Why Iran can’t hide from talks for much longer
Rocket attacks by Iranian proxies targeting US military personnel in Iraq betray Tehran’s duplicity — claiming an openness to re-engagement on nuclear negotiations, while urging armed groups it backs to ratchet up US-Iran tensions in order to make a “deal” politically untenable for the White House.
Fortunately, President Biden was very much up to the challenge, ordering retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxies in Syria, demonstrating that while Washington may be seeking dialogue on Iran’s nuclear ambitions — and, hopefully, curbs to its regional adventurism and ballistic missile programs — it is still capable of lethal responses to Tehran’s aggressive muscle-flexing.
These attacks in February and March are unlikely to be the last between now and June, when Iranians head to the polls to elect Hassan Rouhani’s successor as president. After all, no substantial headway can be made when a change of government looms, even if the outgoing Rouhani — who cannot run for a third term — seeks to incubate what will probably be a tattered political legacy. Worse yet, even if talks resumed, if only to lay the foundations for what promise to be protracted negotiations, any progress is unlikely to survive the next presidency, which already has a slate of Revolutionary Guard and Iranian intelligence alumni such as Ezzatollah Zarghami, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi and Hossein Dehghan vying for front-runner status.
Nevertheless, progress toward dialogue will not be imperiled by further exchanges of fire because, for all its flexing and projection, Tehran faces an inescapable reality — talks with Washington cannot be avoided. The attacks in Irbil and on Al-Asad airbase amount to "feeling out" the other side, poking and prodding the new White House administration to determine the limits of its tolerance and, possibly, goad Washington into squandering its leverage to push for more concessions. Tehran knows its eventual presence across the table from the original P5+1 is inevitable, and not reining in its proxies in Iraq is an attempt to be in the driver's seat of those talks.
Even if Tehran has embedded itself in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen to drive its regional destabilization agenda, while edging ever closer to a nuclear weapon, resisting dialogue with the international community is domestically untenable. Most Iranians are not keen on a return to Ahmadinejad-style populism and unrestrained belligerence across the region, because they know it will only invite greater isolation and economic turmoil by jeopardizing desperately needed sanctions relief.
If Iran’s clerical leaders can read the wind at all, there is simply no domestic appetite for further dangerous posturing.
Tehran has acknowledged that despite a lack of oversight and enforcement, sanctions are still a potent weapon that wreaks havoc in Iran's internal dynamics. The rush to demand sanctions relief before opening talks is proof of a sense of desperation in a state wary of a return to debilitating protests, with its economy on shaky ground. It will be a hard sell to expend precious capital, political or otherwise, seeking gains from an aggressive regional posture, which will only elicit far more punitive or even lethal responses from a more multilaterally engaged US.
If Iran’s clerical leaders can read the wind at all, there is simply no domestic appetite for further dangerous posturing. Otherwise, they risk confirming the doubts shared by the Gulf States over Tehran’s seriousness about reaching a settlement that limits its missile programs and regional destabilization agenda.
As we head toward June, it is important to retain the correct perspective. Neither the US nor Iran want to rush into a deal, but nor do they want the process to be slow, because a lack of pace endangers settled terms, especially when governments change. Fortunately, for the first time since 1989, both countries have more or less synchronized a change of government, and there is a good chance that agreed terms will survive future power transitions, provided negotiations are carried out in a consensual, bipartisan framework.
Hopefully, Washington will realize there is no justification for keeping talks narrowly focused on nuclear enrichment without curbs to Tehran’s adventurism, since both have serious ramifications for regional security and stability. It is also unlikely that Tehran’s principal backers, Beijing and Moscow, will seriously object to expanding the scope of a revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that will rein in Iran’s proxies. After all, unrestricted attacks on US targets destabilize local communities, endangering broader Russian and Chinese geopolitical designs. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, for instance, traverses the Middle East toward Europe, and Russia is keen on projecting power, playing kingmaker in the vacuum of America’s retreat from the region.
Ultimately, posturing and rhetoric aside, it is more difficult for the Iranian leadership to justify belligerence abroad, expanding missile facilities and enriching fissile material, when the economy is in shambles with no sign of sanctions relief. Granted, the previous US administration’s abrupt U-turn on the 2015 agreement is sufficient grounds to be wary of new overtures, but there is no upside to rejecting substantive engagement, nor does Tehran have sufficient leverage to prevent expanding the scope to the benefit of Washington’s Gulf allies. What matters now is timing, and what scope the talks will have. Dialogue itself is no longer either optional or avoidable.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell