President Ebrahim Raisi’s trip to New York this past month, his second to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meetings, was marked by significant developments, signs of improvements in US-Iran relations, controversy and attempts on the Iranian president’s part to deflect criticism and ease pressure on the Iranian government.
Raisi’s trip overlapped with the release of five Iranian-American prisoners. A deal to release the prisoners was reached earlier in Qatar, through at least eight rounds of indirect talks held between Iranian and American officials. The deal also involved the transfer of approximately $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds, held in South Korea and wired to Qatar, that Tehran can use strictly for humanitarian purposes. Tehran in turn had earlier identified a list of five prisoners held in the United States and said it wanted them to be returned to Iran. The prisoners were convicted of breaking the US-led sanctions regime against Iran or serving as Tehran’s foreign agents.
Iran’s practice of arbitrary detention of its dual nationals, and their subsequent release this time, helped to slightly shift public attention away from the anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian-Kurdish woman who died in police custody in Tehran last September. Ahead of this year’s protests in Iran to mark Amini’s death, Iranian authorities cracked down on public displays of dissent, and targeted outspoken dissidents.
But in New York, Iranian activists held mass gatherings to mark Amini’s death and held Raisi accountable. At the UNGA, Israel’s Ambassador Gilad Erdan held a poster of Amini (see Image 1), as Raisi spoke, and called him “the butcher of Iran.” Joni Ernset, a US Republican senator, said the butcher was on American soil, and criticized the Biden administration for issuing the Iranian president a visa although he was sanctioned five years ago.
Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan holding a poster of Mahsa Amini during Raisi’s speech
Photo: Republic World
Speaking before the UNGA, Raisi pointed to the protests last year in Iran, but insisted that the unrest was sparked by foreign enemies. To deflect further criticism, he then quickly changed course to condemn the rise of Islamophobia in Western countries, while holding a copy of the Holy Quran.
At the heart of Raisi’s visit to New York rested the fate of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. The United States pulled out of the deal in 2018, triggering a rapid Iranian uranium enrichment program that according to many reports has resulted in Iran reaching the nuclear threshold. Recent indirect talks between the United States and Iran have reportedly slowed down the buildup of the nuclear-weapons-grade fuel, but with no signs that Iran will permanently shut down its nuclear program.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran continues to increase its stock of near-weapons grade uranium. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi says no progress has been made in ensuring that Iran will comply with the terms of the JCPOA, such as restricting its enrichment levels and fuel stockpiling.
Iran has also yet to resolve the discrepancies regarding the nuclear material and/ or of the contaminated equipment in relation to Turquzabad and Varamin. This suggests that the country might be on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons capability. Simultaneously, Iran’s neighbors, including the GCC member countries, are aligning with the United States to call on the Iranian government to increase its cooperation with the IAEA.
The latest prisoner-for-cash swap deal between Washington and Tehran meanwhile happened amid a major American military buildup in Gulf waters, to guard commercial ships crossing the strategic waterway. In recent weeks, the United States has deployed US sailors and marines, and F-35s and F-16 fighter jets and other military aircraft to the region. The deployments occurred against the backdrop of Iran stepping up attacks and seizures of neutral commercial vessels and oil tankers in retaliation against US measures to halt Iranian oil exports.
Raisi is keen to increase Iran’s oil exports, hoping to take advantage of higher oil prices. Although Iran is unlikely to capture a major oil market share, due to competition in the energy markets, Raisi’s visit to New York offered hope that Iran might have already resolved some of its nuclear tensions with the United States. Talks between Washington and Tehran have helped Iran boost its crude exports, of roughly 2.2 million barrels per day in September (see Table 1). Some experts in Iran believe that the aforesaid exports would not have been possible without the United States offering a greenlight to Iran, in light of reduced oil exports from Russia and Saudi Arabia. In the coming months, Iran is expected to remain a top source of growth for the international energy markets.
Table 1: Major Buyers of Iranian Oil Exports in 2023
|Major buyers of Iranian oil – 2023||Percent of sales||Price of sales|
|China||90%||Unknown discount price|
|Syria||No official figures||No official figures|
|Venezuela||No official figures||No official figures|
Still, it remains to be seen if the Biden administration will succeed in striking a middle ground deal with Iran, whereby in return for it halting potential nuclear weaponization, the Iranian government could receive more sanctions relief and security guarantees to export its oil. This may slightly ease pressure on the Iranian government amid its human rights abuses back home, but it will not be sufficient to appease Iranian dissidents or Iran’s GCC neighbors unless the country permanently complies with the terms of the JCPOA.
Raisi insisted in New York that Iran has maintained a good level of cooperation with the IAEA, but he failed to articulate a strategy to overcome the current nuclear impasse. He continued to defend Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, and called for the sanctions to be lifted. Returning home, he carried 3,506 archeological tablets belonging to the ancient Persian Achaemenid Empire, held to date by the University of Chicago, a sign perhaps that the United States is softening its position and is willing to talk.