The Vienna talks; Is it a crisis of the regime or the negotiator?

Hassan Fahs
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The Iranian authority and military apparatus are seeking the full control of the decision-making process.

The leaked audio recording circulated in January 2021, in which the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expresses his own vision of diplomatic activities, the running of negotiations, and management of the Iranian state’s foreign affairs represents more than a leak that unveiled the ongoing conflict behind the curtains of the Iranian regime and its decision-making centers regarding the mechanisms of diplomatic management, its role, and the nature of its missions. More accurately, the leaked audio is an alarm to the forthcoming phase which entails the efforts by the Iranian authority and military apparatus to gain full control of the entire decision-making processes, and to eliminate any voices that might oppose their will or present a various vision.

The constant in the nature of diplomatic work and the activities of its personalities - who represent their governments in international forums and negotiations - is that it must abide by the policies set by the state institutions and system, meanwhile making use of the margin of creativity permitted under that abidance to demonstrate its wisdom and cunningness in running diplomatic work and negotiations to achieve the goals that guarantee the country's interests and sovereignty, and consolidate sound, clear, and normal foreign relations with other countries on the basis of tension reduction and abstention from any hostilities and conflicts.

When Muhammad Javad Zarif assumed his position of a foreign minister in the Iranian Islamic regime - where the Supreme Ruler is the personification of Wilayat al-Faqih, who has full and exclusive authority, Zarif was aware that he was entering a domain where the theory of Thomas Hobbes is prevailing, namely; his social contract theory which states that the political society is established as a result of a contract between the people, according to which they delegate their affairs entirely to the absolute authority of a ruler who becomes in charge of establishing security and peace for them. However, with the Iranian regime, there is a significant exception, as the ruler's authority in this system is divinely consecrated, and does not stem from the people whom Hobbes considered the source of any ruler's legitimacy by electing him to this task.

Zarif was also aware that there is no place in the Iranian regime for John Locke’s theory, which considers the relationship between the ruler and his people a contract-based relationship between two equal parties, where each respects their obligations towards the other party with no right to depart from or deny these obligations, otherwise the contract will be invalid. This is inconsistent with the Iranian regime’s law stating that the powers of the ruler are absolute and above all powers and responsibilities (Article 110 of the Constitution). Hence, it is up to that ruler to decide on and set public and private policies, at the level of society and the individuals, based on the Wilayat al-Faqih status that links him directly or indirectly to the divine world as a “deputy of the infallible Prophet,” hence granting him this absolute authority based on the Quranic verse: “The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves.” (Surah Al-Ahzab; verse 6).

This means for Zarif that he must abandon all the statements he embraces about the nature of diplomatic work that he has practiced for decades, and should forget about his influence by the liberal and democratic concepts that regulate international relations before he enters the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It also entails that, instead, Zarif must adhere to the totalitarian vision imposed by the absolute leadership in his country, and by its institutions which manifest that authority in the statehood and the society, seizing the internal and external connections along with the strategic and national interests.

When Zarif and the administration he represented - headed then by Hassan Rouhani - joined the negotiations with the five permanent members of the Security Council in addition to Germany, the methodology that governed these negotiations was one of openness to the international community, an openness that was not limited to the Iranian nuclear dimension, its objectives, and the crisis arising from its ambiguous and disturbing program. Rather, that methodology aimed to achieve lasting agreements that lead to strong and natural relations which enhance mutual trust, a methodology that does not depend on a temporary or phasal perspective, but is rather ‘a continuous approach,’ according to Cardinal Richelieu’s definition of the concept of diplomacy. It was not a methodology bound by hollow slogans or biased to the rhetoric of the state, institutions, higher interests and sovereignty, a methodology that was managed with pragmatic flexibility, meanwhile preserving the ideological dimension of the regime. Therefore, Zarif’s shock was evident in that problematic audio leak, which paved the way for what looks like his own ‘character assassination’, his removal from the circle of action and influence, and his rendering as someone close to being prosecuted for treason. It is probably a shock that resulted from Zarif’s forgetfulness or negligence of the ability of the totalitarian Iranian political regime to harness the bureaucratic and military apparatus in order to guarantee its continuity and full control of the political path and strategic decisions, meanwhile preventing any side under its control from investing on any private accomplishment that might later constitute an implicit threat to the unilateral decision-making and its source, and obstructing any development that might change its ruling mechanisms or give space to the emergence of other sources of authority beside it.

As the foreign minister of the Iranian state and its Islamic regime, Zarif did not deviate from the rules of the diplomatic game that determine his role in shaping the general and strategic policies of the regime.

Despite Zarif’s achievement in negotiating the nuclear crisis, and the dilemma of the historical and accumulated economic sanctions over four decades, as he was able to change the international position that has been imposing the siege on Iran with all its implications for the people, state and institutions, he made the mistake of thinking in terms of the national and patriotic interests of his country, while putting aside – without cancelling - the concept of the Iranian revolution, which the authority in Teheran clings to, considering it the source of its legitimacy in continuing to rule, especially since that authority regards the international siege and pressures it is subjected to as means for targeting the legacy of the 1979 revolution, its concepts, values, dimensions, and what it perceives as the effects of this revolution outside the Iranian homeland, effects that are manifested in various forms of influence, whether in its affiliated groups, or in the military capabilities that guarantee it superiority or achieve balance in the face of what it considers as existential threats.

The reactivation of the Vienna negotiations with a new Iranian team - considered to be closer to Teheran’s authority and revolutionary legacy - after a break of more than five months, to restart from the point ended by Zarif's team and his leadership, means that the crisis with Zarif and his team revealed to that authority the possibility of getting out of the state of tension and isolation at the lowest costs while achieving some gains, all with a little bit of openness and pragmatism that do not contradict the logic of the revolutionary legacy, but rather serve it and achieve its goals.

The accomplishments that may be achieved through the negotiations could turn into a prelude to the emergence of new centers of power from within the ruling system in Teheran, that may constitute an alternative to everything that is beneath the power and position of the Supreme Leader and his absolute authority. However, these new centers would prioritize the concept of the state, its goals as well as the interests of the people who are the source of authority and legitimacy. This situation necessitated the mobilization of the authority’s forces, with the consent and silence of its leadership, applying political and economic violence to thwart that threat, ensure its interests and the continuity of its rule, and return matters to the old channels the authority had long legitimized and established, hence grabbing the negotiations path to be able to brag about the achievement of any agreement in its own name, and turn it into a credit that supports its survival at the expense of others, meanwhile removing the latent danger of change that began to appear in the discourse of political forces that are not entirely loyal, as this authority is the side most capable of making compromises and adapting the weapons it used in the face of its competitors.

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

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