After Nuclear Pact, New U.S.-Iran Talks Bring New Deals

The personal relationship between John Kerry and Javad Zarif paved the way for a high-profile prisoner swap. But its biggest test is still to come.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L)  meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (R) in Vienna, Austria on January 16, 2016, on what is expected to be "implementation day,"  the day the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal.  
 / AFP / POOL / KEVIN LAMARQUE        (Photo credit should read KEVIN LAMARQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (R) in Vienna, Austria on January 16, 2016, on what is expected to be "implementation day," the day the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal. / AFP / POOL / KEVIN LAMARQUE (Photo credit should read KEVIN LAMARQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (R) in Vienna, Austria on January 16, 2016, on what is expected to be "implementation day," the day the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal. / AFP / POOL / KEVIN LAMARQUE (Photo credit should read KEVIN LAMARQUE/AFP/Getty Images)

The dramatic release of five Americans imprisoned in Iran over the weekend highlighted an unprecedented level of diplomatic cooperation between two countries that have long been at odds, raising the tantalizing possibility of a new era of U.S.-Iran detente.

The diplomatic opening between Washington and Tehran was forged through years of intense negotiations between senior diplomats from both sides that produced a landmark nuclear accord last year in which Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear work in return for a lifting of sanctions.

Perhaps the closest bond is the one that has been forged between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The Obama administration has long insisted that the agreement with Tehran was limited to its nuclear program and didn't resolve lingering differences between the two countries over issues like Iran’s support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. But this weekend’s deal freeing Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, in exchange for the United States releasing seven Iranians showed that the two countries have actually been working together on multiple fronts. That agreement was made public just days after conversations between Kerry and Zarif led to the release of 10 American sailors less than 24 hours after they had strayed into Iranian waters.

The dramatic release of five Americans imprisoned in Iran over the weekend highlighted an unprecedented level of diplomatic cooperation between two countries that have long been at odds, raising the tantalizing possibility of a new era of U.S.-Iran detente.

The diplomatic opening between Washington and Tehran was forged through years of intense negotiations between senior diplomats from both sides that produced a landmark nuclear accord last year in which Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear work in return for a lifting of sanctions.

Perhaps the closest bond is the one that has been forged between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The Obama administration has long insisted that the agreement with Tehran was limited to its nuclear program and didn’t resolve lingering differences between the two countries over issues like Iran’s support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. But this weekend’s deal freeing Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, in exchange for the United States releasing seven Iranians showed that the two countries have actually been working together on multiple fronts. That agreement was made public just days after conversations between Kerry and Zarif led to the release of 10 American sailors less than 24 hours after they had strayed into Iranian waters.

America’s number one diplomat has had more one-on-one meetings with Zarif, or Javad as he calls him, than any other foreign minister. Zarif, who spent years studying in the United States and speaks fluent English, and Kerry had personally intervened when negotiations over the nuclear deal — and later, the prisoner swap — hit a wall, according to accounts of the dealings.

The upshot is that even though the United States and Iran don’t have embassies in each other’s capitals, the two countries are now building a robust diplomatic relationship that was on full display in recent days.

The channel the two men maintain was at work last week after 10 American sailors were captured when their riverine boats ventured into waters off Iran’s coast. The incident came at a fraught moment, just as world powers were preparing to announce the lifting of international sanctions on Tehran — and as U.S. officials were wrapping up a delicate deal to secure the release of the Americans imprisoned in Iran.

Within minutes, Kerry was on the phone to Zarif, and after a flurry of at least five phone calls that day, the two were able to resolve the situation before it spun out of control. The sailors were released in less than a day and Kerry expressed “gratitude” for the cooperation shown by Iranian officials, a word choice that prompted immediate criticism from several GOP presidential candidates.

“If we did not have these diplomatic channels with the Iranians that have been established over the last two or three years, it is very likely that our sailors who had gone into Iranian waters would still be detained there today,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters on Sunday.

U.S. and Iranian interests have also converged to some degree in Iraq, where both countries are helping the Shiite-led government in Baghdad fight the Islamic State group, and in Syria, where they are both working to ensure Assad’s government isn’t replaced by an Islamic State regime.

Still, it’s too soon to know whether the budding diplomacy between the United States and Iran represents a new era of détente that will outlast the current presidents in both countries — or if Kerry and Zarif are succeeded by officials who lack their personal rapport.

Even amid the flurry of diplomacy and deals over the past week, Obama carried through on a threat to impose new sanctions on Iran over two recent ballistic missile tests. In his speech Sunday confirming the release of the Americans held in Iran, Obama announced the introduction of the sanctions, saying there remained “profound differences” with Iran. The ballistic missile tests violated a U.N. resolution — separate from the nuclear accord — and the Obama administration had come under criticism for failing to immediately slap sanctions on Tehran over the issue.

