Sanctions relief, nothing else. Iran has no intention of forsaking its nuclear and missile programs nor its proxy wars across the region.
As the US and Iran are heading towards an exchange of drafts about returning to the JCPOA, the stance of both parties remains ambiguous. After the last round of talks in Vienna, both American and Iranian officials said the talks were “constructive.” The US is signaling readiness to lift sanctions if Iran will reverse recent actions and return to compliance with the JCPOA.
Most US media are sympathetic to the revocation of sanctions, arguing that President Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy failed. President Biden’s envoy to Iran, Rob Malley, is more nuanced. He said in an interview that Iranian foreign minister Zarif’s insistence on the removal of sanctions before Iran changes its behavior is “not serious” and “that it is not going to work that way.”
Two crucial questions remain: Will the “choreography” of mutual steps work, given Iran’s sense that they are dealing with an American side eager to cut a deal? And what leverage on Iran will the US (and others like France) retain to press Iran for a “longer, better and broader” agreement that relates to its ballistic missile, regional terrorism, and more? Iran clearly seeks to have all sanctions lifted immediately.
Naturally, no Iranian official can contradict the priorities set by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In a speech for Nowruz (the Persian New Year, on March 21), he depicted sanctions as criminal, and made it clear that Iran would not beg the enemy to lift them. All Iranian officials now insist that all American sanctions on Iran must be lifted, including those not directly related to the JCPOA, before the resumption of direct talks with the US. This is Iran’s sine qua non demand.
Iranian officials also have made clear their categorical refusal to include in a future agreement issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and Tehran’s regional “activities” (i.e., subversion and terrorism). Iranian diplomats are releasing statements effectively demanding American unconditional surrender. Nothing suggests that the Iranians will be willing to consider compromise. At best, they are willing to consider a phased schedule for the fulfilment of their demands.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Said Khatibzadeh has ruled out any step-by-step lifting of sanctions. “The Iranian stance in this context is perfectly clear and does not need any negotiation or step-by-step. There is only one step, and it is a complete lifting of the illegal sanctions imposed on Iran,” he said. Deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi articulated a demand to lift 1,300 various sanctions and have them all revoked at once.
It is plausible to assume that Iranian “moderates” affiliated with President Rouhani are making efforts to represent more unwavering posturing ahead of the presidential elections in Iran. However, most analysts agree that “hardliners” are poised to win the election. Moreover, Supreme Leader Khamenei remains the ultimate decision-maker. If he approves of direct or continued talks with the US, no “hardliners” will oppose this.
Iran has no intentions whatsoever of forsaking its military activities in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria because these are the regime’s trump cards; leverage with which to pressure Iran’s adversaries and to project power. These activities also are a core expression of Iran’s ideology of assisting “freedom seeking nations,” aimed at destroying the post-1945 world order (which in Iranian rhetoric is termed as “hegemonic”). There is no rational reason for Iran to give up such tools of leverage in the absence of a credible American threat to resort to brute force.
Being a “bounded” rational actor – i.e., rationally pursuing goals that are in themselves embedded in an ideological framework that lies beyond rational debate – Iran acts with cost-and-benefit logic. It sees no reason to compromise. Iran sees that American political imperatives (the desire to “undo Trump’s work”) as hastening America’s need to conclude an agreement.
As long as a final American decision about lifting of sanctions is unclear, Iran’s theoretical consent to resume talks does not mean American surrender and an automatic Iranian win. Iran’s economy remains in dire straits, exacerbated by the unending COVID-19 pandemic and by conditions in world energy markets. Despite its triumphal statements about achievements at home and abroad, the Iranian regime cannot yet boast any major victories in the region. (The Houthis have made gains in Yemen, but the war is not over). To be sure, Iran is a major threat to US interests in the Middle East, to Israel, and to its Arab Gulf allies. However, one should not consider Iran’s disruptive activities as omnipotent.
Interestingly, the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Qatar held a conference on March 11 in Doha to discuss reconstruction of Syria. Although the summit did not lead to concrete results, it is significant. The mere fact that Russia was willing to meet with Turkey and Qatar, which back Assad’s rivals in Syria and that the Russians consented to meet in Qatar’s capital without Iran (i.e., outside the Astana process) is noteworthy. Indeed, the most important aspect of this summit was Iran’s absence. Iran continues to actively back proxies in Syria, yet Russia and Turkey are ignoring Iran discussions of Syria’s future.
