The US and Iran: From Brinkmanship to Negotiations?

In his far-ranging February 21 interview with Iran’s Press TV, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated a bottom line: that Iran would step away from the “Additional Protocol” that allows for spot inspections of its nuclear facilities, unless the United States removes the sanctions that the Trump White House imposed after it withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. “All sanctions must be removed,” Zarif declared, and “the United States must gain reentry to the JCPOA … The US is addicted to sanctions, bullying, and pressure … with Iran pressure does not work.” Zarif’s hard-line was preceded by the Majlis, or parliament, which in December 2020 passed an “action” law mandating that the government prevent the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from entering Iran’s nuclear facilities unless the United States agrees to Iran’s demands. That law went into effect Tuesday, February 23.

It is thus important to ask if things are moving toward escalation. While the prospects for a diplomatic meltdown remain real, the chances are good that the United States and Iran will reach a temporary compromise, one that allows both to step back from the brink. President Joe Biden has already agreed to an invitation from the European Union (EU) to hold talks with Iran. Zarif did not dismiss the possibility of joining those talks in his Press TV remarks, even as he held to a hard line. The fact is that both he and his boss, President Hassan Rouhani, are eager for an agreement, even if they must project the opposite impression. Their challenge is to get a deal that will deflect pressures from powerful domestic groups that have long opposed the JCPOA and would not lament its collapse.

Biden faces a similar challenge, but he has the keen support of European leaders and even qualified backing from Russia and China. However, he has no “supreme leader” looking over his shoulder. Most importantly, Biden, Rouhani, and Zarif surely know that collapse of the diplomatic process could put the United States and Iran on a dangerous path. But with Iran’s hard-liners now pushing to undermine Rouhani, it will take a major dose of diplomatic maneuvering to keep the door open to negotiations.

Biden, Rouhani, and Zarif surely know that collapse of the diplomatic process could put the United States and Iran on a dangerous path.

Clashing (and Coinciding) Views in Israel and the United States

Israel and its supporters in the US Congress reject the proposition that there is no good alternative to quickly renewing diplomacy. Indeed, Israel has launched a diplomatic campaign to explain to the world—and to the Biden Administration in particular—why talking to Iran now is a terrible idea. Israeli government and security officials acknowledge that Tehran has bolstered its negotiating leverage by increasing enrichment to 20 percent and taking other measures, such as producing uranium ore. But they insist that Washington has the far greater edge. Rather than negotiate away its leverage by promising to remove sanctions in return for Iran’s promise to return to compliance, Israel’s leaders hold that the Biden Administration should declare that it will remove or reduce sanctions, but only as part of a new deal that will also address issues beyond the nuclear file, the most important of which is Iran’s ballistic missile system.

In early February, 120 Republican members of Congress signed a letter reiterating this basic argument. That 150 Democrats signed another letter endorsing a return to the JCPOA underscored the pressures on Biden. He cannot ignore the domestic arena, nor can he dismiss out of hand the argument against rushing to talks, which seems logical and compelling to Israel’s government and its friends at home and abroad. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, has made the point directly: “We will not be able to be part of such a process if the new administration returns to that deal.”

No degree of cajoling from the Israeli government or from Congress will change the perception that the possible benefits of diplomacy with Iran would outweigh the very probable costs of war.

Still, the case against returning to the JCPOA has two huge flaws. First, it was the Trump Administration that unilaterally, and without cause, walked away from the JCPOA. Thus Tehran’s argument that Washington must take the first step by removing sanctions is legally sound. Second, it is extremely unlikely that Tehran will capitulate to any US ultimatum. Indeed, successive Republican and Democratic administrations, beginning with that of George W. Bush, have all rejected this hard-line position for one basic reason: putting a gun to Tehran’s head could leave the United States with no choice but to pull the trigger, thus sparking a prolonged military conflict that would cost the United States and its regional allies dearly.

This is the Biden Administration’s bottom line. No degree of cajoling from the Israeli government or from Congress will change the perception—long shared in the US defense establishment—that the possible benefits of diplomacy with Iran would outweigh the very probable costs of war.

