by Daniel Brumberg
When it comes to the clash between the Trump Administration and the Iranian government, three days can seem like a lifetime. This point was displayed by the sequence of events that began with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s August 25 visit to the G-7 meeting in Biarritz, France at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron. After arriving Zarif tweeted that “Iran’s active … pursuit of constructive engagement continues.” Even “if the road ahead is difficult,” he added, “it is worth trying.” Seeking to block Zarif, Iran’s hard-liners accused himi of playing into Trump’s “cunning” hand by sending “a message of weakness and desperation.” Defending his besieged minister, President Hassan Rouhani statedii that “If I knew that attending a … meeting someone would solve the people’s problems, I would not delay.” Rouhani’s statement apparently elicited a positive response from President Donald Trump, who asserted during his August 26 press conference with Macron that “We’re not looking for leadership change …We’re looking for no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles, and a longer period of time. Very simple.”
This negotiating agenda is hardly “simple.” Still, Trump’s remarks pointed to a potentially dramatic shift in his administration’s Iran policy. He not only intimated that he might talk with leaders of a country that, as he put it, has “tremendous potential”; he argued that Iran’s history shows that regime change “doesn’t work.” This implicit rebuke of his hardline foreign policy advisors—particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton—prompted a flurry of speculation about prospects for US-Iran negotiations. Seemingly on cue, the Iranian hardline Javan daily admonished, “Rouhani, photo diplomacy will not develop the country.” In the end, Rouhani insisted that unless the United States lifted sanctions, he would not attend a “photo op.” Thus in 72 hours, hopes for US-Iran talks were raised and then—at least for that particular moment—seemingly dashed.
That spoilers are tossing up roadblocks is nothing new. But what merits emphasis are the increasingly dangerous conditions that undercut what appears to have been a concerted effort by Zarif and Rouhani to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was no coincidence that their effort came on the heels of a “drone war” that threatens to draw Israel, Hezbollah, and Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq into a sustained military conflict. Apart from its calamitous human toll, such a regional war could deal a severe blow to the Rouhani-Zarif effort to sustain a substantive role for diplomacy and dialog in Iran’s domestic politics and regional security policy. With one eye on the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting in September and the other on a fraught domestic and regional situation, Iran’s president and foreign minister are trying to avert a multifaceted disaster that could exact high costs for all the key parties—including the United States.
US officials are aware of these costs. Indeed, the Pentagon’s statement implicitly chiding Israel for its August air attacks in Iraq suggests that the administration must now find a way to contain regional conflicts that its own Iran policy helped to foster. Trump is not keen on pressuring Israel. Still, his electoral chances could suffer a huge hit if conflict between Israel, Hezbollah, and Iran ignites a conflagration that tips the global economy into recession. Thus, Trump would be well served by sticking to his instincts for a “deal.” But this will require backing a genuine compromise rather than trying to force Tehran’s capitulation. Macron tried to pry open a door to talks at the G7, but it remains to be seen if his European allies will renew this effort when they assemble at the United Nations in New York and whether Trump is ready and able to seriously respond to such an initiative.
Rouhani: Between Disgruntled Reformists and Emboldened Hard-liners
Having staked their careers on a policy of engagement and the JCPOA, it is hardly surprising that on the home front, Rouhani and Zarif are waging a last-ditch battle to save that agreement. On this score they face an uphill struggle. They cannot move without the support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who—with the firm backing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—has admonished Rouhani for pursuing a deal that Khamenei predicted from the start would fail. With his wings clipped, Rouhani is trying to maintain credibility within the fractious reformist camp and with the vast urban middle class that helped reelect him in May 2017. Rouhani is a lame duck and cannot run for another term; however, if he fails to sustain some popular support, his own political woes will hamper the efforts of the Reformists to contest the February 2020 parliamentary elections.
