by Shireen T. Hunter
When Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif showed up at the G7 summit earlier this month and talked with French President Emmanuel Macron, it raised hopes that Macron’s efforts to mediate between Iran and the United States might finally bear fruit.
Zarif said that Iran and France were in agreement on some points, although he added that the “road ahead is difficult.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, for his part, stated that he will do anything that could help Iran’s development, including possibly talking to Trump. However, he and Zarif later had walk back their positions, with Rouhani saying on Tuesday that there can be no talks between the United States and Iran until and unless all U.S. sanctions are lifted. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi added that Iran is only talking with Europe and dismissed any chance of talks with Washington.
This is no surprise, because while Zarif was in Biarritz, Sardar Gholamhossein Gheybparvar, who until very recently was the head of the Basij paramilitary force, said that he hoped that government officials were not rushing to France out of despair and because their knees got weak. Other Iranian commentators also chimed in along similar lines.
In the United States, counteracting President Trump’s relatively softer tone at the G7—he said, for example, that the U.S. does not seek regime change in Iran—National Security Advisor John Bolton warned that a willingness to talk to Tehran does not mean that Washington’s position and demands regarding Iran have changed. In short, no sooner did a small hope for some sort of reduction of tensions between Iran and the U.S. emerge than hardliners both in Tehran and in Washington began to squash it. In all likelihood they will succeed, and nothing will come out of Macron’s efforts.
Pride and Mistrust
Two factors most strongly determine whether any talks would take place and also if any real agreements could be reached. The first is pride. Both Iranian and American national pride is at stake in this matter. Iranian hardliners, although not the majority of the population, think that talking to the U.S. would mean surrender and the beginning of the end for the Islamic Revolution. Thus they want to extract concessions from Washington, notably the lifting of all sanctions. However, the U.S. cannot agree to that a priori, since it would mean Tehran winning the test of wills.
The second factor is mistrust. Iran cannot be confident that if it were to agree to talks, Washington would lift the sanctions. In view of Tehran’s past experiences with the U.S. government going back on its promises—most notably in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which supposedly was to settle the issue of its nuclear program—Iran’s hesitance is understandable.
For its part, the U.S. cannot be certain that if it were to lift the sanctions, Iran would not renege on its promise to talk and, more importantly, to change its behavior. It should be remembered that no sooner had Iran agreed to the JCPOA than it tested a new ballistic missile and then arrested U.S. sailors who had strayed into Iran’s territorial waters.
To overcome this barrier, the United States can lift some sanctions, at least for a period, and Iran can agree to substantive and broad-ranging talks. This is better than Macron’s proposal of freeze for freeze—namely, that the U.S. would issue waivers for some customers of Iranian oil and Tehran would return to full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA.
Sooner or Later Tehran Must Talk to Washington
Pride and mistrust aside, Iran at some point must talk to the U.S. Iran’s experience since the Islamic Revolution and especially after the USSR’s collapse has proven that it cannot circumvent the U.S. in its international relations no matter how it tries. Over the past three decades, U.S. opposition has kept Iran out of pipeline and transportation networks developed in Central Asia and the South Caucasus and prevented the export of its energy reserves to Europe. A similar situation has prevailed in Asia, where U.S. opposition has been the main reason for Pakistan’s unwillingness to complete its part of a pipeline that would have brought Iranian natural gas to the country. This U.S. opposition has enabled Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan to capture potential markets for Iran’s energy.
Iran has tried several strategies, such as the “Looking to the East” plan and now the expansion of relations with neighboring states, to undo the negative consequences of U.S. opposition, but it has not had any success. For example, despite their professions of friendship towards Iran, neither Russia nor China have helped Iran to enter the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Even Pakistan now is a full member. Russia, while ignoring Iran’s grievances on issues such as the division of the Caspian, is now seeking to substantially expand its relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s archrival in the Middle East. Putin is scheduled to visit Riyadh in October. China, which is supposedly Iran’s strategic partner, has not helped Tehran financially. Instead, it has used Iran as a dumping ground for its inferior goods. By contrast, Beijing recently announced that it was giving Turkey a billion dollars in assistance. Beijing is wooing Ankara but not Tehran, because Iran has no viable alternatives.
Meanwhile, Iran’s neighbors are actually either latent enemies or active competitors. They have extracted and will continue to extract advantages from Iran while doing nothing to help it. This is not surprising. When a state limits its options through misguided policies it makes itself vulnerable to external manipulation.
The above means that Iran cannot hope to get out of its current predicament without reaching some compromise with the United States. Hardliners still insist on resistance and believe they can wait out America. Some of them suffer from delusions that the U.S. is on the verge of collapse and that it will soon go the way of the USSR. Even if that were true, it would not happen soon enough to do Iran any good.
Talks Should Include the Levant
To do Iran any good, any talk with Washington should be about the real causes of tension between the two states, and that is Iran’s posture on the Palestinian dispute and Israel. Iran’s support for terrorism means its ties to Hezbollah and Hamas. If Iran wants to limit talks to Persian Gulf security and sanctions, they are unlikely to succeed.
Iran wants to delink Persian Gulf security from the problems of the Levant. But the politics of the two regions have been inextricably linked since the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser first made his foray into the Gulf, followed by Syria, Baathist Iraq, and then Libya. Now that it has close ties with Gulf Arab States, Israel would under no circumstances agree to arrangements that made Iran secure in the Gulf while giving it a free hand in the Levant. Nor would states like Egypt forgo their interests in the future political and security structures of the Gulf.
Hardliners will say that talking to the U.S. on these matters is a betrayal of the Revolution and Islam. But they must remember that continuing on the path of Revolution that has led to the current impasse would be a betrayal of Iran and its people. They must decide what is more important: Iran or a failed revolution.