On February the 4th, the United Stated took a first step cutting off military sales to Saudi Arabia. Two days later the Secretary of State moved to delist the Houthi movement in Yemen as a terrorist organization, officially for humanitarian reasons. The Islamic Republic registered the move but made it clear the USA are not considered as a trustworthy interlocutor. Furthermore, many regime hawks, now robustly represented in the Parliament, benefit from the sabotage of the JCPOA. But the Country is bigger than its establishment. For Iran, relief from sanctions and opening to the world markets are a matter of survival.
Hossein Dehghan’s candidature to the Presidency is a message by the Leader just like the three-months long agreements obtained with the IAEA. Four things shall be kept in mind while analyzing the American-Iranian chessboard:
- we are not witnessing a revival of the “Obama era”;
- the United States have no interest in giving any effective (that is, not merely tactical) role to Europe;
- new negotiations that may be reopened would not focus on the terms of the JCPOA1 (the agreement signed in Vienna) but on those of the “JCPOA2”;
- if negotiations are resumed, the parts will go directly to the point: defining the Iranian presence in South East Asia, in the Middle East and in the Indian Ocean in perspective. This means that the USA will put missiles and Israel as subjects of the negotiations.
This is not an Obama-style strategy, it is a Clinton’s one. It is the PAX AMERICANA brought eastwise and its foundations would better be fixed in the next three months. Any change in Iranian policies can start only from inside the Country.
Teheran wants the already existing Deal to be implemented in full and insists on the fact that Iran has not broken the deal, while the unilateral reimposition of the sanctions by the USA has humiliated the Country. It has also reduced the credibility of the Rouhani Government and its effectiveness, shown European impotence and possibly caused the success of the conservative front in the last parliamentary elections, preventing actual reforms to be carried out and pushing Teheran to abide some of the obligations it had previously agreed to respect in the framework of the Deal. The Supreme Leader cannot authorize right now further concessions to the Americans on issues already regulated in the JCPOA because that would make him loose credibility in front of his own establishment. Revolutionary Iran’s Constitution was designed under the doctrine of the Velayat-e Faqih to guarantee the widest independence of the Country and to consolidate a national consciousness/identity based more on its Islamic essence rather than on the neo-Achemenid and filo-western one wanted by the Pahlavi Shah. According to its incumbent Islamic government, the Country did that to protect its dignity and to prevent foreign control of the Country from creating the same conditions that provoked the end of Mossadegh’s Government. It is very difficult that the Leader will expose himself to the risk of being considered as the responsible of a new loss of the Country’s reputation and dignity. Moreover, in a renegotiation of the JCPOA the USA would almost for sure require the limitation (if not the complete abandonment) of the missile program, whose development is considered fundamental by the Iranian regime to keep the control of its vital space, that is the Shiite halfmoon and the Persian Gulf. Moreover, the program is source of huge revenues for many actors related to State industry, strictly related to the establishment. The missile program exists mainly for the need to control part of Iraq, Syria and the Arab peninsula. This need is preponderant on that of threatening Israel, given that (despite the appearance) the existence of the Jewish State is not the main drive of the Iranian presence on the Mediterranean. Let us not forget that the Persians wish to extend their influence westward exists from the 5th century BC, under different flags and excuses.
For the USA it is necessary to avoid Iran to fall into Chinese influence. This is a risk Iran seriously runs given the political and economic weigh of China increased sensitively after the American withdrawal from the JCPOA. Iran is in the path of the “Belt and Road” initiative. If the new Government, surely a conservative one with a hyper-conservative Parliament, remains economically isolated from the world, the risk is that of Teheran jumping in Beijin’s arms to survive.
The United Stated need to counter Saudi activities in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan) and in South East Asia and to avoid the Kingdom to become the regional hegemonic power in open contrast to Qatar and Turkey, triggering severe consequences in the Mediterranean and in Northern Africa.
The United Stated need to formally reconcile with Europe after Trump. Washington can use the (although limited) weigh of some EU members to sign some new agreements with Teheran “in cooperation” with them to secure the paramountcy of American trade and industry on the European ones in Iran once and if sanctions are lifted.
