By Yanis Makhlouf
In the halls of the State Department, the cautious optimism that officials held at the start of the year about Iran has been drying away. Rumors that a deal was near were circulating among the press and Western capitals. The bridges built by the Obama administration and burned by the Trump presidency were not going to be easily restored, and mending those bridges now seems increasingly unlikely. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made matters worse. The US finds itself simultaneously in a proxy war against Russia and has to deal with Moscow as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015 or Vienna Accords in trying to prevent Iran from reaching nuclear status.
Furthermore, Iran’s political scene has shifted since 2015, when moderates led by Hassan Rohani had some sway over the nation’s foreign policy. Of course, presidential candidates are thoroughly vetted by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the highest authority in the Islamic Republic. Presidents are often members of his inner circle, but that does not mean that the regime is a monolithic structure that knows no factionalism. After all, even the Supreme Leader has to balance the interests of various factions. The significant popular support for reformists as a backlash after the presidency of the ultraconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave moderate leaders greater influence over policy-making allowing for the deal in 2015.
These domestic dynamics that jeopardize the deal affect both nations. The 2021 presidential election saw the victory of Ebrahim Raïssi, one of the main leaders of the “Principlists”, a conservative and hawkish faction closely aligned with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It will be much more difficult to negotiate with them than Rohani’s moderates even for a Democratic administration. Meanwhile, the US has not reached a foreign policy consensus on Iran due to stark divisions between Democrats and Republicans. Given Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has credible reasons to believe that a deal with the Biden administration may not last long. Especially with the weak position of the president, whose levels of unpopularity are grim amidst domestic unrest linked to high inflation and poor economic prospects.
At the same time, the current administration desperately hopes to secure a foreign policy success to boost its approval ratings, something that Tehran is very well aware of.
However, regional tensions between Iran and its main rival Saudi Arabia are not as high as a few years ago, giving a glimmer of hope that a compromise is within reach if both sides are willing to make enough concessions. The end of the blockade of Qatar by a number of other Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia in early 2021 after four years of diplomatic crisis helped to cool tensions down. Iran was starkly opposed to this isolation of Qatar. With the restoration of diplomatic relations, one of the numerous issues opposing Iranians and Saudis has been resolved, paving the way for a less hostile dialogue.
For Iran, the stakes are high, as a deal, even temporary, could guarantee them access to much-needed cash through trade. Therefore easing financial transactions. Iran is practically under American embargo. Though the first sanctions can be traced back to the early 1980s, the oil embargo of 1995 is the most significant one for a black gold reliant economy like Iran. The consequences of renewed American economic fury are far-reaching. The US sanctions are deterring European companies from investing in Iran or making transactions to avoid retaliation by the American Treasury Department. The strain on Iran’s finances and inflation accentuated by ongoing sanctions limits the capacity of the government to stabilize national unrest or project power in the Middle East, most notably in Iraq and Syria.
The window of opportunity is short: Democrats are in trouble for the next elections with an unseen level of unpopularity, giving the Republican Party a good chance at retaking the White House in 2024. A Republican administration would most likely scrap any new nuclear deal.
For weeks, US and Iranian officials reported substantial progress in negotiations announcing that an agreement was coming to fruition.
The silence of Washington on the question now translates into an apparent failure on that front.
However, this does not mean the end of diplomatic overtures in the Middle East. Bashar Al-Assad, in his first state visit to an Arab nation since the start of the civil war in 2011, was in Abu Dhabi to discuss with Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Zayed, the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates. One can suppose that the Saudi government, a close ally of the UAE, was likely informed and perhaps even had a role in organising Assad’s visit.
The visit of the Iranian foreign minister to Damascus shows the balancing act Assad is trying to operate between keeping Tehran close while asserting its autonomy by rebuilding ties with other Arab nations.
Similarly, Turkey, after spending years alienating many of its, neighbours seems to be returning to a more conciliatory foreign policy. Though currently focused on its mediating role in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, Erdogan keeps a close eye on what is happening south of Turkey’s borders. Ankara shows signs that it might shift its approach to something closer to its cooperative approach prior to 2011, when it supported the opposition against Assad’s regime at the onset of the Arab Spring.
A deal between the US and Iran could contribute to easing the ongoing cold war between Tehran and Riyad by giving reassurances to the Saudis. There are, on both sides, nations and groups who oppose the realisation of a deal, at least something resembling the deal of 2015. Israel has been a staunch opponent of any deal with Iran due to its support of Hezbollah. The organisation represents one of the main, if not the most significant, security threat to Israel. The Israeli Defence Forces monitor the situation in Lebanon very attentively. Airstrikes are conducted in Syria on a regular basis targeting Iranian assets and personnel given Iran’s alliance with Al-Assad’s regime. On the side of Tehran, the Pasdaran, the very powerful Guardians of the Revolution, a state within the state, have been the artisans of the nation’s regional ambitions. Their generally more hawkish stance does not reconcile well with the reformists’ agenda under whom the deal was signed.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 turned upside down the balance of power in the country in favour of the Shia majority, traditionally oppressed under Saddam Hussein’s regime and provoked a major power vacuum. Iraq, a significant regional power, was transformed into a new battleground for the power struggle between the United States and Iran. In this power struggle and with Bagdad in a position of weakness, the Pasdaran and the US government are direct enemies in Iraq. The US consulate in Erbil was recently targeted by a missile strike under the approval of the Pasdaran’s leadership. The Corps of the Guardians of the Revolution has an interest in a deal that would remove their designation as a terrorist organisation by the US which restricts greatly their financial operations.
However, this seems unlikely as it would be a political landmine for the US government. The prospects of a deal are slowly dying, and the consequence might be a nuclear-armed Iran, a major cause of worry for the stability of the Middle East.