The much-tweeted dismissal of John Bolton has inspired a wave of optimism worldwide among Iran watchers: It even brought oil prices down by 21 cents a barrel. Negotiations between the U.S. and Iran haven’t begun yet, but some are already laying bets that the removal of the main obstacle blocking contact between Washington and Tehran is a promising start.
America will make concessions and ease the sanctions, which would mean Iranian oil coming back to the market, these gamblers assess. Remarks by Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s adviser Abbas Araghchi, who said that the U.S. had been demonstrating some flexibility over the oil issue after the G-7 summit, probably comfort their view.
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But Iran is not in a rush, and sticks to its guns: It will renegotiate only after sanctions are lifted. But now this fundamental condition has become a negotiating position. “If meeting with an official American [representative] leads to Iran’s development, we won’t reject it,” Rohani himself said after the G-7. A week later, he told the Iranian parliament that “there had been calls for talks but we never answered them.”
Some in Iran are asking for more clarity from their leadership, like Alaa a-Din Borojardi, a senior parliamentarian and member of Iran’s National Security Council. Rohani’s opaque statements “do not serve Iran,” Borojardi told the Mehr news agency, adding: “We will never negotiate with the United States.”
Iran has as yet to reveal any sign of optimism at the ouster of Bolton. For now, his dismissal is treated as an internal American matter, on which Iran doesn’t comment, the foreign ministry said.
But let’s not be fooled by Iranian nonchalance. Indirect contacts through France, Oman and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, are all taking place.
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Last week, Rohani said that Iran will adhere to its policy of reducing its commitment to the nuclear agreement “as needed,” but has yet to confirm what the next stage might entail, and at what date. The “need” is apparently determined by gestures, or concessions, offered by the Americans. Firing Bolton and Mike Pompeo’s renewed statement that the United States is willing to negotiate without preconditions aren’t enough to bring Iran to the table. But it could advance discussions on what conditions are necessary.
Iran’s strategy is “escalation in hindsight” – retreating from the nuclear agreement in stages. Rather than an actual plan to develop nuclear arms, it is designed to persuade the European Union and United States to stick to the nuclear agreement. It could still lead Iran to the point of no return, where it will be considered again an immediate threat that requires tough action, economic or military. Iran can no longer assume that the United States will continue to avoid military confrontation. On the other hand, if it stops the process of reducing its commitments without scoring any gains, it will lose the only leverage it has left.
Trump has the same dilemma. He’s trapped in a policy of maximal pressure that he himself imposed on Iran. Any retreat from it without gains would be interpreted as weakness, casting a shadow on America’s status worldwide. With upcoming elections in both Iran and the U.S., domestic repercussions could also be huge.
The timetable is particularly critical for the Iranians because Rohani’s second term is up and he is constitutionally barred from running for a third. If Trump wants to negotiate with Iran, he’d better do so while Rohani is in power because despite the barbs of his rivals, he’s still backed by Khamenei, and has proven his ability to negotiate the numerous landmines in his path.
Iran can assume that if Trump loses the election, the next American president would be easier to deal with (or at least more rational than Trump), even though there is uncertainty as to its ability to cover its costs until political change occurs.
So far, the sanctions have not created the dynamic for civilian revolt that the U.S. administration had expected. Bolton had advocated for removing the Iranian regime, but its coffers are still sufficiently full to continue to also finance its operations beyond the country’s borders.
The U.S. cannot expect that the next American president and perhaps the next supreme leader, if Khamenei disappears in the next two years, will be more moderate and easier to talk with.
Washington-Tehran, and everywhere in between
Negotiations between the two powers could have dramatic implications for the entire Middle East.
Israel sees itself as the primary victim of any U.S.-Iran reconciliation, which could lead to the collapse of Israel’s hawkish Iran policy and limit its military activity against Iran in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
But the impact on the Arab coalition – led by Saudi Arabia – would also be huge. The cracks in the alliance are already becoming apparent as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spar over continued fighting in Yemen.
The UAE’s partial withdrawal from the hostilities, its support for the southern Yemeni separatist militia, and the development of commercial ties with Iran made it clear to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as to Trump, that the concept of a coalition and the effort to halt Iranian influence in the Middle East are evaporating.
The UAE’s concern that its territory could be hit by Yemeni Houthi rebels is overshadowed by the prospect of being caught in the line of fire between the U.S. and Iran. Trade between Iran and the UAE is also a major consideration, as, despite sanctions, it is still worth $12 billion. And then there’s the UAE’s need to attract new investors to revive its collapsing real estate sector.
Another element tipping the balance is the UAE’s hope to distance itself from the alliance with Saudi Arabia, which, since Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, is particularly tainted in the eyes of the U.S. Congress.
In the difficult choice between continued cooperation with Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen on the one hand, and its international and economic standing on the other, along with domestic pressure to bring the troops home, the latter option has started to win out.
Saudi Arabia now needs to decide whether to accede to the American demand to enter direct negotiations with the Houthis and end the war, or to act alone. The pressure that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been exerting on Crown Prince Mohammed to find a diplomatic solution is being interpreted in Saudi Arabia as another American step designed to the pave the way for talks with Iran.
A game of influence
Saudi Arabia is particularly entitled to draw this conclusion after Trump blurred, if not outright eliminated, nine of the 12 demands that he originally made of the Iranians. This includes non-intervention in foreign countries as a condition to rejoining the nuclear agreement. The combined set of tools that the U.S. and the Saudis developed against Iran was based on the calculation that anyone who supports Iran is against Washington – pushing Arab countries to enlist in the coalition.
But if this prospect collapses, relations could cool between Washington and Riyadh. A split would naturally serve Iran’s interests and the prospect itself could push the Persian powerhouse toward negotiations.
Relations between the U.S. and the Middle Eastern powers are not binary. Riyadh has a large measure of influence in other Arab and Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as India. The Trump administration, which has so far demonstrated little diplomatic skill, will need to tread carefully to head off a crisis in its relations with Saudi Arabia over Iran.
Washington also needs to convince Iran to enter talks on a focused, limited agreement that will not threaten Tehran’s sphere of influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
As for Israel, it will likely not feature significantly in the delicate fabric that Washington now needs to weave. Trump looks determined to engage the enemy in talks and devise a direct agreement, like the one he pursued with North Korea and the Taliban.
Israel will be forced to take the bait and adopt a strategy of restraint to safeguard relations with Trump. It must not appear to be a military arm of the U.S., but most importantly, it cannot scuttle what Trump views as the pinnacle of his art of the deal.