US-Iran Relations Far from Being Normalized

President Obama has been waiting for the release of a number of Americans from Iran, freed as part of a prisoner exchange, since Saturday, June 16. On Sunday, he commented on a prosperous week between the U.S. and Iran. Challenged by his Republican opponents for his supposed “naivety” when it comes to his policy regarding Iran, President Obama welcomed the “historic progress” as a result of diplomacy, insisting that it had brought about an unprecedented and negotiated reduction in Iran’s nuclear capabilities, which was confirmed on Saturday by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The president talked about the effects of the long negotiations with Iran, 35 years after cutting diplomatic relations on the issue of prisoners. He also spoke about the news of the day, the settlement of an unresolved financial dispute with the Islamic Republic over frozen funds following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, thus allowing the release of $1.7 billion for Iran, according to the U.S. Treasury.

Immediately criticized as a sign of weakness by the candidates for the Republican nomination for the presidential election on Nov. 8, U.S. officials from Obama’s administration defended the deal during a conference call with reporters arguing that the U.S. had avoided more costly penalties with this compromise.

Finally, President Obama talked about the quick release on Jan. 13 of the 10 American soldiers, whose boat was boarded in Iranian waters. Their release was also made easier by direct contacts between the countries through Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

New Sanctions, New Tensions

The new, undeniable climate that has emerged between the two capitals since July is not, however, a precursor of a historic renewal of bilateral relations. New sanctions on Tehran were also announced on Sunday morning in Washington by the U.S. Treasury, and more specifically on its ballistic program, following two tests, in October and December respectively, which violated Iran’s international obligations, according to the U.S. These sanctions, which were officially delayed for legal reasons, were in fact waiting on the settlement of the prisoners’ dossier and that of the frozen funds’ release.

More fundamentally though, the July 14 deal is only limited to nuclear power. The deal does not cover other issues that move Tehran further away from Washington, and which President Obama discussed on Sunday to show that a rapprochement, like that with Cuba in December 2014, is still a long way off. This is due to U.S. accusations aimed against ballistic tests, but also maybe to the fact that Iran is being supported by organizations that Washington classifies as terrorist groups, or even more generally, the destabilizing activities by Tehran in the Middle East, whether it be the support given to the Syrian regime or the guerilla Houthis in Yemen. On Monday, Tehran described these sanctions as “illegitimate” as “Iran’s missile program has never been designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons.”

The U.S. Straightjacket Remains in Place

These accusations underlie earlier sanctions to those adopted in order to force Tehran to the negotiating table over the issue of nuclear power, and, with a few exceptions, will indeed stay in place. On the U.S. side, these exceptions will only be granted for air transportation. Given Iran’s considerable needs, Washington is not willing to visibly weaken the manufacturer Boeing against the European manufacturer Airbus. Similarly, the U.S. will be able to import certain Iranian foodstuffs, such as pistachios, and also rugs. Finally, the U.S administration may allow foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to do business in Iran.

But for U.S. companies, the situation will not change dramatically as a result of the lifting of sanctions, despite the progress noted by the IAEA. The U.S. straightjacket is still in place and will prevent, for a long time yet, any huge investments in a country that still remains among Washington’s most resolute opponents.

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