Will Iran drink from the ‘poisoned chalice’ once again?

Will Iran drink from the ‘poisoned chalice’ once again?

Will Iran drink from the ‘poisoned chalice’ once again?

In a move that surprised some, the US has decided not to renew the exemptions it previously granted to eight nations to continue importing Iranian oil despite the sanctions imposed on Tehran’s oil sector. The decision indicates Washington’s seriousness in exerting the maximum pressure on Tehran to force the clerical establishment to comply with its 12 demands and force it to return to the negotiating table, although on very different terms than those agreed with former US President Barack Obama. The nuclear deal negotiated by Obama was described by his successor Donald Trump as the worst in US history. 

For those who welcomed the US decision, as well as others closely watching the latest developments and forecasting their trajectory, it seems that the end of one chapter is quickly approaching and the Iranian regime is entering a historic phase, as it is now at a crossroads it has never experienced since the revolution in 1979. 

The current impasse has led to conflicting statements among Iranian regime officials. Some have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if Iran is not allowed to export its oil, whilst others have attempted to send more conciliatory messages suggesting that Iran is ready for negotiations, even if they have an objective far less ambitious than the regime’s current wishes. Another group, meanwhile, wants to adopt a position halfway between these two extremes, arguing that, if US vessels wish to use the Strait of Hormuz, they should seek permission from the forces entitled to guard the waterway, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 

Iran’s regime has prepared itself for this challenging new chapter and for a politically hotter-than-usual summer by recalling a number of its militias, which had been spread across Iraq and Syria, as well as other countries bordering Iraq and Iran. This move comes as Tehran fears that these militias may be targeted by US forces after the Trump administration classified the IRGC and a number of its affiliated militias as terrorist groups. Tehran is intent on protecting its long-term assets, which have been so costly for it to assemble over the past few decades. 

It seems that the militias summoned to Iran on the orders of the regime returned by means viewed by most Iranians as being suspicious and illegal. The regime did this in order to shelter and protect them, as well as itself, from a vengeful public. The regime has flatly ruled out the possibility of US and Israeli forces carrying out attacks inside Iran. If any such attacks were to take place, this would unify the domestic front, which is fragile and fragmented at this time. 

Tehran is intent on protecting its long-term assets, which have been so costly for it to assemble over the past few decades

Iran is still in shock. It seems to believe it can weather this storm by placing its hope in three key allies: Russia, India and China. China is the largest importer of Iranian oil — although it reduced the amount it imported from Iran by 20 percent in April, it has expressed solidarity with Tehran, informing the regime that it will not comply with the unilateral US sanctions. It is wrong, however, to believe that China will stand against the US, since the Chinese project is still in its early stages and Beijing often requires a conciliatory policy of political and diplomatic concessions with the US. 

India, which is the second-biggest importer of Iranian oil, quickly announced that it is searching for alternatives. It seems that New Delhi expected this decision from very early on, since it did not inform Tehran of its oil requirements for May. Instead, it awaited the US announcement, which was largely in line with its expectations. Only a few hours after the US announced its decision, New Delhi declared its own position. 

For its part, while Russia condemned the US decision, it cannot benefit Tehran much economically. Indeed, the US decision indirectly benefits Russia, especially as it will lead to higher gas prices. 

The fourth important country in this respect is Turkey, which has a common border with Iran. There are massive economic ties between the two sides, with Turkey importing relatively large amounts of Iranian oil. In light of these ties, Ankara also condemned the US decision. However, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeking political compromises with Trump, any success in cutting a deal means Turkey may reconsider its economic relations with Tehran, including its energy imports. 

Finally, we come to Iraq, which is caught between a rock and a hard place. Whilst Washington has temporarily extended Iraq’s exemption on importing oil from Iran as a special case, Iraq is not in a position to exert any efforts on behalf of the Iranian regime given the current political realities in the country. This grace period granted by the US to Iraq is set to end within the next six weeks, but the US decision thereafter is still ambiguous. 

All in all, this summer will see the two sides waiting nervously, with the smallest mistake, rash act, sudden escalation or calculated gambit by the IRGC potentially acting as a catalyst to instigate a crisis across the region. 

Both reality and common sense suggest that the greatest share of responsibility in this matter lies with Tehran. The regime must stop basing its calculations on the possible outcome of next year’s US elections. Tehran should also be careful not to repeat the mistakes it made in the previous nuclear negotiations, particularly in believing that any deal with the West will be accepted by the countries of the region. Any such miscalculations would mean expensive new lessons for the Iranian regime very different from those experienced following the nuclear deal signed in 2015. 

The Iranian regime also needs to end its ambitious regional expansionist plans and its dirty operations carried out via its militias. It should, rather, begin taking steps to transform Iran into a responsible state, rather than one intent on revolutionary expansion. The regime should also renounce the “resistance” policy it has pursued for decades. 

Despite the significant price that the Iranian regime is likely to pay as a result of its foreign expansionist dreams being ended, this cost is likely to be far less than the alternatives awaiting it. In 1986, Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini refused a proposal to end the war with Iraq and stop the bloodbath; two years later, he ended up accepting the same proposal after paying a heavy price. According to his own analogy, this meant “drinking from the poisoned chalice.” Has Ali Khamenei learned from the costly mistake of his predecessor? Does the revolutionary regime in Iran need to drink from the poisoned chalice once again? We shall see. 


  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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