Regional, international developments further isolate Iran
Iran is becoming increasingly isolated and the pressure on the regime is mounting. This is due, first of all, to the shifting geopolitical situation in the Middle East, starring Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to the Gulf last month sent a strong message to Iran. Russian officials have indicated they are looking for new partners in the region, as evidenced by developments in Syria. These events will put more pressure on Iran and block international political avenues for the regime.
Secondly, Iran is losing some of the areas that previously provided it with security or political influence and advantage. Last month’s conference on Syria attended by Turkey, Qatar and Russia in Tehran’s absence likely demonstrates that the regime is no longer an active recruiter in this field. In Syria, where Iran has invested heavily both financially and in terms of human resources, it has gained almost nothing. The same is happening in Iraq.
Baghdad is increasing its political distance from Iran and gravitating toward the West. Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq was a clear message in this regard. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi cannot be considered a faithful ally of Iran. Tehran’s investment in Iraq has reached a record low. The whole relationship is entirely different from six years ago.
Iran is banking on the return of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal so that it can continue to benefit from it, but this belief is misplaced. Every international agreement is the result of the balance of power at that time. Today’s balance of power is not a continuation of that of 2015. It is becoming more and more apparent that the Biden administration does not support the original terms of the JCPOA, acknowledging the changing international and regional situation for both Iran and the US. Even those who negotiated and defended the JCPOA at the time recognize that the agreement needs to change to better reflect the new regional and international standings. Wendy Sherman, America’s chief negotiator for the JCPOA and President Joe Biden’s nominee for deputy secretary of state, did not defend it at her Senate approval hearing last month.
Tehran is banking on the return of the 2015 nuclear deal so that it can continue to benefit from it, but this belief is misplaced.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Thirdly, Iran has gone through two uprisings since the JCPOA was signed. President Hassan Rouhani has said it was only after the 2017 uprising that Donald Trump dared to abandon the nuclear deal. With the recent uprising in Sistan and Balochistan province, the Iranian Foreign Ministry rejected nonaligned talks with the US because it was not a good opportunity. For this reason, the role of Iran in the new balance of power is so minimal that the regime is currently attacking American bases in Iraq in an attempt to force the US to negotiate on its terms.
At the regional level, Israel and the Arab states have become closer. During her hearing, Sherman referred to the Abraham Accords, which have altered relationships and power within the region. These new partnership makes it harder to deal with Iran, as the regime feels backed into a corner. We also face a new wave in Congress, which only compounds Iran’s challenges as it seeks to achieve its vision of successful negotiations.
Fourthly, Republican lawmakers in the US Congress have introduced eight pieces of legislation in an effort to prevent the White House from returning to the JCPOA. These cover issues such as the tightening of sanctions against Iran, opposing the easing of sanctions, and declaring non-support for the JCPOA. One of the bills, introduced by Sen. Bill Hagerty and which seeks congressional oversight on any government plan to lift sanctions, has garnered the support of 27 senators. Another plan is a resolution introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton, which opposes any form of sanctions relief unless all disputes with Iran, including its nuclear, ballistic missile and regional programs, are addressed. This bill has attracted 31 cosponsors. Two parallel schemes have also been introduced in the House of Representatives and have attracted 24 and 30 supporters, respectively.
The main criticism of conservative Republicans and prominent Democrats in Congress in 2015 was that the JCPOA only temporarily blocked Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and that a series of deadlines were written into the terms. These would allow all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs to be lifted. For example, in 2030, Iran was to be allowed to enrich uranium indefinitely and increase its number of centrifuges and their quality indefinitely. This level of capability to enrich uranium would put Europe at risk.
At Sherman’s Senate hearing, Sen. Mitt Romney criticized the JCPOA because of these deadlines. He then asked her about the long term and Sherman, who was expected to push back against this criticism because she was one of the architects of the JCPOA, did not respond to Romney and merely said: “Yes, the situation has changed.”
As a result of these developments, the increasingly isolated regime of Iran appears to be at its weakest point since its establishment in 1979.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh