Tehran's Power Delusions May Be The Biggest Obstacle To A Nuclear Deal
Authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran have laid out tough conditions for a nuclear deal. They apparently live in a parallel world, oblivious to the reality of Iran's weakness after years of international economic isolation.
LONDON — The foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, observed in a television interview in October 2021 that negotiating wasn't simply "sipping coffee" with the other side, apparently taking a jab at the last set of regime diplomats negotiating over Iran's nuclear dossier in Vienna. He also told the United States it should unblock U.S. $10 billion in frozen Iranian assets to show its goodwill in currently stalled talks to revive the 2015 nuclear pact with world powers.
Then in November 2021, the regime's new chief negotiator in Vienna, Ali Baqeri Kani, told The Guardian newspaper that the United States must end sanctions on the Islamic Republic and guarantee that future administrations would never ditch any agreement reached — as the Trump administration did in 2018 with the 2015 pact. These were maximalist positions meant to enthuse a conservative audience at home and following the so-called "Qasem Line" in foreign policy. The Qasem or "Haj Qasem" line means adopting assertive, combative positions exemplified by the disruptive regional activities of Qasem Soleimani, the Revolutionary Guards general killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020. Some in Iran even began calling Amir-Abdollahian the "Haj Qasem of diplomacy."
After Qasem Soleimani's death, regime radicals in Tehran said anyone speaking of talks with America should have "their mouth smashed." When the Revolutionary Guards fired rockets on a base in Iraq in retaliation for the killing (though they first warned the Americans!), Amir-Abdollahian said this was a reprisal for Soleimani's car, not the "martyred" general himself, and the Americans should expect worse. This was all talk, of course. The regime's top authorities had decided talks must resume and the Haj Qasem of diplomacy would lead them.
The regime, responding to dire economic conditions, quietly decided it could forego one of its "red lines", which was for the West to remove the Revolutionary Guards from its terrorist list. It even provoked the ire of its own conservatives. Then it conceded that the United States wouldn't have to commit future administrations to any pact agreed on in Vienna. But the United States gave no assurances.
The battles for concessions
With talks halted in Vienna, Iranians met in Doha with the E.U. foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, to discuss how to revive them. The U.S. diplomat Robert Malley called that meeting a waste of time, though its effects were felt in a June 30 meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The session to revise Resolution 2231 (and lift sanctions on Iran) was so hostile to the Islamic Republic as to prompt a former foreign minister, Aliakbar Salehi, to warn the regime of harsh consequences for ordinary Iranians if the 2015 pact were not revived.
While both Iranians and Americans blame each other for blocking progress, it seems both sides in fact have further expectations usually not mentioned in public. Each side, more importantly, wants to use a nuclear accord to damage the other side's interests.
The very idea of another pact with the West has fueled political rifts in Tehran.
Some of these expectations have been made public, like Iran demanding assurances for the future, or the West wanting Iran to simply stop uranium enrichment. But there must be more. The West wants Tehran to stop developing ballistic missiles and its meddling in the Middle East. Some have said it hopes a new pact to be a prelude to pressuring the Islamic Republic to end its hostility to Israel. The Islamic Republic expects a deal to include an end to the West's investigations into the regime's secret weapons program, while some in Iran have said the United States must commit to the Islamic Republic's continuation. Still, the very idea of another pact with the West has fueled political rifts in Tehran.
Another sticking point may be the case of the Ukrainian passenger plane shot down as it left Tehran in early 2020. The Iranian regime says the plane was downed accidentally, but relatives of victims suspect the case has gone quiet for becoming tied up with nuclear talks. The regime will naturally expect the West to also end scrutiny of this crime as part of the "bigger" nuclear pact.
The West will in turn want the Islamic Republic to sign the FATF or multilateral pact to curb money-laundering. In Tehran, some politicians have said this would expose the country's — and the state's — financial transactions to scrutiny by "enemies." The West says Tehran must end its habits of "arresting" or kidnapping dual-nationals in Iran, hounding Iranian exiles and engaging in terrorism. But these are precisely Iran's favored, and only, levers to win concessions from Western states.
The foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, at a press conference in Tehran.
A parallel world
The 2015 pact showed that the most fundamental issues are negotiated in very private sessions.
Recently, security services in the German state of Hamburg reported on the arrest of an Iranian-German citizen suspected of sending out sanctioned parts for Iran's nuclear program. The report observed that Iran's Information ministry was active on German soil. European states are aware of such incidents but prefer to keep them quiet. A Belgian citizen was held by the Revolutionary Guards for months for example, though the Belgian government said nothing about it. Likewise, the United Kingdom said nothing for seven months about a consignment of Iranian rockets it had confiscated.
Likewise, the West knows the Iranian regime is quietly advancing toward obtaining weapons-grade uranium. But, perhaps for diplomacy's sake, both sides like to give the impression of normality. Yet, Iran has been purging and reshuffling officials after the seemingly targeted killings of senior soldiers and scientists in Iran. One reformist journalist, Abbas Abdi, has said the regime seems to be at war again, as it was in the 1980s against Iraq.
The discord over the resumption of talks and their costs is in Iran, not in the West.
The talk at the top is different. The head of the Revolutionary Guards, Hussein Salami, an opponent of a deal with the West, insists Iran's real strength is in the people's "faith and awareness" and Khamenei's "brave leadership." Apparently speaking from a parallel universe, he claims the Americans even admit that not having a cleric as head of state was a national weakness.
In the parallel world in which many of Iran's leaders exist, the Islamic Republic's power has cast an awesome shadow on Iran, the region and the world. Yet the discord over the resumption of talks and their costs is in Iran, not in the West.
Certainly, the decision lies with Ayatollah Khamenei, who may himself be confused about the wisdom of continued resistance to the West. He wants to be sure he can claim for himself the benefits of a pact, and squarely pin its costs on subordinates. Yet, delay can only weaken the regime's negotiating hand. Khamenei used to boast "there won't be a war, and we won't negotiate." He has found himself forced to talk with the West — and not as far from a war as he would like.
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