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Some Voices in Iran Imagine a Different Foreign Policy

A former top Iranian official calls on Tehran to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement, and revitalize relations with the United States and the West

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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UAE officials make rare visit to Tehran this week.
UAE officials make rare visit to Tehran this week.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/רויטרס
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“We can’t demand the United States remove the sanctions and at the same time refuse to negotiate with it directly. Iran must define the general sphere of the negotiations and run it on the basis of its national interests. But it’s wrong to think we must always be under pressure for our lives. We cannot continue this lifestyle forever,” said Mustafa Alaii in an interview with the Iranian Etemad site.

Alaii isn’t an Iranian opposition member living in exile. He served in senior positions in the foreign ministry, as a representative in the UN Council for Human Rights and as an ambassador in Venezuela.

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In a long interview to Etemad, a reform newspaper, Alaii called on the Iranian regime to display more flexibility and to understand its international status. “In foreign policy you have to know the real threats,” he said. “Not hypothetical or imaginary threats.”

He did not elaborate, nor was he asked if he classifies the Israeli or American threat as “imaginary.” Instead, he explained that Iran cannot establish its foreign policy via force and threats: “Nobody can argue that we’re strong only due to our deterring military force and a strong army...if this assumption was correct, North Korea would have a stronger foreign policy than its neighbors."

The interview with him was published days before world power's revived nuclear talks in Vienna on Thursday and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s visited the United States, advancing speculations on military cooperation between Israel and the U.S.

Negotiators aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna, Thursday.Credit: HANDOUT - AFP

Much like in Israel, people in Iran are wondering if talk of a military option is part of the negotiations or if there’s a practical intention behind them. Should Tehran rely on President Joe Biden sticking to the diplomatic course and his objection to a military move, as he has declared in the past, or should it fear Israel’s initiatives?

If, according to Iran’s version of things, the United States cannot be counted on not to lift the sanctions or not to break the agreement in the future, maybe Biden’s declarations cannot be trusted either. And perhaps Israel, which was excluded from the talks, is again calling the shots in the American administration’s decisions? And who determines the American position anyway, is it William Burns, the CIA head who said this week there’s no proof Iran has decided to turn its nuclear plan into a military one? Or Israel, which portrays Iran’s nuclear activity as proof of its decision, not merely its intent, to realize a military plan?

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said this week that the Iranian delegation was going to Vienna to conduct a fast, serious negotiation. But in Thursday's meeting, his deputy, head of the Iranian delegation Ali Bakri Kani, said Tehran was sticking to the positions it submitted in the previous meeting last week, which had ended with no results.

The delegation submitted two drafts of its demands, one about lifting the sanctions and the other regarding a return to the 2015 agreement and walking back the nuclear program to where it was before the United States and later Iran itself broke the agreement. Tehran claims the drafts are fully based on the nuclear agreement, while the Western states say they totally ignore the agreements obtained in the previous six rounds of talks, between April and June this year.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrives at the Coburg Palais, the venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting, in Vienna this week. Credit: VLADIMIR SIMICEK - AFP

The jumble of contradictory statements in the West and in Israel drowns out the voices of Iranian commentators and officials who might influence the regime’s decisions. Alaii’s statements are directed at the regime and reflect the opinions of many officials, who may not express them in public but have access to and contact with the leadership.

So Alaii’s position is interesting not only regarding the nuclear agreement, but also regarding the West. He believes there are historic moments in which a state decides to establish friendly relations with another or others on the basis of an immediate interest.

“At this time we must develop our relations with Russia. But historically, we must remember that Russia has taken advantage of more than one opportunity to weaken Iran...for hundreds of years and until after World War II, Russia displayed hostility toward Iran,” he said.

He spoke of decades in history when Russia had occupied parts of Iran and refrained from mentioning its taking control of Syria at Iran’s expense – but anti-Russian sentiment has been expressed several times in critical Iranian writing.

Alaii doesn’t exonerate the United States of its “crimes”—especially its embracing the Shah and toppling Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. But overall, he sums up, Russia has done more damage to Iran than the United States.

