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US-Iran prisoner swap ‘important first step’ but tensions remain -Analysts

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The United States and Iran engaged in a prisoner swap that has been hailed as an “important first step” in reducing tensions between the two nations, according to analysts.

Despite the exchange of detainees and the release of frozen Iranian funds, experts suggest that the path to a comprehensive diplomatic breakthrough remains uncertain.

Alex Vatanka, the director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington, DC, described the prisoner exchange as a “transactional deal” underscoring that it does not signal an immediate thaw in the frosty relations between the US and Iran.

The agreement encompassed the release of five Iranian prisoners held in the US and the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian funds previously blocked in South Korea due to American sanctions. Vatanka commented, “Everybody is basically reconciling themselves with the fact that the best they can do for now is to take small steps toward preventing a crisis.”

The five American citizens who were formerly detained in Iran were transported out of the country with the facilitation of Qatar and other nations. They arrived in Doha, the Qatari capital, and were expected to reunite with their loved ones, bringing an end to years of agony and uncertainty.

However, as US President Joe Biden and his administration celebrated the release of the detained Americans, they emphasized that this prisoner exchange would not alter Washington’s approach to Tehran.

Tensions between the US and Iran have been on the rise since 2018 when former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the multilateral nuclear deal, leading to a reescalation of Iran’s nuclear program and the imposition of sanctions. President Biden took office with a promise to revive the Iran nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but attempts to restore the pact have faced hurdles.

Sina Toossi, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy think tank, expressed optimism about the prisoner exchange’s potential to pave the way for broader diplomatic discussions but cautioned that reviving the JCPOA seemed “untenable” at this stage, especially with the looming US presidential election in November 2024.

Toossi highlighted that Biden is unlikely to make concessions to Iran before the election, while Iran seeks to maintain its leverage. Republican lawmakers have criticized the prisoner exchange, accusing Biden of mishandling funds. US officials have clarified that the unfrozen funds are Iran’s own and meant for humanitarian purposes.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that while the US is not currently engaged with Iran, it will continue to explore diplomatic opportunities. He stressed that the prisoner exchange is separate from nuclear talks.

Recent months have seen a fluctuation of de-escalation signs and rising tensions in US-Iran relations. Efforts to contain the crisis persist on both sides, with sanctions and regional actions as negotiating tools. Vatanka summarized the situation, noting, “Neither side clearly wants this to get out of control and result in a shooting war. That much they agree on.”

As the world watches these developments, the uncertain path to lasting US-Iran diplomacy remains in the spotlight.

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