By Arab News
By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib*
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last week gave an interview to Politico in which he said: “We have not seen any change in policy,” referring to the new Biden administration in the US. Iran is still subject to Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Zarif also said that, once there is a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, other issues can be discussed.
However, despite Zarif’s overture, Iran has so far not shown any goodwill that might encourage its counterpart to engage in nuclear negotiations. Iran is persistent in showing defiance, while in negotiations one should know when to show flexibility. It is starting to create far too many enemies, rendering Zarif’s task harder by the day. Iran’s behavior is definitely not helping the people in the US administration who are in favor of engagement. Tehran should be taking advantage of the fact the White House wants to engage and that it prefers negotiations to coercion and dialogue to confrontation.
The current behavior of Iran is doing more harm than good to the JCPOA. Opponents of the deal argue it does not address Iran’s malign activities in the region and Tehran’s current behavior proves them right. Its belligerent attitude reflects the anti-US wing in the Iranian regime. However, such actions are not new. In January 2016, following the signing of the JCPOA and when Iran should have been doing its best to behave, it chose to put on a show of force. It captured 10 American soldiers whose boats had strayed into Iranian waters. A video was released showing the sailors on their knees with their hands behind their heads, while an Iranian official bragged about Iran’s might.
The JCPOA is also an important election ticket. The reformists want a return to the deal because it will facilitate their path to victory in June’s presidential election. On the other hand, the hard-liners with an anti-Western premise will benefit from a failure to return to the JCPOA. It will play into their narrative: The US is not to be trusted no matter who is at the helm. Their attitude is that the Americans used the JCPOA when it was convenient to do so and left it when it no longer served their interests. Hence, Iran should not let its guard down.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accepted the deal only because the economic crunch was no longer bearable, but he has never been a fan of it. He knows that embracing the deal means giving up the cult of the revolution, which is something he does not want to do as it would mean abandoning the premise on which the entire regime is built.
However, Iran is upsetting too many players and creating too many enemies. Turkey, for example, is an important player that Iran could have at least kept neutral. Ankara was one of the few countries to condemn the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani early in 2020. It was also apparently helping Iran finance some of its operations through the state-owned Halkbank. Though on the opposite side to Iran in Syria, Turkey managed to find a modus operandi with the Iranians via the Astana accords. Now, however, Iran has a confrontational relationship with Turkey because of its protection of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq. The PKK, which has been aided by pro-Iranian militias, last month executed 13 Turkish hostages in northern Iraq. And Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq leader Qais Khazali, who is pro-Iran, this month bluntly announced that he was ready to fight the Turks. Turkey could have been courted by Iran to support its stance on the JCPOA, but now Ankara appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
The Europeans, who are in favor of the deal, are increasingly being turned off by Iran’s behavior. The UK, France and Germany (the E3) had planned to introduce a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency this month criticizing Iran for curbing the agency’s inspections and asking it to explain its breaches of the 2015 deal. Following a warning from Russia and Iran, however, the E3 decided against presenting the resolution. But this does not mean that they are comfortable with Iran. They may have refrained from confronting Iran this time, but if Tehran continues with its behavior, they will probably soon reach a point where they will oppose Iran and be pushed to use coercive measures against the Islamic Republic.
Tehran also has to bear in mind that the US cannot be seen to have bowed to Iran. And it is Iran, not the US, which is under maximum pressure. The sanctions are hurting the Iranian people, not Americans. Hence, Washington has no sense of urgency in terms of returning to the deal. Iran also has to realize that the Trump administration was lobbied by allies to leave the deal. The more Tehran shows belligerence, the more those allies will resist any US return to the deal. It definitely did not help that, in 2015, Iran bragged about having four Arab capitals under its control. Khamenei’s recent statement that Iranian influence will continue in the region no matter what is not very comforting. And it contradicts the more conciliatory tone Zarif is trying to strike. The more Iran shows belligerence, the more the Arab Gulf states will be put on the defensive.
So Iran should be more pragmatic. The first step toward showing goodwill would be to adopt a smoother approach with the West and the region. Iran’s behavior has been pushing proponents of the deal away, or at least making their stance harder to defend. The window to go back to the deal is closing because Iran is increasing its enrichment. Tehran should quickly make up its mind on what course it plans to pursue, and it should realize that the biggest losers from a failure to return to the JCPOA would be the Iranian people.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.