Who has the lead role in the latest talks between the US and Iran?

Who has the lead role in the latest talks between the US and Iran?

Who has the lead role in the latest talks between the US and Iran?
EEAS Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi, Vienna, Apr. 6, 2021. (Reuters)
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The Latin phrase “bis repetitas placent,” which means “that which pleases is twice repeated,” certainly seems to apply for many of the stakeholders in the new round of discussions between the US and Iran — and especially the Europeans.
Prior to considering the possible outcomes of the talks, which are taking place in Vienna, one can observe and enjoy the fine detail and the theatrics of these negotiations. The fact that the US and Iran are “not in the same room,” for example, with the Europeans, Chinese and Russians acting as go-betweens, is quite revealing in terms of expected outcomes.
For the Iranians, the exercise is first and foremost about being able to project to their audience the message that they will not yield to any new US conditions. As proof of this, they can say that they did not even sit in the same room as the Americans and so this was not a negotiation but a process toward a full reinstatement of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). No concessions are being made and this is simply a mechanism to restore the nuclear deal.
This level of attention to detail by the Iranians is, once again, brilliant. The fact that the international community accepts it so readily, is not.
I would much prefer that all regional parties meet and openly discuss all the issues that the region is facing — and, more specifically, confront the Iranians about their behavior. Indeed, such a meeting should include nations from the Greater Middle East, including Arab countries, Turkey and Israel.
The fact that Tehran has the capacity to frame the dialogue and compartmentalize it puts the regime at a clear advantage. One might say, therefore, that on this point the Iranians are correct: The current process is not a negotiation and both parties are already in agreement. Only the process needs to be mapped out and all the rest is simply theatrics.
It is highly doubtful that anything involving Tehran’s missile program or its activities in the region will be a focused negotiation point, beyond being raised by the Americans and denied by the Iranians.
Whether a US return to JCPOA happens in this round of talks or the next, the most important fact is that it is happening. The Iranian regime, the US and the international community, including nations in the Middle East, are all aware of this.
Can we therefore expect changes in the behavior of Iran, including a more constructive approach? Can we expect Tehran to withdraw its illegal and military support to the Houthis? Can we expect it to stop smuggling weapons and cash to Lebanon and Syria? Can we expect it to stop supporting Iraqi militias?
The answer to all these questions is no. Each of these issues comes with its own price and the Iranian regime will want to bargain for them, as part of its successful attempt to compartmentalize the negotiation process.
The view generally put forward in favor of “bis repetitas placent” as it applies to the JCPOA is that a policy of applying maximum pressure on Tehran did not work under the Trump administration and so the international community should return to the existing deal to halt Iran’s nuclear activities.
Yet this is not the correct way to frame the discussion because it ignores Iranian interference in the region. In my view, the day will come when Tehran will want more concessions and so will rebuff and challenge the US and the Europeans once again until they yield to its demands. This day will come sooner rather than later.
Because, in essence, the 2015 JCPOA did not work. The view of the Obama administration at the time was that the nuclear deal would encourage the Iranian regime to transform its behavior in the Middle East. Yet, the opposite happened. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) expanded its activities in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.
Therefore, the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the deal and reinstate sanctions was the correct one because while the Iranians did not break any specific clause, they did something worse: They violated the very spirit of an agreement that was designed to encourage positive steps toward stability in the Middle East.
The Obama administration was right to try something new; unfortunately, the Iranian regime did not respond to it and broke the essence of the agreement before the US did.
One thing we can be sure of is that, despite Western declarations and expectations, this issue will not affect the upcoming Iranian presidential election or domestic politics in the country in general, simply because they are irrelevant and not where real decision-making power in the country lies.
The real power is in the hands of the supreme leader and the IRGC. Everything else, including declarations made during the current meetings in Vienna, is once again simply theatrics for the benefit of domestic and international audiences.
Yet the US administration does have an opportunity to take advantage of the current situation. The regime in Tehran is indeed weaker than it was in 2015 and so Washington could put pressure on the Iranians to halt their disruptive regional activities.
This could be done by reinforcing a regional alliance, and by setting up a positive and solid framework for Iran to integrate with the region. Regardless of the regime that is in power, Iran should be assured of an important role in the future of the region — alongside Arab countries, Turkey and Israel — in return for giving up its terrorist activities.
In the absence of a strong stance from Washington and initiatives designed to benefit its allies, a big change that might be expected in the region is that Iran will start to get a taste of its own medicine through asymmetrical tactics. The recent maritime incidents involving Israel and the strikes on IRGC positions in Syria are a clear indication of this.
In the past two months there have been four attacks on Iranian and Israeli-owned ships. The date of the latest, an attack on an Iranian cargo ship in the Red Sea, was certainly not a coincidence as it took place as the Vienna talks between Iran and the US began. It sent a clear message about how Israel intends to confront Iranian activities from now on, which will lead to greater destabilization.

It is highly doubtful that anything involving Tehran’s missile program or its activities in the region will be a focused negotiation point, beyond being raised by the Americans and denied by the Iranians.

Khaled Abou Zahr

As a result, and as such incidents increase, countries that have been left out of the JCPOA discussions for a second time might be tempted to take matters into their own hands by confronting, or negotiating with, Iran.
Indeed, with the declared intention of the US to disengage from the Middle East, countries in the region might be able to find common ground to reach an understanding with Tehran. China and Russia, with the support of the Europeans, might even suggest solutions to current regional hot spots.
This may not be the preferred option but it might be good enough for all to live with, Israel and Iran included.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view