Iran’s Internal Diplomacy

It is worth noting that while he took a tough line during his interview with Press TV, Zarif insisted that Iran is not issuing an ultimatum. The promise that Tehran can start blocking inspectors on February 23, he argued, was not made by the foreign ministry but rather by the Majlis. It is, he insisted, “a domestic” matter between the Iranian government and the elected assembly that was expressing its position and exercising its authority.

While this explanation is not very compelling, it is nevertheless politically telling. It is possible that some of the Members of Parliament who favored the Majlis’s December “action” law believed that it would strengthen Tehran’s negotiating hand. But it is equally (if not more) likely that hard-liner MPs hoped to sabotage talks. President Hassan Rouhani himself stated at the time that he opposed the Majlis law because he “considers it harmful to the trend of diplomatic activities,” a statement that highlighted the complex domestic diplomacy that is shaping Iran’s external diplomacy.

Of course, Tehran could be just playing “good cop, bad cop,” as many of Iran’s foes argue. But it is far more probable that what is now unfolding is an effort by Zarif, Rouhani, and their allies to score a diplomatic victory before the June 2021 presidential elections. A total collapse of the JCPOA would be the icing on the cake for Iran’s hard-liners. If they take the presidency in June, a new president might join forces with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Majlis to impose measures that would do lasting harm to a weakened reformist camp. Moreover, with the supreme leader succession struggle looming in the not too distant future, the stakes for all of the contending forces will grow. Iran’s internal diplomacy is therefore serious business.

Some of this diplomacy can be gleaned from the battle of statements that have been emanating from Tehran over the last few weeks. Zarif’s Press TV interview was just one example of this battle, but there are many more. For example, on February 9, Iran’s Intelligence Minister Seyyed Mahmoud Alavi suggested that Iran might consider developing nuclear weapons. “The Islamic Republic sees them as religiously forbidden and does not pursue them,” Alavi stated. “But a cornered cat may behave differently … And if they push Iran in that direction, then it’s no longer Iran’s fault.” Beyond provoking concern in Washington, Israel, the Gulf countries, and Europe, by design or default, Alavi’s threat undercut Zarif and Rouhani.

Perhaps seeking to limit the damage, Rouhani asserted on February 17 in a televised cabinet meeting that “If Americans take one step, we will take one step.” He added, “If the Americans take all the steps at once, we will take all the steps at once. If they want to do it gradually, fine. If they want a group of actions, fine. If they want nothing, again fine.” Iran’s threat to suspend voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol would not result in the expulsion of any IAEA inspectors, he also said. Moreover, Rouhani added, any suggestion that Iran’s actions were designed to advance a nuclear weapons program is “totally incorrect.” Anticipating this point, the foreign ministry’s spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh insisted that Iran remained committed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, thus implying that the planned inspections required by this agreement would continue, even if the surprise or “snap” inspections mandated by the Additional Protocol would be suspended.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will have the ultimate last word on this domestic dance of competing (and confusing) statements.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will have the ultimate last word on this domestic dance of competing (and confusing) statements. Marking the anniversary of Iran’s revolution, he declared that “The side that has the right to set conditions on JCPOA’s continuation is Iran because Iran fulfilled all its commitments from the beginning. If they want Iran to return to its JCPOA commitments, the US must completely lift all sanctions … They must revoke the sanctions in action and we will verify it.” Zarif has scrupulously adhered to this position, as he made clear in his February 21 interview.

Iran’s External Diplomacy          

While Khamenei has not budged from his bottom line, he has thus far said nothing that would suggest that Iran will oppose the talks that the EU has proposed—and that Biden has said he welcomed. To reject these discussions out of hand would probably not be Iran’s smartest move. After all, the supreme leader must consider the consequences of slamming the door shut to any talks. Now that the Biden Administration is engaged in a major bid to restore the US-western alliance, Tehran could burn its last few bridges to Europe if it shows no flexibility. Iranian leaders also have reason to worry about the position of Russia and China. With the Biden White House promising a harder position on both countries, Moscow and Beijing might be ready to do a little horse trading with Washington by signaling their readiness to nudge Tehran.

