by Neville Teller

Iranians are past masters in the art of negotiation.  Adept in hiding their real intentions and keeping their opponents in suspense, they often win the game of who blinks first. For example talks on restoring the Iran nuclear deal began in April 2021 and were prolonged time and again by Iran, until it became obvious that it was using the talks as cover while it ramped up work on its nuclear program.  After the penny dropped, US President Joe Biden was caught on camera in November 2022 saying that the nuclear deal with Iran was “dead”.

Iran is currently in the midst of a long-drawn-out negotiation with the US.  The regime is holding three Iranian American dual nationals in jail – businessmen Siamak Namazi and Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist.  On February 15 US State Department spokesman Ned Price said, for the umpteenth time, that they are being detained unjustly, on trumped up charges. 

Five days later his opposite number, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani, told journalists that a deal with the US involving their release, brokered by intermediaries, had been on the verge of agreement, “but then the US showed bad faith”.  Consequently Iran had broken off the discussions. 

The so far unidentified intermediaries were said, in media reports, to be the UK and Qatar, and the deal would have seen Iran free the US detainees in its custody while the US would release $7 billion (NIS 25.3 billion) of Iranian funds frozen by South Korea under US sanctions, a proviso being that the money could be used only for buying food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.

This, reports claimed, was the stage reached in the latest round of negotiations, but that in fact Iran and the US had been bargaining covertly for some time about a deal involving the lifting of some US sanctions in return for the release of prisoners charged by Iran with espionage.  A final agreement, part of the talks to restore Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, had actually been close, but when discussions became deadlocked some months ago, attention turned to concluding the prisoner-sanctions deal separately.

Washington rejected the Iranian accusation of bad faith.  “I will not go into the details of any diplomatic efforts under way,” said Price. “As you can imagine such discussions are sensitive and highly consequential for the US nationals who have been wrongfully detained.  Iran unjustly detains citizens of the US and other countries around the world as an inexcusable tactic to gain political leverage, so for them to claim that the United States has somehow shown ‘bad faith’ in pursuing the release of our citizens is beyond the pale.”

Iran’s charge against the US may reflect growing Iranian fears that the UK, one of the Intermediaries in the delicate exchanges between Washington and Tehran, is about to declare the Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) a terrorist organization. This has been on the cards for some time, but so far the UK government, known as a strong supporter of renewing the Iranian nuclear deal, has held off.  Britain’s position on the nuclear talks may have changed following the recent execution by Iran of a British-Iranian dual national charged with espionage.

Perhaps as a direct result of Iran breaking off the US prisoner-sanctions negotiations, on February 22 the UK’s Daily Telegraph reported that US diplomats were pressuring the UK not to declare the IRGC a terrorist organization.  The US State Department, it was claimed, is arguing that if the UK goes ahead against the IRGC, its role as intermediary in the prisoner deal would be compromised.  This seems a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do”, since the US has itself proscribed the IRGC as a terrorist group, a step taken in April 2019 by then-President Donald Trump.

   Meanwhile, to complete the complex jigsaw puzzle, Voice of America (VoA) recently discovered that the US has 16 Iranians in prison or on supervised pretrial release charged with  federal crimes. They consist of eight Iranian-American dual nationals, four Iranian citizens with US permanent residency, and four Iranian citizens with no legal status in the US.  Then on February 10 a federal court in Brooklyn sentenced another dual Iranian-US national to 30 months in prison for smuggling export-controlled technology products to end users in Iran.

Kambiz Attar Kashani pled guilty to charges of violating the International Economic Powers Act between 2019 and 2021 by sending hardware and software to Iran through front companies registered in the United Arab Emirates.  In a sentencing memorandum the US Department of Justice (DoJ) claimed that Kashani began providing Iran with enterprise, security and data management software as far back as 2014.

The recipient of the smuggled technology was said to be the Central Bank of Iran, which FBI Counterintelligence assistant director Alan Kohler said is linked to Hezbollah and the IRGC, both US-designated terrorist groups. By supplying such software, said the DoJ, “Kashani and his co-conspirators enabled the Iranian banking system to operate more efficiently, effectively and securely.” 

Kashani’s imprisonment can only have soured even further the atmosphere around the latest US-Iranian negotiations, but the truth, according to VoA sources, is that Iranian officials are not greatly concerned with securing the freedom of these detainees.  Their prime objective is to reacquire their desperately needed resources to help relieve Iran’s dire economic situation.  To discomfort your opponent is a good negotiating tactic.  Charging America with “bad faith” and suspending the talks for a while is no more than a ploy to conceal how anxious Iran is for the release of its frozen assets. 

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."