Iran’s new negotiating strategy

The mullahs are speaking about not rushing the American return to the nuclear accord. What are they really seeking and why? Opinion.

Dr. Salem AlKetbi ,

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

In the wake of Joe Biden’s official inauguration as President of the United States, the Iranian mullahs have already begun to unveil some aspects of their strategy for negotiations with Washington in the coming period.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has confirmed that ballistic and regional issues are not and will not be part of the nuclear deal, denying that Tehran is holding talks with the new US administration.

In the nuclear agreement, Iran agreed to maintain a five-year arms embargo and a ten-year missile embargo, he noted. This is not the time, he continued, to demand negotiations on Iran’s regional role, and it is America, France and the rest of the West that are inflaming and turning the region into a “powder keg. ”

Looking at statements made by Iranian officials during this period, clearly, the emphasis is on a few specific elements.

First, the Biden administration will not rush into the nuclear deal. This idea was often voiced by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in his remarks that his country did not insist on or hasten the United States’ return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Zarif also assured that Iran was in no hurry to see Washington go back to the nuclear accord.

The ball is in the court of the USA and the new American administration must respect its commitments, Zarif believes. This may well mean that the pulse-taking phase between the mullahs and the Biden administration since the confirmation of the presidential election results has revealed that a comeback to the nuclear accord would not be a priority for the White House.

As I have explained in previous articles, President Biden will need time to find a formula for a return to the nuclear agreement. Evidence confirms that Biden does not want to give the mullahs a blank check or hastily return to the deal, at the risk of harming Washington’s relations with its allies in the Middle East.

The likely scenario, then, is to extend the time period of sanctions against the Iranian regime until there is a way to deal with more complex and urgent internal issues for the new US administration.

At the same time, Washington’s allies in the Middle East, being Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (according to sporadic statements and references by President Biden and his administration), would be consulted. It may also be possible to secretly consult with the mullahs in order to find an appropriate outcome to the nuclear deal talks.

This is why the mullahs are speaking about not rushing the American return to the nuclear accord. They want to save face both at home and abroad after many thought that the decision to return would be one of the first ones signed by POTUS within days or weeks at the latest after he entered the White House.

They want to show their indifference to the impact of former President Trump’s sanctions, a tactic that, in the mullahs’ eyes, should block any tendency of the new US administration to maintain pressure on Tehran. The indifference sends a message that could dissuade it from setting up new obstacles to pressure the mullahs into taking flexible positions on resuming the nuclear deal.

The second aim of the Iranian leaders’ statements is to try to impose a hard line on any possible round of negotiations with the Americans, especially regarding Iran’s regional role. The mullahs insist that this part of the negotiations must remain on the sidelines.

According to Zarif, issues related to missiles and the region have not been and will not be included in the nuclear agreement. He says that this is not the time to negotiate on this subject. So when? We don’t know.

However, it seems that this will be the sensitive point of any dialogue between the mullahs’ regime and the US in the coming time frame. The reason: Iran has not yet achieved the objectives of its direct and indirect military intervention in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The mullahs are seeking to fully and sustainably benefit from their intervention in these Arab countries.

Relations between the mullahs and these countries have not really matured to ensure that regional and international powers do not call for the withdrawal of Iranian militias and an end to Iranian intervention and hegemony in these Arab states.

The third element concerns the mullahs’ recent successive cries of frustration about European positions. The Iranian regime believes that the European trio of Britain, Germany and France could not save the nuclear agreement.

Zarif said that Europeans were unable to do anything to preserve the agreement and the INSTEX financial mechanism did not work. This implies that the mullahs will turn to dialogue with the new US administration. Here is a useful lesson for the E3, which failed to hammer out an effective strategy against the Iranian nuclear threat.

The trio wanted to hold the middle ground for fear that the nuclear deal with Iran would fail, even though all indications are that the deal has been dead as a doornail since the United States withdrew from it in mid-2018.

In the end, the Iranian mullahs’ leaders’ comments are clearly appeasing. They seek above all not to antagonize the new US administration, to turn the page on threats and the war of words with Trump, and to adopt a rational political discourse focused on the search for solutions and outcomes.

But they remain faithful to Iran’s well-known guidelines, including the plan for regional hegemony, which they are trying to keep completely out of any potential negotiations. But their success remains contingent on President Biden’s as yet unclear vision, his concern not to repeat Obama’s mistakes, and his coordination with Washington’s allies in the Gulf on ways to achieve regional stability.

Negotiation frameworks with the mullahs’ regime must be expanded and their regional role must be included in any negotiation rounds organized to decide the fate of the nuclear agreement.

Dr. Salem AlKetbi is a UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate