Beyond Zarif’s statements

Sam Menassa

Published: Updated:

Whether directly or indirectly, Iran and its activities remain the focal point in the region. Last week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Baghdad and spoke of his country’s readiness for regional dialogue. Soon, the media brought back Zarif’s repeated statements about the role of the military in defining and implementing Iran’s policy, especially the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the country’s foreign policy, which he stated in a leaked audio recording that was not meant for dissemination and caused an uproar inside and outside Iran. The third and most dangerous headline is the continued escalation between Israel and Iran following mutual military operations of multiple aspects.

In the first of these incidents, the remarkable takeaway was that Zarif confirmed to his Iraqi counterpart the call for a regional dialogue on the basis of good-neighborliness and non-interference in internal affairs. Iran had long repeated Zarif’s statement, which cements the most dangerous of Iran’s policies of interference in regional affairs; using local groups that Tehran promotes as mere allied local forces instead of arms that obey its every order. Through such talk, Iran hints that it will have no effect or impact on its regional allies following any settlements or agreements it may reach with the West and, specifically, the US. This would give Iran some latitude to circumvent the condition of pressuring these minions and leaving them to act as they please in their respective countries. As a result, the countries that suffer from the practices of these Iranian arms disguised as allies would find themselves back to square one. The best that can be hoped from Iranian pressure on its foreign puppets is a temporary and relative sedative pacification of their military and security activities with no changes to the general situation as these are domestic affairs that Iran cannot influence. Thus, Iran would flee the responsibility of a serious and accountable resolution of outstanding regional issues in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

The second headline is the leaked audio recording of Zarif on the role that IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US raid in Iraq, played in Iran’s foreign policy. The recording contradicted his statement in Baghdad as Zarif considered that his country “has foregone diplomacy for the sake of military action,” which now rules Iran. Certainly, the leaking of the recording was no innocent mistake, especially as it coincides with the launch of the Vienna negotiations aimed at bringing Washington back to the nuclear deal, and ahead of the anticipated presidential election campaigns in Iran. This begs the question: what were the objectives behind leaking the recording that aimed, according to President Hassan Rouhani, at creating discord within the ruling class and led to several dismissals and travel bans, and ended with the members of the Iranian parliament signing a bill to prosecute Rouhani and Zarif?

According to British paper The Guardian, either Arab states or Israel is behind the leaked recording, with the aim of belittling Zarif’s role to indicate that the extremists are ruling the country with a fist of iron while Zarif and his aides are nothing more than a façade. Others attributed the leaking to the IRGC, which is seeking to get rid of Zarif and his group along with their approach to negotiations with Washington. Regardless of the veracity of this information, Iran’s system itself is difficult to understand, and Zarif cannot be so naïve to say what he said without expecting reactions inside and outside the country. The chameleon-like nature of Iran and its policies is not surprising. Making the necessary changes to adapt to circumstances and needs is a distinctive modus operandi of Iran.

We need not explain that Tehran is dying to see the Vienna negotiations succeed so that the sanctions -- or at least part of them -- and isolation imposed on the country can be lifted, breathing life into its choking economic and financial systems. Positions like Zarif’s only help to boost the efficiency of the negotiating delegation and push Washington to accelerate its return to the nuclear deal and lift as many sanctions as possible.

With mystery shrouding the roles and positions of Iran’s politicians and decisionmakers, another possibility is that these leaks fall in the context of the election campaigns. Nonetheless, it is not obvious how its outcomes will benefit Zarif if the negotiations are crowned with success or sink him and lead to his exclusion from the political scene. Iran can also leverage the statements attributed to Zarif to corner Israel at this time of increased Western, and particularly American, pressure to avoid a large-scale confrontation in the region.

This brings us to our third and most dangerous issue, which is the increased tensions between Israel and Iran on multiple fronts, starting with the Natanz nuclear site incident, for which Israel was blamed, to the escalating ship war, to the missile explosion near the Dimona nuclear reactor, and lastly, the Saudi bombing of a remotely piloted explosive-laden boat near Yanbu.

Clearly, both Israel and Iran are under pressure, and each has its own reasons. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s level of trust in Washington is dropping due to fears of a return to the previous nuclear deal with Iran without regard to Israel’s concerns, especially the Iranian ballistic missiles and precision-guided missiles lined on its borders and the expanding Iranian influence via allied militias. Tel Aviv will spare no effort to avoid Washington’s return to the previous nuclear deal, even if this leads to further tensions with the Biden administration, nor will it hesitate to go as far as pushing Washington into getting involved in a dangerous regional conflict. Nonetheless, the Biden administration seems unlikely to head down that road at this stage, as it is currently focusing on several key domestic issues and dangerous foreign ones, the foremost of which is Biden’s legislative priorities and the upcoming Congress elections, which may see the Democrats losing majority and thus hinder Biden’s policies mid-term.

As for Iran, the pressure is of a different nature. Iran is seeking to maximize its benefit from Washington’s reluctance to slide into an armed conflict in the region and its desire to complete its withdrawal from the region. This Iranian strategy has two objectives: the first is to push the US to go back to the deal and lift the sanctions, and the second is to carry on with its expansionist policy as much as possible, even at the expense of the safety and stability of the countries of the region. Neither the maximum pressure policy of former US President Donald Trump nor the soft diplomatic force and nuclear deal of his predecessor Barack Obama -- which the current administration seems to also be leaning towards, albeit with much caution and hesitation -- have managed to deter this strategy, which Tehran has been using for decades.

Predicting Washington’s reaction to all actual and anticipated developments can be difficult. However, the US is expected not to give in to the different and divergent Israeli and Iranian pressures, especially since both countries are suffering internal crises.

In Iran, the stranglehold of sanctions, the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, the increased discontent bordering on resentment toward the government, and the upcoming elections, as formal and controlled by extremists as they may be, all have side effects that cannot go unnoticed.

In Israel, where Netanyahu seems close to stepping out of the political game, the situation is also critical due to the political fragmentation and the clear concerns of changes in the political mood of the US in particular, and the West in general, with regard to the Israeli right wing, which has been holding the reins of the country for over a decade.

With critical and tense climates in two impulsive and influential regional powers, stability seems far-fetched, and a sense of anticipation prevails, especially since major, capable powers are preoccupied with their internal problems and with managing conflicts among themselves at the expense of the people and stability of the region.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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