Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi needs to exhibit flexibility and realise that prolonging negotiations will not benefit anyone, especially the Iranian people who have suffered on account of US sanctions and Covid-19.
The Mercer Street, an oil tanker, was attacked on 29 July off the coast of Oman. The tanker, which is owned by a Japanese company, is run by a London-based company, Zodiac Maritime, which is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. Two crew members, a Briton and a Romanian, died in the attack.
Israel’s Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, described the attack as an example of ‘Iranian terror’ and the Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, said that Israel would not refrain from responding to it.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hinted at retaliatory action. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab commented on the attack saying, ‘Iran must end such attacks, and vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law.’
Timing of the Attack and Possible Impact on Vienna Negotiations
The attack occurred exactly a week before the swearing in of Ebrahim Raisi as President of Iran on 5 August. On 4 August, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, formally marked Raisi as president in a ceremony attended mostly by Iranian officials.
The US and Europe are worried that the new Iranian President, a hardliner who took an anti-West position during the presidential campaign, will be a far tougher negotiator than his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. Raisi, on whom the US had previously imposed sanctions, has already said that he will not meet US President Joe Biden. Significantly, Raisi did speak with French President Emmanuel Macron on 9 August, his first conversation with a Western leader.
The new Iranian President has said that he is not opposed to the Iran Nuclear Deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but has unequivocally stated that he will not accept the conditions that the US and other Western countries seek to impose through the Vienna negotiations upon Iran for a return to the JCPOA. That includes conditions placed on Iran’s missile programme and a change in Tehran’s Middle East policies – especially the support that it provides to proxies like Hezbollah. During the conversation with Macron, Raisi emphasised negotiations regarding the JCPOA, keeping in mind Tehran’s interests, while Macron spoke in favour of reviving the negotiations.
The US has already signalled that it would not be averse to using strong economic measures in case Raisi seeks to re-start Vienna negotiations, which began in April this year, from scratch. That is in stark contrast to the Biden Administration’s earlier offer to remove sanctions in a phased manner. In June, the US removed certain sanctions on individuals and entities, although it denied that there was any connection between the removal of those sanctions and the ongoing Vienna negotiations. As Ned Price, the State Department Spokesperson said, ‘This is a routine, technical practice consistent with sanctions hygiene, with administrative processes that the Department of the Treasury routinely reviews and undertakes as appropriate.’
The Saudi Reaction
Interestingly, Saudi Arabia, which in recent months has tried to reduce tensions with Iran through talks held in Baghdad, has also criticised Iran’s recent actions. The Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, addressing a security event, said, ‘We certainly support a deal with Iran as long as the deal ensures that Iran will not now or ever gain any access to nuclear technology.’
Riyadh had adopted a reconciliatory approach towards Iran due to the realisation that Biden’s Middle East Policy would differ from that of his predecessor, whose approach towards Iran was influenced by Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The Biden Administration faces a dilemma. On the one hand imposing any sanctions would only exacerbate Iran’s economic challenges. The country is already grappling with high inflation, depreciation of its currency and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic. Raisi would be left with far less space to negotiate with the US. Any such actions would also bolster anti-Western sentiment. Such a step would also push Iran closer towards China. In recent years, Tehran-Beijing ties have improved significantly, with the countries signing a 25-year strategic agreement. While there has been criticism of that agreement, Iran would not, in reality, be left with any option other than to increase its dependence upon China.
On the other hand, there is growing pressure from countries like Israel to adopt an aggressive stance towards Iran. After Raisi’s electoral triumph in June 2021, Israel had warned the rest of the world about the perils of going ahead with the JCPOA. While Saudi Arabia’s attempts at improving relations with Iran were a positive step, its recent statements show that while it will not oppose the nuclear deal, it will be more vocal in putting forward its concerns.
In this context, the recent visit of CIA head William Burns to Israel is important and comes at a time when Israel is upping the ante against Iran. One of the main architects of the 2015 JCPOA, Burns met with Israeli PM Naftali Bennett, as well as senior officials including Defence Minister Benny Gantz and head of the Mossad spy agency, David Barnea. Iran was high on the agenda and Israel will have conveyed its reservations vis-à-vis Iran, especially the new leadership. Irrespective of the outcome, it at least sends a message that the Biden Administration realises the importance of the JCPOA.
The Role of US Partners
It would be important to see what role countries sharing close ties with the US, like the United Arab Emirates, India and Japan, which have stakes in maintaining a good relationship with Iran, might play in the upcoming months. India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, attended Raisi’s swearing-in ceremony and had met him in July, while en route to Moscow. Iran is important to India not just in terms of the Chabahar Port, which provides a direct route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, but also because Iran has leverage in Afghanistan. In fact, after the end of the Trump Administration, India has paid close attention to Iran. India’s approach vis-à-vis Iran is unlikely to be identical to that of Washington. To secure their own interests, the US’s partners should work together with Washington and Tehran, to cool down tensions and ensure that the JCPOA can be restored at the earliest.
After taking office, Biden sent a strong message that Washington’s Middle East Policy would not be dictated by any country and he should carry on in a similar vein. Iran is important, given the current tumult in Afghanistan. At the same time, Raisi needs to exhibit flexibility and realise that prolonging negotiations will not benefit anyone, especially the Iranian people who have suffered on account of US sanctions, as well as Covid-19.