What is Iran up to these days?

Laura Rozen has an exclusive on alleged Iranian attempts to establish back-channel contacts with non-official Americans ahead of the (hopefully) resumed nuclear negotiations:

Mostafa Dolatyar, a career Iranian diplomat who heads the Iranian think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), which has close ties to Iran’s foreign ministry, was tapped by Iran’s leadership to coordinate contacts with American outside-government policy experts, including those with former senior US officials involved unofficially in relaying ideas for shaping a possible nuclear compromise, the analysts told Al-Monitor in interviews this week. The IPIS channel is for coordinating non-official US contacts, which in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, have formed an important, if not unproblematic, part of Iran’s diplomatic scouting and Washington’s and Tehran’s imperfect efforts to understand and influence each others’ policy positions.

The appointment is the result of a desire “on the Iranian side for a more structured approach to dealing with America,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor in an interview Monday, adding that he now doubts that there are agreed plans for direct US-Iran talks after the elections.

But last week former top CIA South Asia specialist Bruce Reidel warned that Iran is sending signals that it will respond forcefully to attacks:

Iran’s capabilities to inflict substantial damage on the Saudi and other gulf-state oil industries by cyberwarfare are difficult for outsiders to assess. Iran is a relative newcomer; until now, it has been mostly a victim. Iranian and Hizbullah abilities to penetrate Israel’s anti-missile defenses are also hard to estimate. Those defenses are among the best in the world, thanks to years of U.S. military assistance and Israeli ingenuity. So it is hard to know how hard Iran can really strike back if it is attacked. Bluffing and chest-thumping are a big part of the Iranian game plan. But the virus and the drone together sent a signal, don’t underestimate Iran.

Presuming the reports are true, it appears the Iranians are making a show of strength prior to the talks, just as the US has with its relentless sanctions regime. This may be because the Iranians want to put more pressure on their negotiating partners to offer a mutually acceptable settlement, or, as Iran hawks claim, because they are stalling for more time to develop a bomb to unleash against the world. While the latter scenario is certainly flashier, it doesn’t exactly square with the facts.

But progress in the next round of talks is still a possibility, according to the Arms Control Association’s Daryl Kimball. “Whatever happens after the election, the most important thing is that the P5+1 process resumes and that it be a much more dynamic negotiation that is not simply a reiteration of previous well-understood positions,” he said in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran expert and Lobe Log contributor Farideh Farhi meanwhile warns that inflexibility on both sides will impede a peaceful resolution to this decades-long dispute:

The reality is that the current sanctions regime does not constitute a stable situation. First, the instability (and instability is different from regime change as we are sadly learning in Syria) it might beget is a constant force for policy re-evaluation on all sides (other members of the P5+1 included). Second, maintaining sanctions require vigilance while egging on the sanctioned regime to become more risk-taking in trying to get around them. This is a formula for war and it will happen if a real effort at compromise is not made. Inflexibility will beget inflexibility.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.