Why Iran needs to talk to its neighbors

Why Iran needs to talk to its neighbors

Iran will not negotiate over its regional presence or its ballistic missile program, period. That is the compressed version of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s message to the European Union. Speaking publicly last week for the first time since President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, the Supreme Leader made it clear that any negotiations for Iran to remain committed to the accord must exclude these two demands. 

Millions of Iranians, worried about the consequences of the US withdrawal, now have eyes on France, Germany and the UK to see if there’s a hope for survival, even temporarily. They want to hear if the deal can continue without the US, or if they have to prepare for further hardship after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened “the strongest sanctions in history.”

The EU wants to address the issues of Iran’s regional meddling and its ballistic missiles separately from the nuclear deal. However, Khamenei said Iran’s regional presence was its fundamental strategy, and unchangeable by any administration in Iran. He wants assurances from the West that Iran’s oil exports will flow smoothly, and that it will retain access to the international banking system.

But what has been missed in the analysis of Khamenei’s speech is not what he he said, but what he did not say; in other words, what Iran may be ready to negotiate.

The 2015 nuclear deal gave Iran the right to restart its uranium enrichment program after 10 years. This part of the agreement, the so-called “sunset clause,” has always been a serious bone of contention in both the US and Israel. In President Trump’s opinion, it carried the implicit threat that Iran could re-start its nuclear weapons program as early as 2025. 

If we can interpret the Supreme Leader’s speech last week as a guideline for his negotiators, then there’s a ray of light for positive talks if Iran agrees to permanently put away its nuclear weapons ambitions. 

Camelia Entekhabifard

If we can interpret the Supreme Leader’s speech last week as a guideline for his negotiators, then there’s a ray of light for positive talks if Iran agrees to permanently put away its nuclear weapons ambitions. 

As to limiting Iran’s regional interference, perhaps the Russian role is essential. Europe’s relations with President Vladimir Putin are complicated by allegations of Russian involvement in poisoning a former spy and his daughter in the UK, and shooting down a passenger plane from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over Ukraine in 2014. However, it may eventually be possible to discuss with Putin the withdrawal of Iranian militias from Syria. 

In any case, for the sake of its own internal security, Iran cannot abandon the nuclear deal, regardless of what the EU offers or what sanctions the US imposes.

It may be that the regime is counting on the next US presidential election to bring a new face to the White House. In fact, the easiest way for it to survive is to improve relations with its neighbors.

To reduce the current pressure, Tehran must engage in regional dialogue. The restoration of trust and mutual respect, which existed not that long ago, could settle regional issues. With the wealth that exists in this region, with its history, heritage and culture, our people deserve a more comfortable and peaceful life. It shouldn’t be so difficult for the Islamic Republic to hear what the ordinary people of the region are saying; how Iran’s aggressive behavior is viewed as the source of disturbance and violence. And I am not talking here about officials and politicians, I am talking about ordinary Arabs from Lebanon to Egypt and Bahrain and Syria, who sip their coffee, smoke their shisha and express these opinions without fear or hesitation.

  • Camelia Entekhabifard is an Iranian-American journalist, political commentator and author of Camelia: Save Yourself By Telling the Truth (Seven Stories Press, 2008). Twitter: @CameliaFard

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