US-Iran relations: Where are we heading?

It is hardly a coincidence that Iran-US prisoner swap was announced by Tehran on the Implementation Day of JCPOA. In light of this how do you read the US-Iran relations, what both sides are hoping to gain? Read few comments.

Jamsheed Choksy, Professor, Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University Bloomington

The prisoner swap–5 Iranian-Americans accused of spying who were released by the Islamic Republic of Iran, 7 individuals accused of sanction violations who were released by the United States–is part of an ongoing attempt by the Rouhani and Obama administrations to overcome 36 years of mutual animosity and suspicion. The nuclear deal has opponents in both countries who have tried hard to scuttle it–including attempts to block it in the Iranian Majles or parliament and in the US Congress, the recent seizing of ten US navy sailors by the Iranian military, and accusations of spying and cyber attacks by both nations on each other. The release of those accused of spying and sanction violations, like the very swift return of the detained American seamen, demonstrates that the presidential administrations of both countries are determined to push through the nuclear deal’s implementation and then work toward normalization of relations. The Rouhani administration for its part seems committed to ensuring that anti-American hardliners within the Iranian regime lose ability to forestall Iran’s fulfilling terms of the JCPOA and to thereby ensuring that Iran re-integrates with the world diplomatically, socially, politically, and economically.

So the prisoner swap, not surprisingly, took place at the same time that Iran removed the Arak heavy water reactor’s core and poured concrete into the reactor’s center to decommission it while also continuing to dismantle centrifuges across Iran. Even government officials who endorsed the recent attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran are being dismissed from their official positions. All these actions suggest that the Rouhani administration is working hard both inside Iran and on the world stage, even coordinating with the Obama administration, to ensure that complications are quickly resolved with as little fallout as possible. Both Iran and the US seem determined to avoid military confrontations with each other and when possible to work together–not just on the nuclear deal’s implementation but also against the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadists in Iraq. With less than a year in office, President Obama would cement his international legacy if he were to be able to normalize relations with Iran. Likewise, with parliamentary elections coming up in Iran this year and then presidential elections in 2017, Rouhani would much like to cement his reelection by bolstering relations with the US.

Jonathan SchanzerVice President of Research, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Throughout the JCPOA negotiation process, the US negotiating team insisted that the scope of the talks was limited to the nuclear file. Today’s prisoner release, on the day that Iran satisfied the requirements for implantation of the deal, suggests otherwise. The Administration says this was part of a secret side deal, but there are question that must now be answered. The White House should now come clean on what was or is negotiable with the Iranians, including ballistic missiles, terrorism and human rights, and how US policy prioritizes these issues.

James Goode, Professor of History, Grand Valley State University

This may be the worst time possible to expect the two long-time antagonists, Iran and the United States, to make progress in restoring trust and relations.  The American presidential campaign is in full swing, which includes incessant Republican attacks on the Obama administration’s foreign policy.  Iran has become the opposition’s favorite target.  The recent incident in the Persian Gulf provided a wonderful opportunity for the candidates to criticize Iran and the White House’s handling of the affair.  They expressed disgust at the images of American sailors kneeling with hands behind their heads.  This, they claimed, illustrated how weak the United States had become thanks to Obama’s policies.  Unfortunately, these outbursts will resonate with many Americans, who remember similar images from the hostage crisis, thirty-seven years ago.  Then, candidate Ronald Reagan attacked the Carter administration for failing to maintain American influence abroad.  He promised to make Americans proud again.  And he won.  Republican candidates, referring back to Reagan, are making similar claims in this campaign.

Few have suggested that Iran had every right to react cautiously when the two US naval vessels entered its territorial waters.  As it turned out, the sailors were treated respectfully and released within hours of their capture.  No doubt those Iranian leaders, who support the nuclear agreement, worked very quickly to bring the incident to a satisfactory conclusion.  They want nothing to interfere with the carrying out of provisions of the agreement, which will make available large sums of previously frozen assets.

In the United States, the opportunity to criticize Iran—and the Democratic administration– was too good to be missed.  This incident illustrates once again how little trust the two countries have in each other’s actions.  A friend of mine, a former hostage in Iran in 1979, wrote that the US and Iran should have started negotiating over small differences and gradually worked their way to the nuclear question.  They needed to go through a period of trust-building, he thought.  Well, matters did not develop that way, and they took on the biggest problem first.  Now, any small incident has the potential to derail the entire nuclear agreement.  According to recent opinion polls, there really is not much trust of Iran here in the United States.  Few Americans have any personal experience of the country or its people.  When candidates—and much of the media– relentlessly bash Iran, what are American citizens to conclude?   And we still have more than nine months of the campaign remaining.

Meir Javedanfar, Owner and Editor of the Iran – Israel Observer

I think in the short term this is a good sign. But its unclear what will happen in the medium – long term as Rouhani could come under increasing pressure at home from the hardliners. The upcoming February elections will provide us with a good short term indication regarding the strength of Rouhani at home. The stronger the elections make his position at home, the more he can improve relations with the U.S and vice versa.

Barbara Slavin, Nonresident Senior Fellow, The Atlantic Council

No it wasn’t a coincidence. The U.S. has been raising this issue for a very long time and I’m sure the Iranians understood that this would improve the climate for implementation of the deal. It makes me more hopeful for US-Iran relations going forward and cooperation on resolving the region’s terrible conflicts.


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