Why are the US and Iran holding talks and why does it matter?

A potential interim deal would see Iran free US prisoners in return for the release of billions of dollars worth of Iranian assets.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei views a model of a nuclear facility, in Tehran, Iran June 11, 2023 [Office of the Iranian Supreme LeaderWest/Asia News Agency]

US and Iranian officials have been holding closed-door negotiations, including indirect talks in Oman, to de-escalate tensions in the region, in an attempt to curb Tehran’s nuclear programme and release American prisoners, officials have said.

Both sides have not publicly spoken about the nature of the talks, which are taking place after several failed attempts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which put curbs on Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief, signed between Iran and several world powers.

Former US President Donald Trump walked away from the landmark deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), five years ago and imposed unilateral sanctions as part of what he called a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Why keep the talks quiet?

Experts say the parties are seeking a short-term agreement with key objectives instead of waiting for a revival of the 2015 deal, which has stalled repeatedly.

The talks signal a resumption of diplomacy of sorts between the two traditional foes.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani seemed to confirm the talks at a press briefing last week, saying the “Muscat negotiations were not secret”, according to Tasnim News Agency, but adding that there is no intention to negotiate an agreement separate from the JCPOA.

But the US government has so far denied there is any deal being negotiated with Iran.

President Joe Biden’s administration does not want to appear to be “giving concessions to Iran”, Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, said, especially ahead of next year’s presidential election.

They also do not want US ally Israel attacking Iranian proxies as that might “complicate the regional situation”, Zweiri told Al Jazeera.

Is there an ‘interim deal’?

According to Cornelius Adebahr, an Iran expert and a non-resident fellow at Carnegie Europe, for the moment there is “no new ‘deal’ to speak of, not even an informal one”.

The recent arrangement between Iran and the US that allowed Iran to receive outstanding debt payments from Iraq was a positive step for Iran while for the US it is merely a “reversal of the dangerous trend of not addressing Tehran’s nuclear advances”, Adebahr told Al Jazeera.

Iran is holding fast to the position that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes and that its ballistic missiles programme should not be included in a revived JCPOA.

The US likely wants, in addition to imposing limits on Iran’s nuclear and weapons programmes, to secure the release of Americans imprisoned in Iran, limit the alleged role of Iran in the Russia-Ukraine war and try to stabilise the energy market and oil prices.

A short-term deal is “good for both sides” as it won’t look like big concessions, and will at the same time defuse the situation, Zweiri said.

An interim arrangement would also not need US Congress approval, where many oppose giving Iran benefits due to its alleged military aid to Russia.

Iran has given Russia drones, “upsetting” the West, Zweiri said, adding that it is a “major complication” to a deal with between Iran and the West.

Tehran has maintained that it supplied drones to Russia months before the war, and wants the fighting to end through talks.

What’s in it for Iran?

A potential agreement could prevent tensions around the nuclear deal in the near future from boiling over, and deter Western parties from seeking to activate the “snapback” mechanism of the accord that is designed to reinstate UN sanctions on Tehran in case it violates the deal.

It could also see Washington and its European allies refrain from pushing any further punitive resolutions at the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) against Iran. The second such censure resolution last November prompted Iran to boost its uranium enrichment at a key nuclear plant.

Iran could also expect the US to unfreeze billions of dollars worth of Iranian assets locked abroad using sanctions waivers, with a clause that they could only be used for humanitarian purposes. The Iranian central bank governor was in Doha earlier this week, signalling that Qatar could be involved in facilitating the process.

The Korea Economic Daily reported in May that South Korea is discussing with the US possible ways to pay Iran for the $7bn worth of oil it purchased.

Iraq’s recent payment of a $2.76bn gas and electricity bill to Iran came after receiving a sanctions waiver from the US.

What’s in it for the US and its allies?

Iran has boosted its nuclear activity since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, saying it was not a violation of the deal.

The US appears to be content with keeping Iran’s enrichment at current levels, with The New York Times reporting that the US is demanding Iran not enrich uranium to more than the 60 percent purity that it does now. Weapons-grade uranium needs to be at 90 percent purity.

Making the move to weapons-grade uranium is a short technical step, but Western intelligence and the IAEA have said they have seen no evidence Tehran has made a move toward it, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says claims that Iran wants a bomb are a false “excuse” by the West.

The New York Times suggested Iran may also agree not to seize foreign oil tankers if the US does the same. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has seized tankers in the past for various reasons including accident reports and judicial orders, with Western media reporting it came in response to a US seizure of a tanker carrying Iranian oil.

Three American Iranian prisoners may also be released if the US were to release some of Iran’s economic assets.

Two detained British Iranians were released last year with media reporting that the British government had paid Tehran a 400-million-pound ($513m) debt dating from before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies