When a Qatari private jet carrying five Iranian-American citizens landed in Doha, U.S. President Joe Biden was finally able to declare success after months of secretive, high-stakes negotiations between Washington and Tehran.

The five dual nationals who had been imprisoned in the Islamic Republic for years – some accused of spying for the United States – were finally freed and flown out of Tehran on Monday after the two sworn enemies agreed to a complex prisoner swap. . Under the terms of the deal, Washington released five Iranians imprisoned in the United States and allowed Tehran to access $6 billion in oil funds previously frozen in South Korea.

The key question now is whether Washington and Tehran can seriously address Iran’s aggressive nuclear program – arguably the most serious threat to Middle East stability – on the basis of a prisoner exchange.

The two countries are already discussing ways to de-escalate tensions alongside the prisoner agreement, as the Biden administration seeks to at least contain a crisis that has been brewing since former President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers.

This includes Tehran temporarily agreeing not to target Americans (including through regional proxies) and limiting its uranium enrichment to 60% purity. But that level is close to weapons-grade, and Iran has the ability to produce enough fissile material to equip a nuclear bomb in about two weeks, according to U.S. officials.

If Iran does curb its enrichment program, Washington will not impose additional economic sanctions on the republic.

The United States has also been pressuring Tehran to stop selling to Moscow armed drones and parts used by Russian forces in the war in Ukraine. But no deal has been reached as Tehran denies exporting weapons to Russia for use in the war, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

One of the people familiar with the matter said that after the successful exchange of prisoners of war, Qatar is expected to hold talks with the two countries during the United Nations General Assembly this week on the next steps, including nuclear issues and drone issues.

Qatar is one of the few countries that maintains good relations with both Washington and Tehran and, along with Oman, facilitated indirect negotiations that led to the prisoner deal.

Analysts said talks between Iran and France, Britain and Germany – European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal – were also likely to take place in New York.

But analysts say the level of mistrust between Washington and Tehran, combined with domestic political considerations in both countries, means taking more tangible steps to reverse Iran’s progress toward becoming a nuclear threshold state will be a huge challenge.

Given developments in Iran’s nuclear program, officials and analysts agree that the 2015 deal is no longer in effect.

Analysts added that the Biden administration has also made clear it will not seek a formal deal with Iran before next year’s U.S. election, a move aimed at avoiding the political fallout of any agreement in front of a potentially hostile Congress.

Instead, it is expected to continue to seek unwritten understandings to ease tensions, with the goal of negotiating a new nuclear deal if Biden wins re-election.

“The administration views this (prisoner exchange) as a key step toward resuming some type of nuclear negotiations this fall, with the goal of no deal but continuing to take de-escalation steps and limiting developments,” said Henry, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Roman said.

“The upper limit of what can be achieved is quite low. The targets are an attempt to freeze key steps of the plan… A rollback may be too ambitious,” Roma added.

As part of the de-escalation, the United States is also seeking a commitment from Iran to improve cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But progress on this front has also been hampered.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report to its member states this month that Iran had slowed the pace of enriching uranium to near weapons-grade levels. Tehran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% rose by 7.5 kilograms in the three months to August, significantly down from 26.6 kilograms in the previous season, and by almost a third, to 114 kilograms.

But the IAEA said in a second report that it had made no progress in resolving “outstanding safeguards issues” related to the agency’s long-standing investigation into past nuclear activities. Last week, it condemned Iran for banning some IAEA inspectors from monitoring its facilities.

Analysts said it was an example of the challenges of trying to contain a crisis without long-term solutions.

“Iran is playing a game in which it responds in a minimal way to some of the U.S. demands, such as reducing the rate of accumulation of highly enriched uranium but not increasing it, while testing the limits of so-called de-escalation,” Rome said.

Ali Vaez, an expert on Iran at the Crisis Group think tank, said that the nuclear issue has not yet been resolved, but that both sides “can buy more time.”

“You can’t come to a de-escalation understanding that does nothing except control the problem and hope that the situation will stabilize in the process.” . On the eve of the U.S. election,” Watts said. “Ongoing engagement and processes are needed not only to lay the foundation for a follow-on nuclear deal but also to manage emerging disagreements.”

In Iran – which the West accuses of using hostage diplomacy – state media blamed the prisoner exchange on the failure of Washington’s pressure policy on Iran. While praising Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, the report also stated that the United States was forced to engage in secret diplomacy with Iran.

The $6 billion in unfrozen petrodollars will boost the Islamist regime as it struggles to rein in soaring living costs and widespread disillusionment ahead of parliamentary elections early next year, when it is desperate to secure reasonable turnout.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Lacey accused the United States of failing to reach an early agreement on what he called “humanitarian action” on prisoners.

“We don’t trust the United States because it has violated its commitments (under the 2015 agreement),” he told reporters. “Every step of delivering on your commitments helps build trust.”

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