The prospects for mustering this support have been severely hampered by Trump’s reimposition of sanctions. The political (as opposed to purely economic) importance of sanctions springs from the pervasive sense of disillusionment and anger they provoked in a populace that had expected their lives to improve with the JCPOA. While the social protests that erupted in 2018 and early 2019 have subsided, this shift does not reflect diminishing discontent; rather, it underscores the basic reality that in a struggling middle class the resources and energy required for political mobilization have been divertedto the daily chore of sustaining economic security and social status.
This fractured social landscape has widened the already large gap between Reformists and their demoralized constituencies, helping to intensify power struggles within the Reformist camp. Seizing the opportunity, in the last few months the hard-liners have won control of high profile positions such as the deputy speaker of the parliament and the chairmanship of the powerful National Security and Foreign Policy Commission (whose new chair, Mojtaba Zonnour, has made cleariii his opposition to negotiations with the United States and his view that the JCPOA was a “mirage”). In the vortex of US-Iranian tensions, the chances for a hard-liner victory in the upcoming elections may be growing. This prospect adds greater urgency to Rouhani and Zarif’s bid to find a diplomatic fix to avoid a regional conflict that might be devolving into a regional war.
Regional Tensions Present Both a Threat and an Opportunity
Rouhani is operating in an increasingly perilous regional context whose fault lines give the IRGC paramount control over foreign and security policy, particularly when it comes to Iran’s military role in the Lebanon/Syria/Iraq theater. Iran’s ability to sustain this role has required striking a complex balancing act. On the one hand, it has sought to deploy and project military power in ways that enhance its ability to deter an Israeli or American attack on Iran or its allies in Lebanon and Syria. On the other hand, Tehran has tried to avoid crossing red lines that might alienate Moscow or, worse yet, provoke a costly war with Israel. Striking this balance also requires a readiness by Israel to avoid violating Iran’s own red lines in Syria and Iraq, as well as Hezbollah’s red lines in Lebanon. This precarious arrangement depends not only on some measure of tactical restraint, but it also hinges on the readiness of Israel (and by default the United States), Iran, and Hezbollah to avoid actions that would dramatically alter the regional balance of military power.
However, over the last few months such strategic forbearance has eroded in ways that have invited the perils of relentless escalation. This shift was partly due to Iran’s deployment of a new generation of military drones in Syria. Israeli officials have claimed that these drones are difficult to neutralize once they are airborne and moving toward their targets. Thus, rather than rely on its anti-missile system or its air force to shoot down the drones, starting in July, Israel took the potentially risky step of targeting the drones at their points of origin in Syria and even Iraq. This decision was not driven merely by technical advances; in a more basic strategic sense, it was fueled by the emergence of a network of pro-Iranian forces in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Many of the fighters who constitute the backbone of this network have been deployed in all three countries, creating a higher level of coordination—and thus threat—for Israel.
This development underscores an apparent paradox: while the Trump Administration’s sanctions may have put the financial squeeze on Hezbollah, its economic war against the Islamic Republic has apparently steeled the resolve of Iranian hard-liners to show the United States and Israel that there will be a high price for what they view as a White House policy of regime change—hence Iran’s increasingly aggressive moves in the Arabian Gulf and in the Lebanese/Syrian theater. Israel’s August 24 attack on pro-Iranian forces in Aqraba, Syria, along with its August 25 attack outside Beirut, may have been intended to draw a new red line. Hezbollah’s relatively limited military response to Israel suggests that despite Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s rhetorical bravado (and his claim that henceforth, “there are no red lines”), he is not only showing tactical restraint; on a more strategic level, Hezbollah is continuing to play a key role in Iran’s strategy of controlled escalation.
