Nuclear Talks Await Iran's New President to Take the Helm, as Do Tehran-backed Iraqi Militias

It seems as if Iran will return to negotiations in Vienna on its nuclear program, but armed Shi'ite groups in Iraq could threaten any potential agreement by launching anti-American attacks

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Iran's new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, June 21, 2021
Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi during a news conference in Tehran, in June. The Iranian goal is not to hand Washington any achievement beyond what was in the initial nuclear accord.Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Negotiations with Tehran cannot and will not go on indefinitely,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Thursday after a meeting with his Kuwaiti counterpart Ahmed Nasser Al-Sabah.

“Indefinitely” is a vague term, but the working assumption is that following the inauguration of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s president on August 5, the seventh round of talks regarding the country's nuclear agreement with the major world powers will get underway. The hints scattered by the Iranians say that their new team will return to negotiations in Vienna and that Tehran is sticking with the process it launched in April.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei specifically noted the U.S. demand to add to a clause the agreement that would ensure additional talks on Iran’s missile project, and the American refusal to grant Tehran guarantees that it will not back out of the new accord that will be signed, as the two bones of contention that remain between the parties. Mention of these two points could mean that all the other issues – such as how long the agreement will be valid, monitoring methods, lifting of sanctions and the return of Iran to the status that prevailed before the original nuclear agreement of 2019 – have already been resolved.

The Iranian goal is not to hand Washington any achievement beyond what was in that initial agreement. Iran considers willingness to negotiate over the missile issue a concession that compromises Tehran’s sovereignty, its national security and the foundations of the original accord, which was meant only to address the nuclear issue and nothing else.

At a meeting between Khamenei and the government of outgoing President Hassan Rohani toward the end of the latter’s term, Khamenei expressed the hope that the incoming government would learn from the mistakes of Rohani’s administration – the worst being the faith it had put in the U.S. administration and the West in general.

Iran-backed militia fighters march in central Baghdad, in June.Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP

The lesson to be learned, Khamenei explained, was that Iran must not trust any negotiations with the United States, which only wants to hurt Iran. It’s difficult to determine from the supreme leader's statements whether he meant the current nuclear negotiations or any future ones. But the fact that he is permitting the talks to proceed and the backing he gives them could signal his intention to come to terms with them and to reach an agreement.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden continues to show patience and to wait for the target date. Secretary Blinken says the United States does not want to escalate the tense situation with Iran, when over the past few days and months enough reasons have accumulated for that to happen. The recent attacks by the Shi’ite militias in Iraq against American targets could provide a sufficient reason for a U.S. response, but Washington prefers to treat these assaults as an Iraqi matter and as having nothing to do with the nuclear agreement. The concern is that an additional, harsh military response against those militias, although the United States is already acting against them, could entangle it not only with the Iraqi government but with Iran.

Iran’s statement that the attack on Friday on a ship operated by Zodiac Maritime, owned by Israeli magnate Eyal Ofer, was a response to Israel’s assaults in Syria, makes clear to the United States that even action against Iran’s proxies, whether in Syria or Iraq, constitutes an attack on Iran. The result at the moment is that the situation in the Iraqi and Iranian arenas demands that the United States tread carefully in this minefield, when nuclear talks could become a hostage to U.S. policy in Iraq.

Iran, which is now working hard to ensure the victory of its supporters in Iraq in elections slated for October, finds itself in a no-less-problematic trap. If it allows the Shi’ite militias to continue acting against American targets in a manner that forces Washington to respond, this could increase anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq, where such feelings have already surfaced in protests over cuts in the water and electricity that Iran provides to Iraq.

In any case, the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias are split among themselves: Some see the Hezbollah leader in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, as a source of authority; while others obey the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander, Esmail Qaani; and still others heed local commanders and politicians. Tehran, which has significantly reduced the extent of its monetary assistance to “its” militias in Iraq, wants to ensure that any Iraqi government that comes into being after the elections will continue to fund and back the militias that receive a generous allocation of some $1 billion a year.

At the same time, Iran wants to see to it that the new government will stick to the agreements signed this month between the Iraqi government and the United States, by which all the American troops will leave Iraqi soil by the end of this year. Violent clashes between the militias and the U.S. military could disrupt Iran’s calculations and turn Iraq into a battlefield right when it needs quiet – at least until October.

Iran's problem is that the militias loyal to it have developed into quite an independent entity that must now see to its own economic survival. Common wisdom says that this process stemmed from the assassination in January of former Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. He was succeeded by Qaani, whom they don’t consider an authoritative figure that can compel them to follow Iranian dictates. But this interpretation ignores developments within Iraq and especially the domestic political struggles that impact the status of the pro-Iranian militias. It cannot be known whether even a charismatic leader like Soleimani would not have encountered similar difficulties now.

The international agreement, if and when it is signed in Vienna, might spell the end of the nuclear chapter of the West versus Iran, but then the whole Iraqi arena could open up with all its might.

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