Nuclear talks between Iran and the West are stalled, as Russia signs deal with Tehran for drones. But does the increasingly isolated Iranian regime risk becoming another Russian vassal like Syria or Belarus?
On a trip last month to Europe, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian spoke at the Vatican about Iran's unfinished talks with the West over its nuclear program. Tehran, he said, had proposed initiatives and shown flexibility in talks that had taken place in Vienna. According to Amir-Abdollahian, it was now time for the Americans to be "realistic" and facilitate a deal to replace the 2015 Iran nuclear deal framework.
If his position seems to have softened, it can only be with permission from Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. And that in turn has to do with the country's dire economic conditions. Yet there is also the international context, which has been shaken up by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, though not all is as it seems.
The Iranian regime had notably softened its earlier demands that a deal must be binding for future U.S. administrations and the West must remove the Revolutionary Guards, a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, from the list of international terrorist organizations.
Still, not all Iranian officials are sold on moderation: Some Western observers believe Amir-Abdollahian's positions are at odds with those of his deputy and chief Iranian negotiator in Vienna, Ali Bagheri Kani, reputedly a hardliner opposed to any negotiation on the nuclear program.
Confusingly perhaps for the West, he too does and says nothing without Khamenei's approval. The question may be, why would Khamenei send contradictory signals through his foreign minister and another senior diplomat?
A divided regime
Discord likely pervades Iran's entire regime leadership, including the military, which is showing in the Supreme Leader's ambivalent positions. The principle of a deal with the West has broadly divided the regime into three groups. The first believes any deal is better than none. A second group believes that no deal could compensate for the costs of its failure (so a simple repetition of the 2015 pact is no good). The third group basically opposes any deal with the West, especially Washington. It sees compromise as threatening to the regime and believes resistance best serves its interests.
There may be signs that by now neither Khamenei nor the Guards have the final say on the dossier.
After the Trump administration ditched the 2015 nuclear pact in May 2018, Khamenei set out seven conditions for the Europeans, which he said could keep the Islamic Republic in the pact. None were met. In fact, the Europeans ignored them. Khamenei threatened then that if the Europeans tore up the pact, "we'll burn it." He did nothing of the sort and now even seems satisfied with its "rotting corpse" to put it in his own words. He knows that brazenly leaving the pact will expose his regime to unforeseen threats.
But while the Supreme leader's uncertain signals may reflect divisions among senior regime figures, other questions emerge here: Is Khamenei in charge of the nuclear program or is he following the dictates of the Revolutionary Guards? And are the Revolutionary Guards themselves swayed by foreign powers and infiltrators?
In fact, there may be growing signs that by now neither Khamenei nor the Guards have the final say on the dossier and some other matters of vital importance to Iran.
Iran's President during the 16th ''National Day of Nuclear Technology'' in Tehran
The Russian factor
Russia played a part in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal framework in Vienna. Those talks, which were sputtering even before the war in Ukraine, ground to a halt as collaboration ended between the Russians and the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is in fact obstructing a deal for his own interests. However, he may be doing this not by decree but by wielding influence among the many regime officials with Russian sympathies. Note, for example, that after recent talks in Doha, the chief negotiator Bagheri Kani went to Moscow, not Tehran.
Anticipating the possibility of failure in Ukraine, Putin may be looking to open another anti-Western front. Never mind if his goals will turn countries like Syria and Iran to rubble. Now, the deal to send hundreds of Iranian drones to aid Russia in Ukraine looks like a bid to drag Iran into his personal war. Some might say Russia has done it before, manipulating and thwarting the Iranians at every turn in Syria.
Ali Akbar Velayati, one of Khamenei's advisers, has said in the past that Iran might have faced war had it not signed the 2015 nuclear deal. The difference is that back then, the regime had shreds of credibility at home and abroad, and international conditions were far less critical. The Islamic Republic had levers for negotiation. Today, in spite of the Biden administration zealously emulating Barack Obama with Iran, another pact is looking elusive. And as the E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has told Iranian diplomats, the alternatives are not attractive.
Putin's allies are unelected, unpopular creatures beholden to him: Khamenei in Iran, Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus or the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. Bereft of public support, their fate may only be to sink with their master.
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