In October, the US president decertified Iranian compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which ostensibly opened the Islamic Republic to investment from countries that had previously been participating in US-led sanctions. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remains in effect, but the US Congress is required to report this month on whether it will continue to suspend the sanctions named in the agreement. Even if Congress maintains the status quo, Trump has suggested that he might use presidential authority to contravene the agreement anyway, assuming that Congress and European leaders have failed to strengthen what he regards as one of the worst agreements ever negotiated.
Zarif’s editorial praises the JCPOA as a “rare triumph of diplomacy over confrontation,” and it describes Trump and other Iran hawks as “oblivious to the necessity of inclusive engagement.” The Iranian foreign minister also accused the White House of trying to shift attention away from the nuclear deal and toward other areas of political conflict with the Islamic Republic, particularly its ongoing development and testing of ballistic missiles and its regional influence.
Grounds for Anxiety
But the same article might be regarded as adding fuel to the anxiety that has long been growing among Iran’s adversaries in the Middle East and in the Western world. Zarif used a portion of the text to boast of Iran having “honed missiles as an effective means of deterrence.” He also claimed that the missile program has placed more emphasis on precision than on range. But other officials, particularly those associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, have boasted of dramatic expansions in the range of those same missiles. The IRGC has also reportedly helped terrorist groups like Iran and Hezbollah, as well as Yemen’s Houthi rebels, to boost the range of their own missiles.
Last month, a Houthi missile was shot down over Saudi Arabia’s King Khaled International Airport, making it the deepest penetration by the Shiite militia into Saudi territory. US intelligence and the Saudis described identified the missile as being of Iranian origin and suggested that the strike could be considered an act of war.
The conflict in Yemen was also mentioned in Zarif’s editorial, with the foreign minister accusing the US and its regional allies of rejecting an Iranian appeal for peace after the Houthi overran the capital city of Sanaa. The appeal also came shortly after the start of a bombing campaign by a Gulf Arab coalition with Saudi Arabia at its head. That coalition has been widely described as assembling with the express purpose of pushing back against the growth of Iranian influence in the region.
Naturally, Zarif did not mention that in Syria, the site of the other major civil war in the region, Iran-backed forces were repeatedly accused of deliberately undermining the peace process as Tehran and its allies apparently pursed a strategy of destroying the pro-democracy opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad before turning attention to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Instead of discussing those previous peace efforts, Zarif praised Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for his participation in a summit last month with his Russian and Turkish counterparts. By that time, international reporting upon on-the-ground conditions in Syria and Iraq indicated that the presence of Iran-backed militias had become quite entrenched there. Viewed side-by-side with Zarif’s comments about the civil war in Yemen, this suggests that the Islamic Republic has shown willingness to negotiate for peace in multiple regional conflicts only after Iranian proxies developed a permanent foothold, and before that foothold could be dislodged.
This trend of establishing and then not relinquishing positions of influence in the broader region is a major reason for the US policy that Zarif’s article strove to describe as distracting from Western focus on the JCPOA. Meanwhile, many critics of the nuclear agreement have criticized Western leaders for being excessively focused on it, to the exclusion of other matters of importance to Iran policy.
Criticism of Conciliation
Regional influence and missile activities are certainly prominent among these other issues, but so is human rights, which was given particular focus last week in a hearing at the European Parliament just days before International Human Rights Day, December 10. The National Council of Resistance of Iran reported upon that hearing, organized by the Friend of a Free Iran intergroup and attended by representatives of a number of different nations and political affiliations.
The report quoted one speaker, Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki as calling the Islamic Republic an enemy of democratic values – values that the European Union was turning its back on for the sake of pursuing the trade that had been partly enabled by the implementation of the JCPOA. Another participant in the meeting, MEP Anthea McIntyre of the British Conservative Party, reportedly expressed “disgust” at European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s description of Iran as a “crucial partner” to the EU.
