As the US dangles carrots, does Tehran believe the stick remains an option?
Photo: AP Images
It’s hard to say that Ebrahim Raisi’s election to the presidency of Iran raised any hope in the West. The Biden administration is closely watching Raisi and his team, and understands that these aren’t Rouhani’s people. The outgoing president tried to play a double game. Or as they called it at the time, a “charm offensive.”
On the one hand, Rouhani projected openness to the West, expressing willingness to engage in dialogue, negotiating for a nuclear agreement that would benefit everyone, and trying to integrate Iran into the international community in a number of ways, which would include the lifting of sanctions but also greater involvement in international bodies and dialogue with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
On the other hand, Iran remained a repressive regime that not only deprived its own citizens of basic human rights, but relentlessly exported terror throughout the Middle East, as well as intervening in a number of arenas such as Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and Saudi Arabia. Under Rouhani, Iran’s tentacles extended into every corner of the Middle East. At the same time, they continued the production of ballistic missiles as well as the attempt to reach the nuclear threshold.
And if that was Rouhani’s Iran, under Raisi the administration is facing a regime with all the latter elements and none of the former. That is, a regime that will not only continue the terror and military buildup, including the nuclear project, but will exhibit zero interest in dialogue with the West.
The coming weeks will be critical, and it’s hard to understate the importance of what will happen within the next few days. The Americans are starting to lose patience. At a press conference in Kuwait last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that negotiations with Iran “can’t go on indefinitely.”
The last time talks were held in Vienna about a return to the nuclear deal was June 20. Israel had just undergone a transition of power, and as it was absorbed in its internal affairs, the powers tried to hurry to finalize a deal with Iran. Reports on progress were very optimistic. But a month and a half have gone by, and a date for resumption of talks is not yet on the horizon.
The fear in the West now is that Iran will change its strategy as well its tactics. That instead of conducting talks for a nuclear deal, Iran will focus on achieving nuclear latency. What is that? The point at which they’re one screwdriver’s turn from constructing a bomb. Thus, on the one hand, they won’t be subject to the same international sanctions as North Korea; but on the other hand, they’ll be able to leverage their imminent bomb-making capacity to intimidate the other regional players in the Persian Gulf, and continue provocations in shipping routes. In short — to become a bully with a license.
The Iranians have already signaled publicly that from their perspective, the price is up, and that to return to the original deal, they’ll need additional sanctions to be raised, something Washington isn’t willing to talk about. From this perspective, Raisi’s election isn’t a standard transition of power but one with very real repercussions on the world stage.
Last Thursday, a drone attack on the oil tanker Mercer Street in the Persian Gulf left two dead. On Sunday evening, Blinken laid the full responsibility for the attack on the tanker on Iran, promising that a response would come, and that the US would consult with its allies regarding what form this should take.
This was a change in tone from what the administration has hitherto taken with Iran — seeking a nuclear deal while turning a blind eye to Iran’s actions in the Middle East. The question is how this affects the dynamic of the nuclear talks. While it didn’t necessarily die this week, the odds of a deal being signed certainly decreased.
There’s no doubt that with this new dynamic, the Americans will have to start charting a new course and decide what options are still relevant in dealing with Iran. The military option, it appears, is not really on the table. It will be interesting to see what approach the Biden administration will take if it reaches the conclusion that the deal is off the agenda, and if so, whether additional sanctions will need to be levied on the ayatollahs’ regime.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 872)
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