Can Iran’s release of US citizens cool rising tensions between the two powers?

Can Iran’s release of US citizens cool rising tensions between the two powers?

 Can Iran’s release of US citizens cool rising tensions between the two powers?

US Iran tensions

Tensions have grown considerably in recent weeks between the US and Iran as the Pentagon announced this week that thousands of US troops were being deployed to the region to help protect shipping lanes, such as those in the Strait of Hormuz, from Iranian “harassment”.

Ongoing military reinforcement by the United States in the Gulf is raising concerns among analysts based in the US, who suggest that this trajectory could lead to a perilous confrontation with Iran. Despite diplomatic efforts, both nations are grappling to find common ground for resolving their issues.

In a show of readiness and defiance, Iran reportedly issued a warning on Monday that it could seize American vessels in response to the Pentagon’s strengthened presence in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Brig. Gen. Ramezan Sharif, spokesperson for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), highlighted that Iran possesses the capacity to reciprocate against perceived threats from the US, including vessel seizures.

This statement followed the US deployment of a 3,000-strong contingent of personnel and Marines to the Red Sea and the dispatch of warplanes and Navy destroyers to the Persian Gulf earlier in July. An Associated Press report indicated that the US military was contemplating placing armed personnel on commercial ships transiting through the strait, a proposal that drew a vehement reaction from Iran. In response, Iran announced intentions to enhance its Revolutionary Guard navy with drones and missiles.

Sina Toossi, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy think tank in Washington, DC, remarked that President Joe Biden’s approach mirrors that of his predecessor, Donald Trump, employing an “unsuccessful strategy” involving economic measures and escalation against Iran.

Tensions between the US and Iran have been escalating since 2018 when President Trump withdrew from a multilateral nuclear agreement, under which Iran curtailed its nuclear activities in exchange for relief from international sanctions. These escalating tensions underscore the challenges both nations face in finding a diplomatic resolution to their differences.

Prisoner release 

A group of American citizens detained in Iran have reportedly been shifted to house arrest, in what US media sources suggest could be an initial step towards a prospective prisoner exchange arrangement between Washington and Tehran.

Citing individuals familiar with the situation, the New York Times disclosed on Thursday that five individuals holding dual US-Iranian citizenship had been granted house arrest. The publication identified Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, and Morad Tahbaz as three of the detainees, while the identities of the other two remain undisclosed.

Of the four who were released on Thursday from Iran’s well-known Evin prison, Siamak Namazi’s lawyer, Jared Genser, confirmed this development. The fifth detainee had been released earlier, the newspaper stated.

This news surfaces amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, particularly regarding an increased US military presence in the Gulf and the ongoing diplomatic efforts to revive the Iranian nuclear agreement.

The detention of dual US-Iranian citizens within Iran has been a source of significant dispute between the two nations, with the detainees’ families urging the administration of US President Joe Biden to secure their release.

In March, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian hinted at the possibility of a prisoner exchange deal with the US, a statement that the US disregarded as untrue.

Iranian officials at the United Nations confirmed the terms of the deal to The Associated Press, asserting that the prisoner transfer marks a noteworthy initial step in implementing the agreement. These officials verified the terms that had been reported earlier.

The New York Times had previously outlined that as part of the potential deal, the Biden administration would release a number of Iranian nationals imprisoned for violating sanctions on Iran. Furthermore, nearly $6 billion of Iran’s assets in South Korea would be unfrozen and deposited into an account at the central bank of Qatar, according to sources acquainted with the agreement.

This development is significant for a nation grappling with a challenging economic outlook due to ongoing US sanctions. Iran is currently under intense pressure to address its economic difficulties, with more than $50 billion of Iranian funds held in different countries due to these sanctions. These economic constraints come as Iran seeks to navigate its situation in light of the US withdrawal from the 2015 multilateral Iranian nuclear accord.

What’s next?

The latest prisoner release and the US’s willingness to unfreeze Iranian assets is a positive sign and could prevent immediate military escalation. However, it is unlikely to cool tensions in the long term.

Although the specific activities that the increased US military presence in the region will entail remain undisclosed, these movements have drawn Iran’s attention. In recent days, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian engaged with his counterparts in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, emphasizing that the region could achieve peace, stability, and progress without the involvement of foreign forces.

Iran’s army chief, Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi, expressed skepticism about the US deployment, noting that it would likely bring about “insecurity and damage” to the region. He emphasized that regional security can only be ensured through the participation of the nations within the region.

In a demonstrative show of strength, Iran showcased its Abu Mahdi cruise missile, introduced in 2020, with the capability to target ships at sea up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away. This missile is named after Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi militant, who was killed in a 2020 US drone strike alongside Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

While the heightened military activity raises concerns about potential conflict, it’s worth noting that past escalations of US forces in the region did not lead to open warfare. Nonetheless, both sides have engaged in hostilities previously. In 1988, the US attacked two Iranian oil rigs utilized for military purposes, resulting in a significant naval confrontation.

With diplomatic efforts currently at an impasse and Iran displaying a willingness to take a more assertive stance at sea, the US seems to be relying on its military presence to encourage Tehran to de-escalate. Nevertheless, this approach does not address the broader issues between the two nations, leaving those unresolved matters to fester further.

Hazem Zahab

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