A stronger Iran is also fundamental to counter some Turkish eurasist derives and to avoid Ankara to become the savior of Teheran on the Western front if sanctions persist. A dependance of a conservative Iran on a conservative Turkey would harm Israel a lot.
And finally, the United States are aware of the dramatic situation Iran is currently living and know it may feel forced to either accept some new conditions or running a mortal danger: keeping Tehran alive under a limited sovereignty would mean obtaining a balance among the Middle Eastern-South West Asian powers. A stronger Iran is necessary because a weaker Iran will trigger nationalistic and conservative policies opposite to the American interests in the area.
The JCPOA and its actual meaning
Initially, the JCPOA was structured as a device to let the USA and the Islamic Republic return to some degree to an official dialogue. They did it using the nuclear program as a ground. In Teheran many knew that the first agreement, once implemented, would trigger the development of a series of social and political changes, strongly wanted by many, that would later effectively open the doors to significative changes in the Country’s policies and eventually to the signature of further agreements on deeper reforms, informally referred to as “JCPOA2” (or “Barjam2” in Persian). The election of Donald Trump happened too shortly after the Deal was signed and prevented it from being effective. From 2016 to 2018 the Rouhani Cabinet has effectively proposed many drafts on social and economic issues in open contrast to the conservative wings’ interests and faced a severe opposition by them. They ultimately resulted in the protests of the ultraconservatives linked to the sanctuary of the Imam Reza in Masshad, a foundation among the richest in the Country, against some governmental proposals to approve transparency reforms. The impossibility of getting any improvement let to the disenchant of millions of Iranian voters and opened the way to the conservative victory at the last parliamentary elections.
Iran (2): the Supreme Leader
The Country is facing an unprecedented crisis due not only to the economic situation, but also to the fact that a new Supreme Leader may have to be elected soon. A tale of contemporary mythology tells the current Leader was elected after a suggestion made by his predecessor, the leader of the revolution. The truth is that the succession was not an easy task, and that the person who was initially designed as Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Montazeri, was excluded after 10 years of vice-leadership because of the critical vision he had on the contraction of the social rights the revolution had brought to the Iranian people. As widely known, that of the Leader is the most important figure in directing Iranian politics. He intervened heavily after the United States withdrew from the JCPOA, promoting a parallel diplomacy in the Shiite halfmoon, alternative to Minister Zarif’s line, based on the presence of the Quds force and its asymmetrical, not uniquely military but rather socio-political power. The orientation of the next Leader will therefore be extremely important to understand much of the features of tomorrow’s Iran. The Assembly of the Experts (the body in charge of electing, overseeing and even removing the Leader) is likely to follow the suggestions the incumbent Leader will eventually give and hardly it will decide not to take in consideration the majorly conservative composition of the Parliament.
The only authority in Tehran able to permit a renegotiation of the Deal is the Supreme Leader. Hardly will he permit a renegotiation of what had already been negotiated. It is possible that the next steps of the American-Iranian engagement will not concern direct confrontations on the nuclear or missile issues but they may rather consist on talks on exchange of prisoners or other side issues such as the defreezing of some Iranian assets seized abroad. Given this premise, talks may continue on other more significative issues. Any evidence of activities of the Swiss diplomacy or banking system in this sense will be as a sign of détente. The American Presidency has chosen Anthony Blinken (Jewish origins, well introduced in Paris) to be a bridge towards the Europe and the Middle East and Robert Malley, an architect of the JCPOA with a Jewish father and a past in the Clinton Administration, to instill trust in both the Israeli and the Iranian sides. The three months before the new Cabinet is elected will be an interesting barometer: the names and the personal orientations of the candidates to the Presidency coming from the conservative parties and their narratives will be another clear sign of how the (official or underground) negotiations are evolving. The only candidate registered up to now, Hossein Dehghan, is a man of absolute trust of the Leader. Whatever happens, America will bare its teeth to make Tehran understand that the United States are there and able to hurt. The US Navy and Air Force are already done their best to deliver the message as clear as they can. What we can expect by the other side is a proud exhibition of missile capabilities.