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Will US-Iran prisoner exchange jumpstart diplomacy at UNGA?

Iran rejects IAEA inspectors; One year after the death of Mahsa Amini; Al-Monitor/Semafor "Middle East Global Summit" features King Abdullah of Jordan and Prime Minister Sudani of Iraq.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers remarks at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 21, 2022 in New York City.

Iran nuclear program takes spotlight at UNGA  

Both US President Joe Biden and his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, will address the UN General Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19. A long-awaited US-Iran prisoner exchange is expected to take place in the coming days, prior to the speeches.   

While the exchange of prisoners — five will be freed by each side, as Elizabeth Hagedorn reported — seems straightforward, as far as these types of exchanges go, the Biden administration is being pilloried by Republican critics for the release of $6 billion owed to Iran from South Korean banks, as Adam Lucente reports. Those funds were frozen under US sanctions in 2018, when the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They have now been transferred to a restricted account overseen by Qatar.

Prior to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran had abided to its terms of the deal. Since then, Iran has moved closer to the nuclear weapons threshold, reducing the breakout time from years to months.  

The plan, it seems, is that the $6 billion transfer, more so than the prisoner release, constitutes a downpayment for Iran to stay under the nuclear threshold and contain the potential for escalation in Lebanon, Iraq and other flashpoints in the region.

For Iran, everything has its price. Tehran considers the nuclear file as both leverage and hedge in dealing with the United States, especially if a more hawkish Republican administration wins the White House next year, and in its own deterrence posture relative to Israel. The nuclear card, in Tehran’s score, is not to be given away; that was the point of the JCPOA. Iran considers all of this an ongoing and likely infinite negotiation, influenced as well by shifts in the global balance of power, as its policies become even more entrenched and aligned in the East, meaning with China and Russia.

Critics of Biden’s approach don’t believe in talking to Iran about much of anything, and often discount the United States’ increasingly robust deterrent posture, pinning their hopes on sanctions and regime change.   

On the deterrence side, the US-Bahrain security agreement announced this week, as Jared Szuba reports, is being touted as a "model" of the administration’s commitment to its Gulf partners. The US pursuit of a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel — while framed mostly, though not exclusively, as an extension of the Abraham Accords — is also a potential cornerstone of this deterrent posture, if the parties are able to pull it off. (See Ben Caspit’s latest here on how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "stuck" in advancing the issue over conflicts within his government on how to deal with the Palestinian Authority.)

The question at UNGA this week is whether the prisoner exchange can provide a new opening for diplomacy, and to build on regional initiatives such as the ongoing Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, which appears to have contributed to progress in diplomacy to end the war in Yemen.  

On the nuclear file, the prospects for renewed diplomacy will get trial under fire at UNGA. The latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “regrets that there has been no progress in resolving the outstanding safeguards issues in this reporting period.” And on Saturday the IAEA condemned Iran for withdrawing the accreditation of some of its inspectors.

These reports come despite Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying Iran will cooperate with the IAEA on safeguards, as is required under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but no more than that. The more intrusive surveillance and inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, as required under the JCPOA, are off the table. 

The United States and the European Union are threatening a new resolution by the IAEA board over Iran’s recent actions. Another benchmark next month is the Oct. 18 meeting of the JCPOA parties — the so-called transition day. This is when the UN is slated to lift restrictions on Iran’s research, development and production of ballistic missiles, and its import and export of missile and drone-related technology, in return for Iran submitting the "additional protocol" to its parliament for ratification, which isn’t going to happen. The United States, no longer a party to the JCPOA, may want its European partners to keep the heat on Iran over Ukraine to force further concessions on Iranian support for Russia, and even threaten snapback sanctions, as is allowed in the JCPOA.   

The UNGA meetings also take place one year after the death of Mahsa Amini, who died while in custody in Iran for a hijab violation. The subsequent protests and crackdown drew the attention of the world. Last year, just 10 days after Amini’s death, Elizabeth Hagedorn and I asked Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, “Isn't it perhaps a choice for your government to realize that people are saying enough is enough, and to loosen hijab restrictions and morality enforcement, and maybe even shut down the morality police?”  

Since then, the Iranian government has shown few signs of accommodating protesters' demands. The past year has nonetheless been consequential for Iranian politics, economics and society. Check out our special series here on the impact of the protests, one year later, by Bijan Khajehpour, Jack Dutton, Rina BassistAmberin Zaman and our correspondent in Tehran

Al-Monitor-Semafor Middle East Global Summit 

Al-Monitor, the award-winning Middle East news service, and Semafor, the global media platform, will convene the first Middle East Global Summit, an exclusive live event  alongside the 78th United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York City.

The event will cover the major trends shaping the Middle East, including regional integration, energy transition, development, security and technology. 

King Abdullah II of Jordan and Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al-Sudani of Iraq will headline the agenda, which will also include Anwar Gargash, senior diplomatic adviser to the UAE president; Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry; Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Al-Busaidi; US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf; Deputy Assistant and Senior Adviser to the President for Energy and Investment Amos Hochstein; Director General and Special Representative of the UAE COP28 Presidency’s Office Majid Al-Suwaidi; and many others.

You can learn more about the program here: The Middle East Global Summit ( 

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