That policy presents both opportunities and dangers for Rouhani and Zarif. Tehran’s escalation is predictable but also risky, as it could open the door to a regional war no one wants. It also provides Tehran with critical diplomatic leverage in its bid to achieve two goals: first, to push Europe to forge an effective mechanism for sustaining trade and oil purchases; and second, to send a signal to the White House that the United States will pay dearly if it sustains the “maximum pressure” campaign that, from Tehran’s vantage point, is not meant to further diplomacy but rather to topple Iran’s government. Assuming there are real differences in the White House as to whether the ultimate purpose of sanctions is to push Iran toward negotiations or to provoke regime change, Tehran is gambling that controlled escalation could strengthen the position of those in the Trump Administration who want to talk. Zarif’s August G7 trip and Rouhani’s defense of his foreign minister’s diplomatic push suggest that both leaders hope that advocates of negotiations will prevail over White House hard-liners. Trump’s “no regime change” statement during his press conference with Macron seemed to indicate that Tehran’s game of chicken was producing results.
The UN General Assembly Meeting: One Last Try?
Several observers have argued that Rouhani’s assertion that Tehran will not negotiate unless Washington first drops sanctions amounted to a retreat in the face of hard-liner opposition. In strategic terms, however, his position makes sense: for Tehran, the purpose of negotiations is to trade the elimination of nuclear-related sanctions for concessions on the nuclear issue and, possibly, on other security issues. Such a deal was the basis for Iran’s signing on to the JCPOA in the first place. Having repudiated that agreement and the basic premise that undergirded it, Trump must now finally decide whether he will negotiate seriously. His three-part negotiating agenda (“no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles, and a longer period of time”) may be an opening position, or it may constitute a momentary remark of no real strategic significance. Zarif and Rouhani are surely betting on the former, while hard-liners are betting on the latter. Given the Trump Administration’s policies thus far, the hard-liners’ vocal opposition to any talks is not unreasonable. That they have the supreme leader’s backing—at least for now—gives them additional impetus to stick to their rhetorical and actual guns.
Upcoming elections will play an important role in shaping the positions of Israel, the United States, and Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wagering that Israel’s air attacks in Lebanon and Syria will enhance his chances at reelection. For their part, Iran’s hard-liners are gambling that controlled escalation enhances their electoral prospects in February 2020. By contrast—and as illustrated by the Pentagon’s August 26 statement that implicitly repudiated Israel for its August attack on pro-Iranian forces in Iraq—the Trump Administration has valid strategic and political reasons to dissuade Israel from undertaking actions that could provoke a wider military conflict. Indeed, a war could have unpredictable consequences for Trump’s reelection prospects. These colliding calculations have left Zarif and Rouhani struggling for a diplomatic win. Squeezed from all sides, they need a little help from their jaded friends, and if possible, from some of their adversaries.
In terms of friends, the key players are Russia and the European Union countries. Tehran’s September 1 announcement—that absent a satisfactory agreement on a mechanism to sustain trade, Iran will take further measures that contravene the JCPOA—has complicated European diplomacy. EU leaders are betting that their efforts to produce this mechanism are not only deterring Iran from completely abandoning the nuclear deal, but they are also communicating to the United States that Europe might back Iran if the administration does not move to negotiations. If waving this diplomatic stick has angered US officials, EU leaders do have one possible carrot to offer Washington: a promise to back the White House if and when talks begin. The September 17 UN General Assembly meeting could provide a forum for forging such a US-European understanding. Thus, despite their unhappiness with Trump, it is possible that European leaders will follow up Macron’s G-7 initiative with an effort to engage the White House and Iranian officials, including Rouhani.
No one should minimize the imposing obstacles to diplomacy. Israel has signaled its displeasure over Trump’s apparent opening to talks. Iranian hard-liners are equally determined to thwart such an initiative. (Indeed, the threatening language that Tehran used when it recently imposed sanctions on the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies has created a new stumbling block.) Lastly, there is the question of Trump himself. Rouhani might be right to reject a photo op with a US president whose paramount concern is reelection. But with the region reaching a boiling point and a domestic political arena that has strengthened hard-liners, Rouhani and Zarif might have more to gain than lose by exploring prospects for engaging a US president and administration that could lose resoundingly if the Middle East tumbles into war.