Alaii sees in the relations with the West in general and with the United States in particular a vital need to realize Iran’s interests.

“These days we hear in various places and occasions statements that we don’t need the West at all, and that we don’t need global international relations ... [it’s enough] to maintain relations with our neighbors in Asia and implement our demands that way,” he said.

Former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi bump elbows during the signing ceremony of a 25-year cooperation agreement, in Tehran, Iran, in March.Credit: Majid Asgaripour / WANA NEWS AGE

“These thoughts are very mistaken. The power balance in the region and the regional relationships in general are a function of international relations. We can’t have good relations with our neighbors without solving our relations in the international arena.”

Alaii’s words are aimed against senior Iranian officials who say good relations with China and states in Central Asia function as a substitute to relations with the West, or that the strategic agreement signed with China guarantees the extraction of Iran from its economic crisis. He says the relations being forged with the UAE – which sent its security advisor for a first official visit in Tehran this week – and the talks in Iraq between the Saudi envoys and senior Iranian officials, cannot provide a way out of the crisis without an agreement or cooperation with the West.

'We shouldn’t have enabled the development of Iranophobia'

This approach is shared by Majid Reza Hariri, head of the joint Iranian Chinese trade chamber. Hariri spoke in an interview to the Ilana site, which represents the Iranian workers’ unions, about the fear of complete reliance on China.

“The sanctions have a considerable influence on the trade relations between Iran and China. Under the sanctions regime we’re in a weakened status when it comes to trade negotiations with China,” Hariri said.

“Also, many Chinese and international companies don’t work with us easily because of sanction considerations. We certainly have a problem to raise investments from China and develop joint projects. Chinese companies trade to the extent of more than $2.4 billion around the world and China buys for the same amount. It’s self-evident that such companies won’t want to take the risk...they must show that they’re not cooperating with Iran to avoid being subject to sanctions themselves.”

Hariri said that until eight years ago Iran had been China’s greatest trade partner in the Middle East. Now it’s only fifth – after losing the lead to states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “Our status is weakening daily ... because when we’re absent from the international trade energy arena, our competitors in the Persian Gulf’s southern region take our place, and when they sell more oil to China they’re obliged to buy more merchandise from it.”

The head of the joint trade chamber isn’t the only one who understands the danger of dependence on China. He may know better than anyone how China treats the nuclear talks and to what extent the Iranian regime understands, or refuses to understand, the price of this dependence. When Hariri talks with the state’s major media outlets, he is trying to persuade the leadership – even at the risk of contradicting the official line that Iran can continue to implement the “resistance economy.” In other words, tightening the belt even more, cutting subsidies and other recession measures.

Hariri knows all about the diminishing trade scope with China and Tehran’s dependence on the relationship between Beijing and Washington. At this stage Biden is trying to persuade China to pressure Iran to speed up the negotiations. But if he decides to switch from a request to a demand, and add to it the threat of sanctions, Iran will have no guarantee that China won’t sacrifice it for its relations with the United States.

Iran, which is selling China about half a million oil barrels a day, will struggle to maintain its economy and public services without this income.

Meanwhile, the Iranian media is summing up President Ebrahim Raisi’s first 100 days in power, which are marked by weakness, indecision, an inexperienced and uninformed economic consulting team and unfulfilled promises.

In view of all these, removing the sanctions is seen as a cure for all Iran’s economic and political woes. This is the basis for the assumption that Iran will have no choice but to return to the nuclear agreement and that the difficulties, the delays, the false bravado and the threats are part of the negotiations – rather than a strategy to play for time in order to upgrade the nuclear program. At the same time, Alaii suggests not making do with a return to the nuclear agreement but rather examining why Iran was in a position that forced it to sign the deal to begin with.

His answer is that Iran adopted a policy that generated the “Iranophobia” sentiment and thus damaged its ability to run an effective foreign policy. “We shouldn’t have enabled the development of Iranophobia to such a level that forced us into such negotiations,” he said. “Even if all the sides return to the nuclear agreement it won’t solve our problems with the West and with the world.”

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