A crucial test of the diplomacy between Iran and the United States will come in international talks aimed at launching a peace process for the nearly five-year war in Syria. Those talks could resume as soon as next week in Geneva.

Iran’s role will be crucial for any possible peace negotiation, but its staunch support for the Assad regime has helped derail previous attempts to strike a deal.

Once the nuclear accord with Iran was clinched in July, Kerry led a renewed effort to try to begin talks that would find common ground between Iran and Russia — which are propping up Assad — and U.S. allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia that are arming opponents of the Damascus regime. The preliminary talks have yet to yield a result — and already become bogged down over which opposition groups should be allowed to attend. But the White House still believes there is a slim prospect for success that is worth exploring.

“I think we have a better chance of a diplomatic solution than at any time during the war but that is probably still less than 25 percent,” a senior White House official told Foreign Policy.

Other conflicts in the Middle East will also reveal whether the growing dialogue between Washington and Tehran can overcome entrenched rivalries and sectarian contests. It’s unclear if the United States could persuade Iran to order its proxies in Lebanon, the Hezbollah militia, to back off in a confrontation with Israel. And in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been waging war against Houthi rebels supported by Iran, U.S. diplomatic contacts with Tehran might not count for much, particularly as Washington has been providing intelligence to Riyadh and helping to refuel its warplanes — despite mounting evidence that Saudi strikes have killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians.

The White House has insisted that it is not counting on a transformation inside Iran or an end to decades of enmity as a result of the nuclear accord. But officials say the door is open if Iran wishes to move in a new, less confrontational direction.

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab allies are deeply unsettled by the Obama administration’s frequent contact with Iran’s diplomats. And Israel has made no secret about its vehement opposition to the nuclear agreement, warning that the lifting of sanctions will enable Iran to spend more money on its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere.

“What is clear is that Iran will now have more resources to dedicate to their terrorism and aggression in the region and in the world, and Israel is prepared to deal with any threat,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday, after international sanctions were formally lifted.

In Washington, Republicans accused the White House of inviting hostage-taking by agreeing to swap Iranians convicted of violating economic sanctions for Americans who were arrested without cause.

“I think it’s a very dangerous precedent,” presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.) told Fox News Sunday. “The result of this, every bad actor on earth has been told to go capture an American. If you want terrorists out of jail, capture an American and President Obama is in the let’s-make-a-deal business.”

There have been previous attempts to thaw the ice between Iran and the United States, but those all ended in failure and some missed opportunities. After the 1979 revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and the subsequent abduction of Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, diplomatic relations between Washington and Iran collapsed. The United States then had to rely on Switzerland or Oman to communicate with Tehran.

In his 1989 inaugural speech, then President George H.W. Bush offered an olive branch to Iran, encouraging Tehran to arrange for the release of Americans held by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia: “Goodwill begets goodwill. Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on.”

But the United States grew frustrated at a a lack of results, and by the time Iran delivered the release of Americans held by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1991, it was seen in Washington as too little and too late.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, there were overtures to Tehran to defuse tensions. But Iran’s support for militants in the region, and suspicions that its proxies were behind the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, which killed 19 American airmen, doomed that effort.

A reform-minded president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, appeared ready to unfreeze relations after the September 11 attacks, as Tehran had viewed the Taliban in Afghanistan as an enemy. But then-President George W. Bush labeled Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” and his administration was wary of Tehran’s tentative moves. Relations between Washington and Iran deteriorated to their lowest point in decades because of disputes over Iran’s nuclear program and its support for the Shiite militias battling U.S. troops throughout Iraq.

The term detente was born during the Cold War to describe President Richard Nixon’s bid to dial back tensions with the Soviet Union. The Nixon administration negotiated arms control agreements with the Soviets and opened up some commercial ties, including a grain trade deal.

Detente had its critics at the time, including conservatives within Nixon’s Republican party, who saw it as a naive approach that would play into Moscow’s hands. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, détente was declared dead.

“Well, so far detente’s been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims,” Ronald Reagan said soon after he entered the White House in 1981.

But even an opponent of detente like Reagan later pursued diplomacy with Moscow in pursuit of nuclear arms reductions and averting a potential apocalyptic war.

Some opponents of the regime in Tehran have compared the elderly leadership there to the ossified Communist rulers of the former Soviet bloc. And they argue that opening up trade with Iran and increasing its contact with the West will undermine the regime’s grip on power, and force it to adapt or collapse.

But for the moment, the White House is touting the practical benefits of diplomacy without promising a breakthrough or a realignment of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Obama, however, made a direct appeal to the Iranian people when he announced the release of the Americans imprisoned in Iran, hinting at a rapprochement and a “new path.”

“Following the nuclear deal, you — especially young Iranians — have the opportunity to begin building new ties with the world. We have a rare chance to pursue a new path — a different, better future that delivers progress for both our peoples and the wider world.”

Photo credit: Kevin Lamarque/AFP/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.