Updated: Iran's foreign minister receives visa, to arrive in NY Sunday

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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was expected to arrive in New York on Sunday after uncertainty over whether he would receive a US visa amid tensions between Tehran and Washington.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has received a US visa and was expected to arrive in New York on Sunday, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the UN told Al-Monitor.

The possible trip comes amid increased shuttle diplomacy to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, including by the top diplomatic adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron.

Zarif was expected to attend UN-related meetings from July 16-18, the official said. 

Al-Monitor reported July 8 that the US administration decided not to designate Zarif at this time, ostensibly out of respect for the intensified allied diplomatic efforts.

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The State Department previously said it cannot discuss individual visa cases, but noted it takes its obligations under the UN headquarters hosting agreement seriously.

“Visa records are confidential under US law; therefore, we cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases,” a State Department spokesperson, speaking not for attribution, said by email July 12. “We cannot speculate on whether someone may or may not be eligible for a visa. Whenever an individual applies for a US visa, a consular officer reviews the facts of the case and determines whether the applicant is eligible for that visa based on US law.”

“We take our obligations under the UN Headquarters Agreement seriously, and we adjudicate visa applications accordingly and in compliance with US law,” the spokesperson said.

French officials were holding their cards close to their chest in the wake of Emmanuel Bonne's visit to Iran this past week. The visit of Macron’s diplomatic adviser, from July 9-11, during which he met with Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, was described by one Iran expert in touch with the French diplomatic team as being “a good start.”

French officials indicated it was too early to share an assessment of the sensitive diplomatic effort.

De facto preconditions by both the Iranian and American sides have made devising a formula for exiting the recent escalation tricky, said Ali Vaez, program director of the International Crisis Group.

“The problem, at this stage, is of the two possible tracks [for US-Iran dialogue], which is a prisoner swap and a kind of ‘JCPOA plus’ negotiation, the previous one was preconditioned by the United States on the Iranians freeing the [detained] Americans to signal that they are serious,” Vaez told Al-Monitor, referring to the acronym for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “On the ‘JCPOA plus’ side, it is preconditioned by the Iranians,” by the demand for sanctions relief.

The solution may be in linking these two, Vaez suggested. “Providing sanctions relief for the prisoner release … and if the Iranians come back into compliance with the JCPOA,” he said.

“I think that is exactly what [mediators] are trying to do: Freeze the cycle of escalation,” Vaez added. “That pause could open the door for further negotiations.”

A channel to discuss a prisoner exchange is probably the most realistic near-term way to open a US-Iran conversation, said William Luers, a former three-decade career US diplomat who directs the Iran Project.

“It seems that the best way to get something started would be a high, but not top-level, discussion between the US and Iranian officials on prisoner exchanges, to work out something with Iran to release some of the Americans,” Luers told Al-Monitor. “This might appeal to Trump and … could also have the effect of opening a channel.”

“The arrangement, as I understand, that President Macron is working on in general, is to get agreement on some talks and the Iranians say, ‘Not until the US stops its extreme sanctions,’” Luers continued. “And that is not likely to happen.”

“Senior Iranian officials have made clear that they are prepared to talk with the United States about prisoner exchanges,” he said. “That would be a good opening.”

The objective of the current French mediation initiative “is limited to obtaining a de-escalation, which is essential to create the conditions to resume dialogue,” former French ambassador to Syria, Michel Duclos, wrote at the website of the Institut Montaigne. “It is likely that even to achieve this limited objective, the French President will have to be able to guarantee Iran's ability to export part of its oil, thanks to European measures … but above all to the return of some American ‘waivers.’”

But to date, the US administration has shown no inclination to consider oil sanctions waivers to de-escalate tensions or to get the Iranians to come to the table. Hard-line advisers such as national security adviser John Bolton have been effective at arguing to Trump that the mistake his predecessor Barack Obama made was relieving sanctions on Iran prematurely, said the Crisis Group’s Vaez.

“If Macron is to promise anything to the Iranians, to change their calculations, he needs some greenlighting from the White House,” Vaez said. “And every time they want to do that, Bolton is able to block them.”

Macron is not the only foreign leader trying to get Trump’s ear on Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke with Trump by phone July 10, praised him for threatening further sanctions on Iran.

“Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!" Trump tweeted July 10.

Trump, speaking to reporters for a half hour Friday morning before traveling to Wisconsin, concluded by warning Iran to be careful.

“Iran better be careful,” Trump said. “They're treading on very dangerous territory. Iran, if you’re listening, you better be careful."

Updated: July 14, 2019. This article was updated to include that Zarif was issued a visa.

Found in: Iran-US tensions

Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

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