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On the road to Vienna: Will the region fall into Iranian hands?

Hassan Fahs

Published: Updated:

It seems that both sides of the crisis have arrived at a road map that ensures the success of efforts to overcome the controversy over the nuclear program and sanctions

During the time left until the seventh round of negotiations between Iran and the 4+1 Group along with the US in Vienna, escalatory positions on both sides are prevailing along with the reiteration of commitment to the terms as a prerequisite for returning to the negotiations. All of this serves as a prologue for reviving the nuclear deal, as well as for lifting the sanctions and achieving a normalization of relations.

On the road to Vienna, despite the contradictory positions, statements and what is taking place behind the scenes regarding announced and unannounced dialogues and meetings between Tehran and all the stakeholders in the Vienna negotiations, and the relevant backdrops, ramifications and future repercussions; it seems that the two salient parties to the crisis, i.e. the United States and Iran, have reached a road map for ensuring the success of their endeavors to escape the controversy over the nuclear program and sanctions, and to rearrange the West Asia in general, and the Middle East in particular, since both regions are regarded as highly sensitive in the strategy of both parties.

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On November 29, Vienna is scheduled to host the seminal session on the Iranian nuclear crisis, that lays the groundwork for disengagement between Tehran and Washington over a natural crisis and the details associated with lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran since April 2018 under former President Donald Trump, being the one and only way for reviving the agreement which is supposed to become binding on all parties in terms of implementation, and in vowing not to return to the policy of thwarting it and hampering its implementation with regard to the European “troika.” Signatories must thus pledge not to withdraw from the agreement and rekindle the policy of imposing sanctions on part of the United States, in exchange for Tehran to rejoin the agreement and to commit itself to the obligations it had previously conceded in 2015 when signing the agreement, including stopping uranium enrichment activities and returning to enrichment levels previously agreed upon.

The logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is seen at their headquarters during a board of governors meeting, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Vienna, Austria, June 7, 2021. (Reuters)
The logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is seen at their headquarters during a board of governors meeting, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Vienna, Austria, June 7, 2021. (Reuters)

In this vein, what the Iranian regime is seeking through its negotiating team is to score some points before even sitting at the table, by emphasizing that Tehran’s agreement to return to Vienna comes under its efforts to end the blockade and overturn the sanctions, as an essential prerequisite for any discussions on reviving the agreement without amending any of its articles. Further, Iran wants to ensure the talks will not degenerate into attritional negotiations merely for the sake of negotiating, alongside a key demand—that may be the most important in the regime’s negotiating strategy—i.e., that the counterparty, namely the United States, agrees to Iran maintaining the progress it made in uranium enrichment processes, specifically at the level of 60 percent. Tehran, in return, pledges to facilitate IAEA inspections by reactivating the surprise inspection protocol that the Iranian parliament had previously suspended within the framework of the law approved in November 2020 entitled “The Strategy for Lifting Sanctions and Defending Iranian Interests.” Tehran may opt not to object, as was the case in the past, to expanding the scope of inspections to include new facilities that the IAEA draws attention to, and it may not object—as was the case in past—to the direct participation of inspectors from the US administration alongside their international colleagues, according to an agreed-upon coordination.

However, the new development is that Iranian voices, especially within the Revolutionary Guard Corps, have begun clamoring for its establishment as a matter of fact recognized by all parties participating in the negotiations, most importantly the United States, is the recognition of Iran’s regional status and influence along with its role on the international scene, based upon the regime’s view that the world is no longer unipolar, and therefore the United States must abandon its unilateral system and concede international and regional multipolarity.

This new position adopted by the IRGC, which reflects what is going on behind the scenes in the regime’ decision-making circles, converges with the words of Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian a few days ago, in which he stressed that Iran's return to the negotiating table targets one goal: the abolition of US economic sanctions, whose achievement will give way for facilitating later cooperation various areas. Accomplishing this goal will facilitate the process of cooperation with Washington and other parties in resolving regional issues and sticking points. Hence, the distribution of roles between the IRGC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to wit: between the military domain and the diplomatic corps, means blurring the margins that separate military action on the one hand from political and diplomatic action, and that diplomacy, although it seeks to achieve Iran’s strategic goals and interests, has thus come to serve regional accomplishments on the ground, and is working to consolidate the latter’s spheres of influence, especially since this military leadership has determined the negotiations’ objectives in the context that “the West has only one option: to end its irrational behavior and adhere to the facts and reality, and to abolish all sanctions and recognize the reality of Iran’s status in regional equations and in the multipolar world order.”

This high ceiling resorted to by Tehran appears to have come in response to the efforts led by the US special envoy responsible for Iran Robert Malley, and the summit hosted by the Saudi capital, Riyadh, which drew participation from the European “troika”, alongside Jordan and Egypt, and excluded Russia and China. The summit had hoped to sketch a strategy for dealing with the Iranian crisis following the Vienna negotiations, and to emphasize ending Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, and to stress that Tehran is required to deal with international and regional concerns and to strengthen diplomatic relations, dialogue and understanding, thereby paving the way for constructive cooperation between itself and these countries, especially in the economic domain.

Malley explicitly expressed the available options for the regime when he spoke about the option of Iran’s continuation of its policy of nuclear escalation and manufacturing crises, which in turn would keep the blockade and sanctions in place, the result of which will only be the pronouncing of the death of the Vienna Agreement and escalation open to all possibilities, or a reciprocal return to the nuclear agreement that opens the road for regional economic and diplomatic relations. “…And there is not much time for the regime to choose,” he said. This would lay the groundwork for US efforts to attract Iran’s Russian and Chinese allies to put pressure on Tehran, in the hope of agreeing with them on a clear policy against Iran’s nuclear activities, as has happened prior to 2015, when Security Council resolutions regarding sanctions were issued unanimously by all permanent members.

On the other hand, Tehran is staking its bets on the difficulty of Washington being able to attract Moscow and Beijing to its camp, especially in light of the escalation between the US and both countries, in addition to Iran’s regional steps in more than one direction, particularly in the Iraqi and Afghan issues, which may result in facilitating solutions on the two aforementioned arenas. This has prompted Washington to attempt to build an alliance that includes itself alongside the European “troika”, IAEA, Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, as an international alliance to force Tehran into making a concession. Meanwhile, Washington realizes that the goal which motivates the Iranian government to return to negotiations is nothing more than working on abolishing the sanctions and obtaining guarantees that the agreement will not be disrupted in the future—a demand that it cannot give up or bargain about, which confirms Iran's position and role in the region, thereby narrowing Washington’s options and forcing it to recognize Iran’s regional influence and to deal with it accordingly.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, British newspaper Independent Arabia.

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