Iran’s Presence in Iraq
The Biden administration has resumed talks with the Iraqi leadership. Among the understandings reached is that US and coalition forces in Iraq will restrict themselves to training and advisory tasks while transitioning away from combat operations. If no American troops are deployed on the ground, pro-Iranian militias could lose the pretext for their presence and activities.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi is seeking to loosen Tehran’s grip on the country, by reinforcing Iraqi ties with the US and Gulf countries. He sent a message to Tehran asking that Shiite militias be reined in, and signaled his readiness to confront the militias if Tehran refuses. Kazemi’s confidence in challenging Tehran is notable. In past, Iraqi leaders have been afraid to confront Iran, and have refrained from publicly depicting armed militias as Iranian puppets.
This is a sign of Iran’s growing ongoing weakness in Iraq, particularly in its loosening control of the allied militias. The current Quds force commander Esmail Ghaeni, has been unable to control the Shiite militias as successfully as his predecessor, Qassem Soleimani. This explains Iran’s willingness to engage with Saudi Arabia about avoiding a clash of interests in Iraq. On the other hand, this could also be read as a signal of Saudi “bandwagoning,” with Iran, given that Washington seems willing to acquiesce in Iranian hegemony in the region.
Ahead of the resumption of the talks, President Rouhani inaugurated new centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium. He also blamed the International Atomic Energy Agency for breaching its commitments to Iran under the JCPOA. However, on April 11 an explosion hit the electricity network at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. Although Iranian authorities attempted to downplay this as a minor incident, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency Ali Akbar Salehi loudly condemned the attack as “nuclear terrorism.” This suggests that the damage was more significant and may cause delays in the Iranian enrichment program – giving the US additional time to press for Iranian concessions.
Disruptive Actions Across the Region
At this point in time, Iranian stubbornness has little to do with the actual building of nuclear weapons or the possible forsaking of that program. All Iran wants is the revocation of US sanctions, which is essential for Iran’s economy. Tehran never will forgo its ballistic missile program or its support for armed proxies across in the Middle East. The deteriorating situation in Iran will not engender Iranian “moderation” at home or abroad. Iran’s regional policies are an essential component of its Islamist ideology, and forgoing such would tarnish Iran’s credibility and deterrence.
On the other hand, it is important to bear in mind that time works against the regime and its aging leader. Iran’s problems are accumulating and getting worse. Iran’s asymmetric capabilities (including missiles, drones, and proxies) indeed provide Iran with regional heft (and at the same time the ability to deny its involvement when convenient to do so). But these activities have their limits; the proxies do not possess attack capabilities at the level of their patron.
Iran continues to deploy loyalist militias in Syria, and seeks to affect the demographic balance in war-torn countries with Shiite population transfers. Pro-Iranian Houthis are upping the ante in Yemen, attacking Saudi Arabia with Iranian-made missiles and drones.
Unless Washington ties a renewed nuclear accord to demands for a change in Iranian regional behavior, Iranian regional disruptions will continue. Nevertheless, However, American consent to a partial lifting of sanctions on Iran will not be a disaster. It will not immediately substantially empower and strengthen Iran, because the Iranian economy will take years to recover from its current dismal situation.
Israel and its allies must continue to dedicate military resources to cope with Iran. In particular, Israeli leadership must forestall any attempts to curb its freedom of action to act against Iranian offensives. This means not only action against the Iranian nuclear program but against ongoing Iranian offensives throughout the region.
World media attributed to Israel an attack on the Iranian vessel Saviz in the Red Sea, linking it to reported progress in the Vienna talks. The ship was an IRGC reconnaissance base; an integral part of Iran’s military positioning between Eritrea and Yemen. Within the framework of Israel’s “war between wars” against Iran, Israel must be able to continue to target such Iranian forward bases, without any restrictions imposed by Washington.
Israeli targeting of the Iranian nuclear program and of Iran’s hostile regional activities is tightly intertwined. No one suggests that these activities provide for a “resolution” in Israel-Iran affairs or guarantee 100% success. Israeli military and civilian leadership harbor no illusions. Iran shows no signs of moderation. But in the absence of Israeli countermeasures, Iran will become ever-more aggressive.
Insinuations that Israel is purposefully pulling the US towards conflict with Iran must be rejected. Israel is acting against Iran to thwart its aggressive moves, such as placing precise missiles in Syria or seeking to assert influence in the Red Sea. Israel does not risk the lives of its servicemen or agents for mere political maneuvering.
In recent months, Iran was dealt several serious blows, ranging from the assassination of its top nuclear program official Fakhrizadeh, to raids in Syria, to derailment of enrichment at Natanz. All the attacks have been attributed to Israel, to the point that the Biden administration reportedly has asked Israel to stop the “dangerous, detrimental chatter about Natanz.”
Israel’s long-standing policy of “ambiguity” about such activities is dissipating. This could force Iran to retaliate. But as long as the direct/indirect talks with the US and the Europeans hold the promise of sanctions relief – which is Iran’s immediate, top priority – it is likely that Iran will restrain itself.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.