The "authority" given to Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss a prisoners swap with the United States may be an attempt by Tehran to show some “flexibility”; in the same way that reduction of tensions between Washington and Pyongyang started with a small athletic event.
The word “flexibility” has a special connotation here. When in 2013 Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei allowed negotiations to officially start on limiting Iran’s nuclear program, he called his decision “heroic flexibility”.
Zarif’s statements in New York about a prisoner swap no doubt have Khameni’s blessing, as otherwise the Iranian Judiciary, the body that holds most of the prisoners in Iran would have protested Zarif's offer.
This development probably signals another rare "flexibility" on the part of Tehran. President Hassan Rouhani has said, "We are men of war and negotiations." While Khamenei had stressed in the aftermath of President Donald Trump's pull-out from the nuclear deal with Iran, that "We would neither go to war with America, nor would we negotiate with Americans," Zarif's offer and Rouhani's statement could signal a change in Khamenei's approach to the Iran-U.S. standoff.
One would expect Khamenei to have further toughened his position after the United States designated the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization two weeks ago. But it seems he has not blocked all options; giving Zarif something to dangle in the air.
But talking tough in front of domestic audiences and facing the reality of crippling sanctions are two different things. No matter how defiant Khamenei would like to be, the fact is that Iran’s oil exports will soon dwindle to near zero and Iran would not even be able to pay government employees - unless it taps into its foreign currency reserves. But this is also not a viable option as most of the money is outside the country and very hard to access while U.S. sanctions are in place.
It was the same situation in 2013, when Iran, on the verge of total bankruptcy, having endured three years of crippling international sanctions, agrees to negotiate over its nuclear program.
"Neither war, nor negotiation" was a wrong tactic from the very beginning. In the world of diplomacy, wars start when there is no more room for diplomacy. Countries will refrain from resorting to war as long as there is an outlet for negotiations. We saw that Trump who had threatened to totally destroy North Korea, has already held two rounds of talks with the North Korean leader he no longer calls "the missile man." Thanks to negotiations, the two countries have distanced themselves from war.
Although the talks between Washington and Pyongyang have not yet led to a tangible result, they have pulled the world back from the brink of a nuclear war.
"Neither war, nor negotiation" slogan must have been either a wrong tactic or a slogan for domestic use and saving face. Either way, the Islamic Republic is now beginning to use a small window to signal its readiness for holding talks with America.
While Zarif was in new York for a conference, he made two odd statements": First, when he was asked about an Iranian commander's threat about closing the Strait of Hormuz, he said that was a decision for the regime's military wing. This came while Rouhani had made the same threat in July 2018 and Khamenei endorsed Rouhani's statement as a decision made by the Iranian political system, adding that "It is the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry to follow up on this decision." So, the matter was within Zarif's jurisdiction, but he did not want to talk about closing the waterway.
Second, Zarif suggested a prisoner swap between Tehran and Washington, adding that he is authorized to negotiate on the subject with U.S. officials.
It appears that it was Khamenei who authorized Zarif for such a negotiation in spite of his "Neither war, nor negotiation" motto.
Nevertheless, Zarif has left a way out for himself just in case the offer of prisoner swap with America does not work. He has mentioned the possibility of exchanging British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe who is in jail in Tehran with an Iranian woman in prison in Australia - on charges of violating U.S. sanctions - as apparently no Iranian is in jail in the UK. So, he can always say that was an offer made also to the UK and Australia.
In the meantime, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has categorically ruled out any such exchange, insisting that Zaghari is innocent and should be released anyway. But Zarif's way out will still remain open and defendable in Iran in case the idea of prisoner swap with America does not work and he comes under attack by his hardline political rivals in Tehran.