US President Joe Biden has placed returning to the nuclear deal with Iran among his priorities in dealing with the Middle East since his arrival at the White House. This is based on what he deems as a mistake by his predecessor, Donald Trump, in withdrawing from the agreement, because it allowed Iran to resume its nuclear program and uranium enrichment without the ability to be effectively monitored by the International Energy Agency, and without the controls on Iran that were included in that deal. Biden stressed that any new deal that could be reached with Tehran would include its nuclear program and its role in the region, which is worrying to its neighbors and poses a threat to their security.
The Vienna talks between the US and Iran come as a result of Biden’s position. The American “embarrassment” about direct participation, which saw the American negotiator Robert Malley not sitting in the same room with Abbas Araghchi, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, is not due to Washington’s reservations as much as it reflects Washington’s awareness of the extent of Iran’s neighbors’ reservations about jumping into direct negotiations. Tehran continues to confirm that it is not ready to take a positive step and de-escalate the moves it has made since Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018. Nor is Iran ready to take into account the concerns of its neighbors about its regional ambitions and the involvement of its militias in regional conflicts as part of negotiations of any new deal.
There is a deep problem in the Gulf region related to Iran’s neighbors’ distrust of any pledge to which it declares its commitment. It is a problem that the US-Iranian negotiations, whether direct or indirect, cannot solve. Rather, it is solved by actions that confirm Tehran’s retreat from the policies that have deepened the region’s crises through its interference. This commitment is the umbrella that can protect any new agreement reached by Iran with America and with the P4+1. This is if the goal of the agreement is an actual guarantee of the security of the region and the interests of all its countries.
However, what we are witnessing so far through the resumption of the negotiation process in Vienna is that Tehran is acting “victorious” in the talks, as it considers that it has managed to pressure the US to return to negotiations, without paying anything in return. President Hassan Rouhani is proudly talking about “the beginning of a new chapter”, and his representative in the talks, Abbas Araghchi, described the meeting as “constructive.” The Iranians have no qualms stating the agenda they want for these negotiations. They believe that the goal of the talks is to remove the sanctions imposed on them in a quick and achievable manner.
There is no doubt that the positive attitude of the Iranians is based on what they perceive. Especially when we hear, for example, that the US is ready to lift part of the sanctions that are not related to the nuclear agreement, without it being clear which part Washington is talking about, and without Tehran agreeing to the condition that Biden had previously set for the resumption of negotiations. This condition is that any new agreement should include Iran’s activities in the region, and address the reasons for its neighbors’ concern over these activities, and thus ensure their approval of the agreement if it takes place.
None of that has happened so far, despite Robert Malley’s talk of Washington’s concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program and its activities in the region. However, Malley has been part of the US negotiating delegation in 2015, when the agreement did not include any reference to missiles and interventions, even though they were in plain sight.
The aforementioned issue of lack of confidence is confirmed by what happened after the Iranian ship the Saviz was targeted in the Red Sea with missiles that were purported to be Israeli. The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hastened to say that the ship is “commercial and civilian,” while pictures taken by the maritime control centers indicate that the Saviz is a naval military base for the Revolutionary Guard with armed men and small boats of the type used by the Guard. It was subject to US sanctions before they were lifted under the 2015 deal, and imposed again after the Trump administration withdrew from it. This means that it is subject to US sanctions today, while media sources affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard said that the Armed Forces are using this ship to ensure the security of navigation in the Red Sea and to deter pirates in the Bab al-Mandab Strait. The Iranians did not provide any explanation as to who assigned them to carry out this “security” mission off the shores of Djibouti and in an area hundreds of miles away from their shores and maritime borders, at a time when the Saviz is subject to sanctions.
The story of the Saviz is one of many examples of Iran’s behavior that worries its neighbors and threatens the stability of the region.
Back to the Vienna talks, and without the needed trust to facilitate the agreement, the American and Iranian sides each seem focused on achieving their own goals. The Biden administration wants to revive a deal that was seen as one of the “achievements” of the Barack Obama administration, in which Biden was the second-in-command. The Rouhani administration, which is two months away from presidential elections, aims to show its domestic political opponents that it is able to lift the sanctions and bring about economic improvement without paying a heavy price that threatens its regional activities, which are guided by Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard.
This is indeed a decisive stage during which the region awaits the outcome of the US-Iranian negotiations, and their potential to control Tehran’s behavior and push it back inside its borders. While Rouhani declares that the goal is to reach an agreement before the presidential elections to try to reap its fruits in the ballot boxes, Robert Malley, Washington’s negotiator, reiterated that his administration does not work against deadlines, and it has no objection to completing negotiations with whoever will be in power in Tehran after June.
In other words, the region can expect a long tug of war between Washington and Tehran.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.