There appears to be growing opposition to Mogherini’s view. The NCRI suggests that French President Emmanuel Macron has taken an opposing position in light of recent remarks calling for parallel agreements to constrain Iran’s other behavior without undermining the JCPOA. But this position is somewhat at odds with the fact that France was among the first governments to pursue new trade agreements with Iran after the end of nuclear negotiations. And regardless of where the French government stands at this moment, the opponents of unconditional trade cooperation still seem to face an uphill battle in the EU.
A number of national governments continue to purse that cooperation, arguably in line with Zarif’s advice to defy would-be American leadership on the issue. The Financial Tribune reported on Friday that Madrid, for instance, had announced that it would provide guarantees to new Spanish investment in the Islamic Republic. This may help would-be investors to overcome their existing hesitancy to invest in the midst of an unresolved threat of re-imposed sanctions and a return to tense relations between the Iranian regime and the Western world as a whole.
The Spanish government’s move is presumably intended to hedge against the possibility of the current status of those relations being challenged by a minority of Western powers. But that is not the only potential source of that challenge. It still remains to be seen how well Iran itself will be able to keep up the appearance of cooperation with its former adversaries. At least since the 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, there has been competition within the regime between a pragmatic strategy of engagement and an ideological strategy of mutual confrontation with the West. And although public communications like Zarif’s editorial continue to push the pragmatic agenda, the Rouhani administration has not always been at odds with acknowledged hardliners.
The Role of Dual Nationals
This past weekend’s visit to Tehran by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson may have been a showcase for compromise between the two factions of Iranian foreign policy. And even if those two factions are still mired in earnest competition, the visit leaves a great deal of uncertainty about the extent to which Iran will cooperate with the United Kingdom in the near future.
Johnson’s visit focused in large part upon the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British charity worker who arrested last April and then sentenced to five years in prison for supposedly pursuing the “soft overthrow” of the clerical regime. The British foreign secretary described the relevant discussions with Iranian officials as “worthwhile,” but there was no sign of serious progress toward a resolution to her case.
On one hand, a hearing for Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been cancelled at the last minute, after having been scheduled to take place on Sunday. The trial would have examined state prosecutor’s efforts to extend her sentence by as much as sixteen years – a move that was widely regarded part of broader efforts to use imprisoned dual nationals as bargaining chips in negotiations with Western governments. This interpretation had been publicly advanced by Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe, but he embraced the cancellation of Sunday’s hearing as the “first ripple of freedom,” according to Politics Home.
At the same time, Agence-France Presse reported that in his meeting with the Johnson, Rouhani reiterated familiar criticisms of Western nations’ actions in the wake of the JCPOA’s implementation. The Iranian president and other leading officials have generally blamed the reticence of Western governments and investors for the slow pace of Iran’s post-nuclear deal economic recovery. By re-stating these accusations in the context of Johnson’s visit, Rouhani may have been urging the expansion of trade as a condition for the release of imprisoned Westerners.
It was previously reported that the British government was considering the payment of more than 500 million dollars to the Iranian government, in what would officially be characterized as repayment of a decades-old debt, though it would also be widely regarded as a de facto ransom payment. At the time of the JCPOA’s implementation in January 2016, the US government made a similar “debt repayment” at the time of the release of four imprisoned American citizens.
But according to Reuters, shortly after both Rouhani’s apparent plea for ransom and Zarif’s Times editorial, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi issued a statement categorically rejecting the notion of negotiation of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case and reiterating that Iran does not recognize dual nationality. Considering Qasemi’s role within the generally pragmatic Rouhani administration, it is possible that this statement represents an effort to simply put more effort on the British government while also giving public voice to hardline talking points.
Such a balancing act between pragmatic and hardline positions could provide encouragement both to advocates and critics of Western outreach to the Islamic Republic. And in light of Johnson’s visit and last week’s meeting at the European Parliament, it is yet to be determined which Western impulse will win the upper hand.