After tentatively signaling openness to the idea of negotiations with American officials over the weekend, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani quickly distanced himself from that notion on Tuesday, saying that such talks would only go forward if the US first agreed to remove the sanctions that have been imposed on the Islamic Republic over the past year. The reversal was seemingly the latest in a series of gestures which underscore the Iranian regime’s confrontational approach to foreign relations and its commitment to defiance of Western positions.
Rouhani’s latest comments specifically affirm his government’s intention to continue violating the 2015 nuclear agreement, even as the three European signatories to that agreement continued to urge full compliance as a prerequisite to any further deals concerning Iran’s economic future. The US had signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action along with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, thereby trading sanctions relief for restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program. But President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal in May 2018, prompting Tehran to intensify its preexisting complaints about a supposed lack of economic benefits under the deal.
The Trump administration has maintained a strategy of “maximum pressure” ever since, with the intention of expanding upon the nuclear restrictions while also compelling Iran to compromise over its ballistic missile development and interference in regional affairs. But the US president has also repeatedly expressed interest in high-level talks that might lead to this outcome and to the Iranian businesses’ return to global markets. He and his Iranian counterpart both seemed to make statements to this effect after Trump and the leaders of the other G-7 nations were joined in Biarritz France by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
The apparent mutual embrace of negotiations offered support to French President Emmanuel Macron’s claim that talks between the two feuding nations would be arranged in a matter of weeks. This was arguably a surprising development considering that Trump had distanced himself from the decision to invite Zarif to the G-7 summit after the White House previously imposed economic sanctions on him specifically. These sanctions were preceded by others that named Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and eight commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Foreign Minister’s blacklist was ultimately explained in terms of his role as a mouthpiece for propaganda originating among these hardline authorities.
Notably, however, the sanctioning of Zarif occurred only after the Trump administration reached out to him with a request for direct negotiations concerning Iran’s malign activities and the general sanctions on Iranian exports. This request was reportedly accompanied by a warning that Zarif would come under sanction, but he refused anyway. Critics of current US policy were quick to warn that this could impede the already sparse diplomatic relations between Iran and the US, who have not had formal ties since the 1979-80 hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran. But the Trump administration clarified that it still intended to speak with regime authorities, but now preferred direct discussions with the president or the supreme leader.
Against the backdrop of the G-7 summit, Trump affirmed his openness to such talks but also said that he did not believe the present circumstances to be correct. By comparison, President Rouhani only stated vaguely that his administration would not rule out any talks that might be in line with the nation’s interests. These remarks also failed to reference the US by name, leaving him with deniability in the event that he felt compelled to walk back the perceived embrace of dialogue with the West. And this is exactly what he did on Tuesday, although it was not immediately clear whether the new commentary represented a change of heart or an order from Supreme Leader Khamenei.
What is clear, however, is that Khamenei has been spearheading a policy of defiance in international affairs for several years, at a minimum. Even while the negotiations that led to the JCPOA were still ongoing, the supreme leader ordered his subordinates to not engage in dialogue with Western “enemies” on any topic other than uranium enrichment. This is presumably the central reason why the agreement’s January 2016 implementation was disappointing to so many critics of the Iranian regime. It included no limits on Iran’s ballistic missile development or any other behaviors that are perceived as destabilizing by the international community, and these deficiencies formed the bulk of the Trump administration’s argument for pulling out of it.
That argument may have been strengthened in the run-up to Trump’s inauguration a year after the deal was implemented, since Tehran undertook a number of ballistic missile tests during that period, to say nothing of its persistent involvement in regional conflicts like the civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Those missile tests diminished in the midst of maximum pressure, possibly because of newfound financial limitations in the Revolutionary Guard and possibly because of re-calculation by Iranian policymakers. But in either case, the testing did not stop completely, and Iran’s potential nuclear warhead delivery devices remain a serious topic of concern for both the US and its allies.
That concern was underlined just ahead of Rouhani’s rejection of unconditional negotiations, when it was reported that the Iranians appeared to be preparing for a new space launch, based on satellite images of the Imam Khomeini Space Center. Iran attempted two previous such launches in January and February, ostensibly in an effort to place communication satellites in orbit. Although both launches failed in their final stages, they still elicited condemnation from the Trump administration, which emphasized the potential for space rockets to double as military rockets and potentially reach targets as far away as the US with future Iranian nuclear weapons.
Rouhani’s comments on Tuesday pointed to the shrinking timeframe for the development of such weapons. Whereas former compliance with the terms of the JCPOA supposedly pushed the country’s “breakout time” to more than a year, that window has already shrunk as a result of the violations that were undertaken in recent months. At the beginning of July, it was confirmed that Iranian nuclear facilities had exceeded defined limits on its stockpile of nuclear material, and later in the month those facilities began enriching uranium beyond the 3.67 percent fissile purity that was permitted under the deal.
Then, in August, Rouhani announced that the regime would wait 60 days for the Europeans to take actions that seriously counteract the effects of US sanctions. If they fail to do so, it is likely that the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran will order the resumption of full-scale activities at the Arak heavy water plant, potentially opening up a plutonium pathway to a nuclear bomb. Rouhani was not explicit about this on Tuesday, but he was quoted as saying, “We will continue to scale back our commitments under the 2015 deal if our interests are not guaranteed.”
Zarif’s invitation to the G-7 summit may raise some doubts about European resilience in the face of such ultimatums. This is especially true in light of previous reports that the UK and France were coordinating ahead of that summit to present a unified challenge to the American position. But the European Union and its member states have also been consistent about condemning Iranian violations of the JCPOA, and Iranian provocations more generally. Rouhani’s effort to rule out unconditional talks may prove disheartening to policymakers who had seemingly grown optimistic about the potential for a negotiated resolution.
And while the latest commentary threatens to diminish that optimism, Tehran continues to express its own. Whether sincerely or not, regime officials have been publicly working to set the stage for Western capitulation in a number of areas. This is evident for instance in the regime’s deployment of two warships to the Gulf of Aden in the midst of an outpouring of military rhetoric portraying the Islamic Republic as militarily prepared to fend off threats from a global superpower.
Earlier in August, Brigadier General Alireza Sabahi-Fard , the commander of the Iranian Army’s Air Defense Force, claimed that “the enemy” of the Islamic Republic had either pulled forces out of the region or refused to maneuver those forces any closer than 200 miles away from the Strait of Hormuz.
These remarks evidently referred to the scheduled rotation of British warships and the publicly announced decision by the US to station its naval assets outside the Strait for the purpose of coordinating a multinational security coalition. And although that coalition presently has only three other confirmed members, the British Royal Navy has already been shadowing British-flagged vessels as they pass through the Strait, to prevent a repeat of the mid-July incident in which the Revolutionary Guards seized the Stena Impero in retaliation for the enforcement of EU sanctions.
But shortly after Rouhani reiterated his government’s insistence upon the unconditional removal of sanctions, Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh laid out the regime’s expectations regarding what would happen if the EU complied with that demand. “Three days are needed to return production to the levels before the reduction,” he said according to the semi-official Mehr News Agency. This, too, is representative of longstanding Iranian talking points which insist that the regime is capable of rebounding with ease from Western pressures.
Naturally, such statements help to justify intransigence in dealings with the source of those pressures. Rouhani’s recent reversal demonstrates that that intransigence remains even when both Europe and the US have expressed interest in holding negotiations. But this may run counter to the regime’s interests, since European advocacy for a negotiated resolution has yet to coincide with a reduction in Western demands concerning Iran’s behavior.