Insider news & Analysis in Iran

This past weekend marked the latest meeting of G-7 nations, and issues relating to the Islamic Republic of Iran were predictably a major topic of conversation. What was less predictable, however, was the last-minute invitation extended to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif by the gathering’s host, French President Emmanuel Macron. The two men had separately met in Paris on Friday, but Zarif was not scheduled to participate in the proceedings. Plans were reportedly altered after representatives of the seven leading economic powers shared dinner on Saturday evening and expressed general agreement on their goals with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and its impact on regional and global security.

Zarif did not formally participate in any session of the G-7, but his presence did provide him with opportunities to meet with several heads of state and foreign ministers. US President Donald Trump was, however, not among these. In late July, the White House placed Zarif under sanction, citing his role in spreading Iranian propaganda and serving the interests of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who had been sanctioned previously. But the Trump administration had also sought to hold negotiations with Zarif, and the sanctions reportedly emerged only after this effort was rejected on the Iranian side. Since then, the administration has publicly set its sights on a higher-level meeting involving either Khamenei himself, or the less politically powerful President Hassan Rouhani.

Although the French government’s embrace of Zarif appears to be at cross-purposes with the American sanctions, the surprise G-7 invitation arguably sets the stage for realizing a goal that everyone agrees to be in their own nation’s best interests. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the G-7 had revealed tentative but significant steps toward progress in resolving the crisis of escalating US-Iran tensions. She also suggested that the US had embraced the notion of unconditional discussions between the Iranians and the European Union. Macron then went further by speculating that direct talks between Rouhani and the Trump administration could be forthcoming within weeks.

Trump himself seemed to embrace this latter claim, noting that he had a “good feeling” about the prospects but also taking care to connect this good feeling to his administration’s strategy of applying “maximum pressure” to the Iranian regime. Because the Iranians are “hurting badly” as a result of economic sanctions, Trump said, they can be expected to reevaluate their existing policy of rejecting compromise until the US has removed all forms of pressure. On the other hand, Tehran’s public statements at the time of the G-7 failed to acknowledge any progress toward this outcome.

Looking at the meetings more broadly, it is not clear that the expressed European optimism is entirely justified. Even though Macron’s personal estimate regarding the proximity of US-Iran talks was embraced by his American counterpart, that estimate appears to have been based on rather vague expressions of interest by both Trump and Rouhani. Trump specifically stated that he did he did not foresee negotiations taking place at the present moment, and that he was waiting for the “right conditions.” Meanwhile, Rouhani said only that he would not rule out the prospect of any discussions, provided that they were determined to be in his country’s interest.

Amidst still-growing tensions between Iran and the US, the Iranian president did not mention its main Western adversary by name in discussing prospective negotiations. But talks between the Rouhani and Trump administrations were obviously implied, and so Rouhani seemed to make a deliberate effort at downplaying their value without rejecting them out of hand. “Even if the probability of success is 20 or 10%, we need to try and not lose the opportunity,” he said on Monday. “We believe that we need to do every measure that is necessary.”

The further vagueness of this last remarks invites both charitable and ominous interpretations. While the Islamic Republic may embark on negotiations regarding its nuclear program as it did between 2013 and 2015, it may also choose to continue violating the 2015 agreement which put restrictions on Iranian nuclear enrichment in exchange for relief from multilateral sanctions. The US pulled out of that seven-party agreement in May 2018, and roughly a year later the Iranians began exceeding limits that had been put in place, while technically keeping the deal alive and urging other signatories to take steps that would lead to those violations being reversed.

This, however, is a tall order since it would involve G-7 members Britain, France, and Germany undertaking measures to evade and violate US sanctions. In theory, a plan for this evasion as already been put in place in the form of a joint venture by the three European governments aimed at creating a sanctions-proof pathway for transactions with Iran. But after being established for several months, this system has yet to be used for any transactions that are not already permitted under humanitarian exceptions to the US sanctions.

Even though the Europeans have affirmed their ongoing commitment to the nuclear deal, the apparent lack of progress in this area casts doubt on the notion of them genuinely acting in opposition to US policy. Furthermore, many have speculated that the recent election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of the UK could lead to greater alignment between American and British foreign policies, especially where Iran is concerned. On the other hand, Zarif’s invitation to the G-7 could suggest that France is trending in the opposite direction. But all three of the European signatories would surely have to work as one if they were to seriously challenge pressures coming from Washington.

Casting further doubt on the potential for genuine negotiations between Iran and the US, the Iranian regime has evidently responded to looming divisions among the Europeans by strengthening its demands, rather than reining them in. It’s not clear whether Tehran would now accept previous offers by the White House of negotiations without precondition. But even if it did, the result would almost certainly be an immediate stalemate on the basis of the hard line that Tehran has taken on the sorts of conditions it is willing to accept.

On Sunday, Iranian officials told the press that they expected to be permitted at least 700,000 barrels per day of oil exports, although they might demand as much as 1.5 million. This would be a tremendous departure from the Trump administration’s stated goal of bringing Iranian oil exports as close as possible to zero, in the interest of forcing a comprehensive change of the regime’s behavior. Additionally, the regime is demanding that foreign powers recognize its “right” to enrich uranium, and it has reiterated its refusal to compromise on its ballistic missile development and testing – something that was cited by Trump as part of his justification for withdrawing from the nuclear deal last year.

Despite the US president’s stated willingness to speak to his Iranian counterpart directly, the current batch of Iranian demands are still widely recognized to be nonstarters. Trump arguably moderated his own position in one key regard after being pressed to provide Iran with some hope for economic incentives to return to compliance with the nuclear deal. But although he proved willing to entertain the possibility of allowing partner nations to extend lines of credit to the Islamic Republic, he categorically rejected the notion of directly compensating Tehran for concessions, saying of the US, “We don’t pay.”

This, evidently, is a nonstarter for Iran, as a senior Iranian official told Reuters on Sunday that the regime would only accept payment in cash for the oil that it is demanding to export. The official then added, “And that is just for a start,” thereby leaving the door wide open for even more unlikely demands to be added to the regime’s negotiating position in the event that high-level talks are actually arranged in the weeks ahead.

If they are not – or if those talks take place but fall apart under the weight of the demands – it is all but certain that tensions will continue to escalate. Tehran has already warned of further violations to the nuclear deal in October if new concessions are not offered by the West. Meanwhile, a British-flagged commercial vessel is still being held in the Islamic Republic, which announced on Monday that it had dispatched two warships to the Gulf of Aden, ostensibly to protect against Western sanctions enforcement like the seizure of the Grace 1, which was released from Gibraltar earlier in the month despite protests from the US.

Washington has accused that vessel, now renamed the Adrian Darya 1, of being secretly owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the hardline paramilitary that was responsible for seizing the Stena Impero in retaliation, shooting down a US surveillance drone over international waters, and attacking as many as six tankers in the Gulf of Oman since April. On Monday, Iran claimed to have sold the estimated two million barrels of oil on the Adrian Darya, stoking American fears that the proceeds will help to finance terrorism and other malign activities directed by the IRGC.

Apparently referring to ongoing IRGC intervention in the region, as well as to escalating violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, President Trump said in a news conference at the G-7: “They can’t do what they were saying they were going to do, because if they do that, they will be met with really very violent force.” But even though this remark underscores the potential for further escalation, it bears mentioning that it was offered in support of his optimism about future talks, to illustrate that Tehran has substantial incentives to agree to those talks an avoid further provocation.

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