Mixed messages on Iran-US deals and 'prisoners' – analysis

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 Reports on Sunday that a “prisoner deal” was in the works in which Iran would free several hostages in exchange for some $7 billion in “frozen assets” were retracted later in the day and Iran continued to say that the discussions were on the table but that it was unclear why sources had leaked news of the deal on Sunday. What was the point and what was achieved?

It was Iranian state media that had said that four Americans “accused of spying” would be exchanged for four Iranians held in the US and that Iran would get a massive amount of money which it says are frozen Iranian oil funds. The US government later denied that an agreement has been reached. Iran then said it couldn’t be confirmed and Iranian media on Monday said the “prisoner” issue was still on the agenda. Iran foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh noted that the $7 billion must be released anyway as part of any discussions with the US. Iran demands this money back as well as other frozen assets.  
The rumors of the deal set off controversy in the US among those who oppose the Biden administration going soft on Iran. The sense was that the US negotiators were giving away the store. It conjured up memories of 2016 reports that indicated the US had flown pallets of cash to Iran. That $400 million was ostensibly in exchange for four people. It took place in January 2016 but was not revealed until August. In fact, the US provided an additional $1.3 billion, allegedly “interest” that was owed Iran.  
Iran is a stickler for details. From Tehran’s point of view it is their money. An AP report noted “In the 1970s, Iran paid the US $400 million for military equipment that was never delivered because the government was overthrown, and diplomatic relations ruptured. After the nuclear deal, the US and Iran announced they had settled the matter, with the US agreeing to pay the $400 million principal along with about $1.3 billion in interest.” 
Considering the stagflation of the 1970s and early 1980s where money doubled every seven years in some savings accounts, the US made a decent deal on this interest payment. Others argue that the US was fleeced and Obama’s administration sent Iran masses of money that ended up in the hands of the IRGC and terrorists.  
It’s difficult to square the circle on the two narratives regarding Iran and these cash sums. On the one side the critics see the Biden administration of rushing to do another deal with Iran. They point to Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley and his reputation for being soft on Iran’s regime. These narratives also see other veterans of the Obama administration as guiding a plan to quickly re-enter a deal with Iran. John Kerry, the climate czar, has not helped things because his name came up on a leaked recording by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.  
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On the other hand Iran says that it is driving a tough bargain in Vienna. It wants US sanctions lifted and it wants its frozen assets back. It says that Zarif has been sent around the Middle East on a “Ramadan” tour, to Oman, to meet with the Iranian-backed Houthis, to Qatar, Iraq and other places. But there is no connection between Zarif’s trip and the Vienna discussions, Iran says. Meanwhile Zarif is in trouble at home for the leaked tape.  
Iran says the US is “mission oriented” in Vienna. Iran says “we now have two original texts on both the nuclear issue and sanctions.” Khatibzadeh stated that when the texts reach the writing stage, they need to be careful and accurate, adding: “We move forward based on accuracy…. We are not in a hurry, but we will not allow the talks to erode within the framework of the [Iran Deal] Commission. What is important is that in the deal “neither one word more nor one word” should be implemented less. This is an issue that we raised in the Joint Commission.”  
That makes it seem that any rumors about a quick deal should be downplayed. So who has an interest then in leaking details about “prisoner” exchanges and pallets of cash. On the one hand, it can be those in Iran seeking to test the deal, a kind of trial balloon. It can yet more undermining of Iran negotiating team by whoever has leaked the Zarif tapes. It also plays into the hands of those in the US who oppose the deal because the appearance of billions in exchange for detainees is grotesque. Iran pretends to arrest people, including academics, on the pretense of “spying” to hold them hostage. It has been doing this method of holding hostages since the 1980s and exchanging them for things because Iran senses western countries are weak. It doesn’t hold any Russians or Chinese in this method. Iran is a transparently mafia-like regime.  
It would appear rumors about a rapid return to a deal and US appeasement of Iran’s regime may not be on the cards as quickly as some have foretold. This is because the regime senses its power and thinks that it can play hardball but there are only so many concessions it can wring out of Malley’s team. While there are some in the US who seem to have an Iran centric world, including those who want a US policy that is basically allied with Iran, the fact is that the regime in Iran is in no hurry to ally with them. In the old days, Iran would sing stories about “moderates” and trot out Zarif at various functions in New York and DC to toast the diplomats in the West. But Zarif is now running around the Middle East, with anger at home. Iran used to mobilize its public relations departments, linked with US talking points from groups in America that support Iran, as it tried to sell the deal, claiming that absence of a deal would mean “war” and that the deal would prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb. But today Iran doesn’t even bother with this propaganda.
In the lead up to the first Iran deal there were at least 811 op-eds written in various major and regional newspapers and media in the US to persuade the US it had to do this deal. Where are the op-eds today? Iran has fundamentally shifted from wasting its time selling itself to western audiences, feigning that it is some kind of liberal exotic regime with its own interpretation of gay rights that only denies the Holocaust from time to time, to just ignoring the West. The days of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University and taking questions are apparently over. While some in DC policy circles are obsessed with Iran, either for or against it, to the point where they talk about “helping the Sunnis” or push myths like “working with Turkey against Iran,” Iran has less use for these cleavages.  
Iran’s lack of interest in the West and willingness to drive a harder bargain may, in the end, make the deal more complex. This of course comes in the wake of US meetings with Israeli officials and a desire by the Biden administration to listen more to what. Israel and other US partners and allies have to say.