Russia has key role to play in Iran issue

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and delegation (L) with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Moscow, Sept 24, 2020

In what must be one of his sharpest rhetorical outbursts against the Trump administration, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the United States on Saturday of “savagery” for inflicting $150 billion of damage on Iran due to sanctions. 

In televised remarks, his voice shaking with anger, Rouhani said, “With their illegal and inhuman sanctions, and terrorist actions, the Americans have inflicted 150 billion dollars of damage on the people of Iran. We haven’t seen such an extent of savagery … The address for Iranian people’s curses and hatred is the White House.” 

The scathing remark underscores Rouhani’s sense of bitterness as his two-term presidency draws to a close in a few months and there is so little to show by way of a legacy. The reformist leader had it all worked out in his mind that the 2015 nuclear deal with the US would lead to Iran’s integration into the western world, and for the first time allow Iran to gain access to western technology and capital and put the country on the road to prosperity. But fate decided otherwise.

Today, Rouhani surveys ruins all around him. The US cheated on Iran, and deprived it of full benefits out of the nuclear deal. Rouhani’s credibility got dented; the gravity of Iran’s politics has shifted to the conservatives (hardliners), as apparent during the elections to the Majlis (parliament) in February; and no Iranian wants to repose trust in US again.  

The efficacy of the entire reformist agenda that Rouhani espoused is in tatters. Rouhani erred in his political judgment as regards the consistency and reliability of US policy assurances.

Now, on top of the US sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged Iran’s economy. Just when the government thought that the worst was behind it, coronavirus reappeared. The restrictions have been reimposed in Tehran today. The health protocols will be applied in other big cities, too. 

It is in such a dismal backdrop that Tehran awaits the outcome of the US presidential election on November 3. Tehran is pinning hopes on a Joe Biden victory. Biden has prioritised the Iran issue as topping his foreign and security policy agenda. 

To quote the well-known non-proliferation expert Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, Biden’s plan looks deceptively simple: “come back into compliance with the Iran nuclear agreement and related United Nations Security Council resolutions, then work with our allies to build upon them, addressing through diplomacy our other disagreements with Iran.” (here

Of course, this assumes that Iran will overcome the trust deficit and agree to talk with US; other regional powers (US’ regional allies) won’t put spokes in the wheel; domestic opponents aligned with these foreign governments will accept a fait accompli. Indeed, Biden’s window will also be short, since Iran is heading for presidential election on June 18 that could bring a new hardline president to power. 

Herein lies the catch. Biden must act quickly and firmly by taking the first step. The good part is that Biden can count on goodwill from the European allies, Russia and China to make the process a collective effort to create political space for the US and Iran to begin negotiations. 

Iran has a positive approach toward Biden. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told an audience at the Council of Foreign Relations (New York) on September 21, “If others (read Washington) come back in compliance with the JCPOA (2015 nuclear deal), Iran is prepared to come back in compliance.” 

Indeed, Iran is in a position to fairly quickly retrace its steps moving away from the accord — reducing the amount of uranium enriched, exporting the accumulated stockpiles, ceasing operation of advanced centrifuges, etc. 

However, what if Trump gets re-elected? He has boasted that he’ll seal a deal with Iran “within four weeks” if he’s reelected. Sure, Trump has long sought a “real deal” with Iran, as he put it in July, to replace the 2015 accord. But he went about doing it the wrong way through escalating sanctions. 

As things stand, Trump’s maximum pressure approach has exhausted itself and the US finds itself today isolated internationally. The Trump administration’s attempts to reimpose comprehensive pre-2015 UN sanctions on Iran failed miserably. Within the next three weeks, the UN embargo on arms sales to Iran is due to expire. Zarif disclosed last week while on a visit to Moscow that Iran and Russia are discussing arms deals. 

Iran’s deterrent capability against US military threat is only going to increase. Meanwhile, Iran is also negotiating long-term economic pacts with China and Russia in a calibrated strategy of Eurasian integration. 

Clearly, Trump cannot hope to address the Iran Question without a complete rethink of the maximum pressure approach. He also needs to get rid of his present foreign policy team — especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo whom Iran is highly unlikely to engage. 

The noted Iran expert at the Atlantic Council Barbara Slavin has Helpfully outlined a road map for Trump. She has written, “In case he (Trump) is truly interested in a new agreement with Iran, he will need to offer concrete economic incentives in return for realistic objectives.” 

But Slavin is not overly hopeful about Iran’s willingness to negotiate or Trump’s readiness to accede to the Iranian condition that US should first return to the JCPOA. Instead, Slavin suggests a creative approach: the US should call upon the European allies and Russia and China to sponsor a regional process under the UN auspices involving Iran and other Gulf states, focusing on the nuclear issue and incrementally expanding the agenda to include other regional issues, including even Israel at some point! 

Interestingly, this echoes a Russian proposal already on the table at the UN, which China also supports. This appears to be a realistic approach, as Iran’s leadership does have a serious issue with Trump personally. Last week, the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps General Hossein Salami revisited the topic of the killing of the former chief of Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani. 

He said, directly addressing Trump: “Our revenge for the martyrdom of our great general is certain. It is serious. It is real. We will hit those who were directly or indirectly involved in the martyrdom of this great man.” Importantly, Gen. Salami only repeated Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s promise of “harsh revenge”. 

Suffice to say, it is hard to see how Tehran will ever engage with Trump directly. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani was a horrific mistake and he must live with its consequences. 

What Trump can do is to ease the sanctions against Iran, and ultimately return the US to the JCPOA, which is what Tehran has demanded, while letting the European allies, Russia and China to spearhead a regional process on the nuclear issue and on the situation around Iran generally. 

Trump has discussed Iran more than once in his phone conversations with President Vladimir Putin. To be sure, Iran envisages a key role for Russia too. Zarif visited Moscow thrice since June. Following Zarif’s last visit on September 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has expressed strong support for Iran on the nuclear issue.