy survived "maximum" sanctions, defanging what had long been a potent threat.

Republicans in Congress will be demanding oversight of anything discussed with Iran to prevent Mr Biden from achieving a crucial, albeit limited, diplomatic breakthrough and begin to repair the colossal damage done by Mr Trump's error. They are counting on the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which provides a limited role for Congress in overseeing nuclear agreements with Iran.

An IRGC ship tows a US Navy Saildrone Explorer in the Arabian Gulf last year. AP Photo

However, the Act places no restrictions on presidential waivers of sanctions, does not require that Congress is informed of all details of every understanding, or even agreement, with Iran, does not provide a means for Congress to re-impose sanctions, and does not mandate a timeline or process for congressional review of whatever is submitted by the White House.

On the other hand, the president has the authority to conduct the foreign policy of the US, and both the language of the 2015 Act and the history of US policymaking and implementation suggest Mr Biden has great leeway when it comes to limited agreements and understandings with Iran, regardless of congressional heckling and grandstanding.

Mr Trump will claim that he had the situation entirely under control when he was president, especially after he withdrew from the nuclear agreement, and that Iran was about to fully capitulate to him. But that will be just another outrageous lie from a compulsive fabricator.

In reality, his policies infuriated Iran, but gained little for the US and its regional partners. Instead, they left a legacy of instability and peril. Hence the resumption of dialogue and diplomatic relations with Iran by key Gulf countries. Even when it comes to an apparently implacable adversary as Iran, international relations are very rarely reducible to a zero-sum equation.

Critics will be right that this potential limited understanding will resolve nothing. But it will come at an equally small cost. The real value lies beyond its specific terms. Successful indirect negotiations that produce reciprocal concessions on both sides are an indispensable prerequisite for taking the next step forward – if possible – with Iran regarding its nuclear programme and other egregious, unacceptable conduct.

Without a functional dialogue that can produce results, however limited, for both sides, the drift towards a ruinous and catastrophic war that will benefit no one will remain dangerously unchecked.

Published: June 28, 2023, 2:00 PM

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