Speaking from Tehran on Monday following the prior day’s reopening of the British embassy there, Hammond asserted that the Islamic Republic is “too important a player in [the Middle East] to simply leave in isolation.” This reflects a familiar trend among some Western policymakers to envision Iran as a potential partner in confronting mutual threats such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
But serious questions exist regarding whether Iranian power can truly be leveraged in favor of Western interests, instead of against them. Skepticism on this point is exacerbated by the persistence of Iranian officials’ belligerent statements regarding the US and its allies. For instance, Worthy News reports that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech on Saturday urging the world’s Muslim community to exhibit unity in opposing their purported enemies in the US and Israel.
This follows upon a speech that was transcribed in English on Khamenei’s official website on August 17. In it he accused Western powers of attempting to infiltrate the Islamic Republic through the nuclear deal, and he explained his government’s commitment to resisting all manner of American influence on its culture, economy, and politics.
Western defenders of a policy of rapprochement are quick to draw a distinction between hardliners who endorse these sorts of statements and so-called moderates associated with the presidential administration of Hassan Rouhani. Khamenei is the ultimate authority on virtually all matters of Iranian policy, but some analysts perceive limits to how much he will wield that power to contradict Rouhani in the wake of the nuclear agreement.
On the other hand, analysts who are critical of that agreement have variously claimed that the Rouhani administration has few if any of the hallmarks of moderation that Western executives are counting on to help improve relations between Iran and the wider world.
Some of the administration’s statements have superficially endorsed rapprochement not only with the West but also with Saudi Arabia, which is Iran’s chief rival for power in the Persian Gulf region. But these statements have also tended to privilege the Iranian side, as by calling for an end to the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen without considering the return of the nation’s president, who was ousted by Iran-backed militants early this year.
With respect to the US, Rouhani used the topic of rapprochement to criticize references to a military option that the Obama administration insists remains in place in case Iran is found to be cheating on the nuclear agreement or pursuing severely destabilizing policies in the Middle East. “These ridiculous expressions, slogans and irrelevant jokes damage the process of trust-building,” Rouhani said.
But the Iranian president has not similarly confronted statements by other Iranian officials which constitute arguably more direct threats. In commenting on US and UN efforts to restrain Iran’s trade in conventional weapons and ballistic missiles, Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan said on Friday, “The enemies should know that if they seek to take action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, they will face a crushing response that would make them regret.”
Far from criticizing this speech, Rouhani has made public statements of his own conveying the same message. On Saturday, as Iran announced the beginning of production on new, longer range ballistic missiles, Rouhani declared that his government would not abide by aspects of the UN resolution on the nuclear deal which retain restrictions on arms sales for the first several years of the agreement. “We will buy, sell and develop any weapons we need and we will not ask for permission or abide by any resolution for that,” he said.
Other members of the Rouhani administration have behaved similarly since the signing of the nuclear deal. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been given perhaps even more credit than President Rouhani for encouraging rapprochement. And editorial published on Monday at Al Jazeera details Tehran’s “charm offensive” in advance of implementation of the nuclear deal. It focuses heavily on Zarif’s role and portrays him as sincerely interested in improving Iran’s relationship with the world.
The editorial also suggests that Sunday’s reopening of the Iranian embassy in London served to signal a new chapter in these relations, and that it reflected a genuine effort on Tehran’s part to “build international support and allay anxieties, especially among neighbouring countries, over the strategic implications of the agreement.”
But Financial Buzz describes that reopening as a reciprocal gesture, suggesting that it was not motivated by good will so much as by the desire to retain the good will of others. Indeed, Arutz Sheva notes that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations has met with minimal support from Tehran. Graffiti including the slogan “Death to Britain” could still be seen on the British embassy in Tehran during its reopening ceremony. And Zarif’s Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht Ravanchi said on Saturday that the regime was not actually planning to send an ambassador to London.
What’s more Zarif himself disregarded the serious continuation of rapprochement, saying that Tehran should not so much as consider reopening its embassy in Washington as well.
But despite Iran’s efforts to keep much of the West at arms’ length or even at odds with the Islamic Republic, the push for rapprochement continues, motivated in large part by financial interest in the Iranian oil and gas industries. Pan-Armenian reports, for instance, that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was planning on visiting Iran in October.
While the AP refers to this as the first such trip in over a decade, it is also true that German was the first nation to send a trade delegation to Iran to discuss investment opportunities that might emerge once the nuclear agreement is fully implemented.