It was perhaps with such concerns on his mind that Majlis Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf recently traveled to Moscow with a letter from the supreme leader that, he declared, opens “a new era” in Russian-Iranian relations. Whether Ghalibaf got the support he was seeking is unclear. But Leonid Ivashov, a former general and vice president of the Academy on Geopolitical Affairs, told the Iranian News Agency on February 21 that “the decision-making structure of the US does not let the sanctions be removed all at once and Iran should accept this fact.” Thus, he called for Tehran and Washington to make “simultaneous moves to revive the deal.”

As for China, it also appears to be hedging its bets. The spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that while China called for the “unconditional” return of the United States to the JCPOA, “Iran should resume full compliance with the JCPOA. In the meantime, we call on all sides to … avoid taking actions that will escalate the situation and reserve space for diplomatic efforts.”

Arab Gulf Critics Wonder What’s Next

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia share Israel’s worry that the Biden Administration will give away its leverage and get little in return. But as Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla put it, the Gulf states’ primary concern is that Biden will “just hurry the process and ignore everybody else.” They are grateful that French President Emmanuel Macron has called for giving the Gulf states some role in the negotiations. But how this is to be achieved, given Iran’s clear rejection of any such arrangement, is anyone’s guess. For example, Abdulla argues that the Gulf states have to come up with their own strategy: “You just can’t guarantee what Washington does, and in any case, these are our issues.” Therefore he argues, “Iran wants this dialogue, and we have to be the ones to at least lay down its agenda.”

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia share Israel’s worry that the Biden Administration will give away its leverage and get little in return.

This proposal will probably have few, if any, takers in Saudi Arabia. The very proposition that Gulf states can or should reach out to credible interlocuters in the Iranian regime, writes Arab News columnist Khaled Abou Zahr, is untenable because there really is no difference between Iranian “moderates” and “hard-liners.” Iran’s leaders are all dangerous and any engagement would only strengthen them. Yet while noting that the “regime change concept is no longer valid,” Zahr offers no clear ideas as to how to move forward, other than by proposing a “grand bargain” to preserve “every party’s interests.” This tautological stand underscores the limited options available to Saudi Arabia, whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman—as the White House spokesperson recently telegraphed—has no friends in the Biden White House.

Indeed, despite their misgivings about Biden’s Iran policy, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE will probably not risk a head-on collision with the new president. Even Israel might step back from this particular diplomatic brink when and if Iran and the United States signal that they are finding or creating common ground, no matter how potholed that path may be.

Temporary Agreement Rejected

With a new week dawning and the possibility of a major crisis, the IAEA and Iran struck a deal that would have allowed the former to continue regular inspections without spot checks. “There is less access, let’s face it,” IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi noted. “But still we were able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work.” This agreement could have given Iranian, American, and European leaders room to forge a less fraught road forward. It also could have helped Rouhani and Zarif, who have been trying to dig themselves out of the hole that hard-line MPs dug when they passed their “action” law. But then the agreement collapsed when the Iranian Majlis again intervened to scuttle the deal, calling it “illegal,” and to call for the punishment of President Rouhani in the courts.

Clearly the battle over foreign policy is a contest over the political direction Iran will take. Thus we can expect Rouhani and Zarif to push back against the hard-liners’ efforts to scuttle talks. Indeed, the Iranian president stated that “This government is a government of prudence and hope… and it proved its prudence here. It enforced the [Majlis[ law and did not budge an inch regarding the law.” He also cautioned everyone that Iran should remain committed to the IAEA, saying that “breaking the agreement with the agency is playing on the enemy’s ground.”

This domestic struggle will surely continue to produce moments of uncertainty and dramatic brinkmanship.  But the inescapable reality is that failure could invite worse outcomes for the United States and Iran. In the coming weeks, the diplomatic focus will turn to European leaders. They have their own differences, as Macron’s call for involving Gulf states in the negotiations attests—a position Tehran has of course rejected. As for Biden and his Iran team, their challenge will be to find a smart way to signal that the US is ready for a reasonable compromise. When it comes to US-Iranian relations, that itself would represent progress.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here