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Iranian Officials’ Statements Show Contrasting Tones

Zarif himself has said that it does not, thus contradicting the US fact sheet that was released by the US regarding the framework agreement. Sanctions are not mentioned in Zarif’s editorial except insofar as he says that the forthcoming agreement is aimed at removing them. Implying that confirmation of Iran’s compliance is not necessary, Zarif describes the nuclear issue as a “manufactured crisis” and places the onus on the United States to “make the choice between cooperation and confrontation, between negotiations and grandstanding, and between agreement and coercion.”

Describing Tehran’s regional policy as “holistic,” Zarif goes on to connect the nuclear issue to the various crises that are ongoing throughout the Middle East, to which Iran is a major party. In effect, the editorial argues for rapprochement leading to general acceptance of Iran’s activities in the region. But in advocating for interconnection of various regional issues, the Iranian foreign minister could be seen as encouraging the US to break its commitment to treating the nuclear issue as entirely separate from various other matter related to the Islamic Republic.

Zarif’s editorial declares: “One cannot confront Al Qaeda and its ideological siblings, such as the so-called Islamic State… while effectively enabling their growth in Yemen and Syria.” But many analysts who are notably critical of Iran have indicated that the growth of Sunni extremist groups in these areas is in large measure a direct result of Iran’s support for their Shiite extremist adversaries. This is true of Iraq as well as the aforementioned nations, with Iraqi Kurds having stated that the atrocities committed by Iran-backed Shiite militias are as bad or worse than those of IS.

Although it is possible to see Zarif’s editorial as self-defeating when read in this context, it has won a great deal of praise from the comments section of the New York Times simply by virtue of being non-confrontational and presenting a vision for the region that appears, on its surface, to be compatible with Western interests. But critics of the regime widely regard these sorts of communications as examples of the “charm offensive” that has been ongoing within the Iranian executive since the election of current president and so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani.

These same critics insist that such communications merely represent friendly tactics aimed at unchanged Iranian policies that include the pursuit of nuclear weapons capability behind the backs of world powers and the establishment of regional hegemony through various Shiite proxies and other subservient allies.

Such critics are quick to support their view by citing any number of other official statements and internal communications by Iranian regime officials which maintain the same belligerent anti-Western attitudes that have characterized the Islamic Republic’s government since its establishment in 1979. In fact, Zarif’s description of the nuclear issue as a manufactured crisis suggests the same attitude, even if in a more measured and persuasive way.

By contrast, Inquisitr describes Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as having toughened the nation’s rhetoric in a televised speech to his military commanders on Sunday ahead of this week’s resumption of nuclear talks. Khamenei repeated the claim about a manufactured crisis, calling Iran’s military nuclear program a myth created by the Americans to “threaten Iran” and leave it with “no capabilities for defense.” With this focus in mind, Khamenei urged military readiness, and this sentiment was embraced by, among others, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Responding to US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s statement that a final nuclear agreement must include the ability of international inspectors to access Iran’s military sites, Salami said, “This subject is treasonous and selling out the country, and if anyone speaks of it we will respond with hot lead.”

Arutz Sheva further quotes Salami as saying, “They will not even be permitted to inspect the most normal military site in their dreams,” referring to all foreign entities. Such a sentiment arguably belies Zarif’s claim in his editorial that the nuclear issue is a “symptom, not a cause, of mistrust and conflict.” That is, it indicates that Iran is no more willing to abandon its distrust and rhetoric than the West is willing to overlook its suspicious about the Iranian nuclear program.

On the other hand, there is some question about how universally the West is committed to this position. The recent visit to Tehran by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop – the first such visit in 12 years by an Australian official – suggests that the Rouhani administration’s charm offensive has been successful at encouraging some traditional US allies to pursue general rapprochement with Iran even as the Islamic Republic continues to pursue destabilizing policies across the Middle East.

Many American opponents of the emerging nuclear deal are fearful that even the Obama administration itself is pursuing such an outcome. Zarif’s mention of Sunni militants in Syria and Yemen seemingly encourages this outcome and the associated fears. It privileges the conflict against US and Iranian shared enemies over the potential conflict against Iran and its proxies, including various well-recognized terrorist organizations.

Thus far, the US has played into this order of priorities in Iraq where it has been providing air support to Iranian forces, but not in Yemen where it has contributed to the Arab coalition bombing the Iran-backed Houthis who have overtaken the country. Australia has clearly taken a similar stance on the viability of collaboration with Iran against IS in Iraq and Syria. CNN reports that Australia has agreed to share with Iran intelligence relevant to that conflict.

But such collaboration raises alarms among politicians who are particularly sensitive to Iran’s regional activities, support for terrorism, and domestic human rights record. Independent Australian MP Andrew Wilkie told reporters that the agreement announced by Bishop on Sunday “really should send shudders down the spine of every Australian,” adding, “When you start dancing with the devil in a place like Tehran, then we run the risk of becoming almost as bad as those who we dance with.” 

Part of the concern associated with such collaboration with Iran relates to the potential that it will undermine international political will to keep close reigns on the Islamic Republic while the nuclear issue and the various inter-related issues remain unresolved. Analysts have variously pointed out that the promise of a nuclear agreement gives some governments and some businesses the impression that the Iranian market will inevitably open and that the prudent action is to enter the market early, thus providing Iran with wealth that can be channeled into illicit activities and that otherwise would have been denied to it.

For the time being the US continues to enforce confirmed sanctions violations, and on Monday HNGN reported that four companies and five individuals were to be charged with illegally exporting military grade equipment to Iran, with an estimated total value of 24 million dollars. The targets of the 24-count indictment come from the US, Taiwan, and Turkey, and previous violators of both trade and banking sanctions have come from many other locations including Germany and France, stoking further fears about weak international will for those sanctions.

But at the same time that possible rapprochement is leading to fears of lost leverage, other world powers and political groups are pushing back against that trend and working to focus international attention on the general character of the Iranian regime and the statements of its ruling clerics and military leaders, as opposed to the products of a global charm offensive.

Saudi Arabia is certainly within this category, and its opposition to Iranian ascendancy in the region has remained strong since the formation of the Arab coalition behind Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. And this has generated a vigorous response from Iran, which is apparently feeling threatened anew. The Associated Press reported on Monday that Tehran had summoned its Saudi envoy in protest over an incident in which the bombing of Houthi weapons cache’s shattered the windows of the Iranian embassy in Yemen, although it caused no injuries there.

In his New York Times editorial, Zarif repeated his call for an intra-Yemeni dialogue. But the persistence of the Iranian-Saudi proxy war appears to make it clear that Tehran has no desire to relinquish its assets on the Arabian Peninsula. Last week, a 14-0 vote by the United Nations Security Council imposed an embargo on Yemen in response to the near-universal agreement that Iran is the primary source of the Houthis’ arms.