Iran will keep the nuclear issue burning to protect the regime
In Trump's own words, a new pact would "make Iran great" without seeking "leadership change."
US President Donald Trump has attempted to reach a new agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran since withdrawing the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018. Tehran's leaders have a singular opportunity to craft a new deal favourable to them due to his eagerness. They could arrange for the lifting of economic sanctions and pumping in of American and European finance, technology and industry. In Trump's own words, a new pact would "make Iran great" without seeking "leadership change."
France, Germany, Britain, Russia, China, Iran and even the US discussed a new framework at the UN General Assembly in late September, as per French President Emmanuel Macron. The proposed new deal would have Iran permanently abjuring nuclear weapons, conforming to a long-term framework of peaceful nuclear technology, and contributing to regional stability and noninterference in return for the US lifting sanctions. Restricting Iran's ballistic missiles was set aside for future discussion. Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif disputed these terms, however, upon returning to Tehran.
Conditions within Iran prevent the Rouhani administration from working with the Trump administration to settle the nuclear issue.
On the military front Tehran's Syrian ally, Bashar Al Assad, is well re-ensconced, and in Yemen, the Houthis are causing Saudi Arabia major scares - with tactical and material support from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran remains self-assured that its ballistic missiles are well bunkered to withstand an American aerial onslaught. Iran's confidence is boosted after missiles and drones evaded US-made air-defense systems during the alleged-Houthi attack on Saudi Aramco. The US Air Force's testing, on September 28, of the mobility readiness of command and control away from its Arabian Gulf base mistakenly added to Tehran's belief in eventually gaining strategic superiority within the region. So has Moscow's proposal for a new Gulf security plan.
Iran's society ranks 60/189 below much-less populated and far wealthier neighbours on the Arabian Gulf's southern shores like the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, on the UNDP's Human Development Index. The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network's World Happiness Report places Iran's people 117/156, again below the Arabian Gulf states.
For now, Iran is weathering US economic sanctions. The nation has maintained export of oil to China, and even to Syria and India, through trade and transport mechanisms that skirt US regulations. China, in particular, continues doing business with Iran in the energy, mining and transportation sectors. Even Britain circumvented US sanctions in October to make a $1.54-billion settlement with a partially state-owned Iranian bank. Iran has achieved self-sufficiency in gasoline refining. Planning ahead, Iran began cooperating with the Eurasian Economic Union. The oil ministry is laying a pipeline, with completion expected by March 2021, for carrying oil to an export terminal east of the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran and Beijing are finalising a 25-year Chinese commitment to invest $280 million into Iran's energy sector.
Military and social accomplishments coupled with economic endurance have emboldened officials of the Islamic Republic, including IRGC commanders, who abjure any compromise with the US. They harbour ill will for past American involvement - from the 1953 reinstallation of the shah, through chemical weapons supplies to Iraq during the 1980s war, to the ongoing sanctions. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, speaking after Friday prayers at Tehran in late August stressed that "negotiation under pressure is surrender," adding "given the approach adopted by the US and Trump, they're going to have to take this dream to their grave." In early September, the Majlis (Parliament) National Security and Foreign Policy Committee issued a "firm warning" over President Hassan Rouhani's remarks on readiness to negotiate with "anyone" to resolve Iran's problems.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who maintains authority largely by playing political factions against one another, has asserted: "I had cautioned about [agreeing to] the JCPOA. repeatedly reminded the president and foreign minister." Indeed, Khamenei has begun characterising US sanctions as a "short-term problem" facing the country that could generate "long-term benefits" by reducing dependence on oil and gas revenues.
Tehran's aggression and deception including downing an unarmed US drone, seizing a British oil tanker, promising not to sell oil to the brutal regime of Syria but then doing so through a third party, perhaps mining commercial transport in the Arabian Gulf, and facilitating strikes on Saudi energy facilities have compounded skepticism of its good faith. Speaking at the White House on January 2, Trump claimed, "Iran is in trouble. And you know what? I'd love to negotiate with Iran. They're not ready. But they will be." Yet, for now, Iran's regime is enduring - with Rouhani insisting on October 8, "the Iranian nation's power and status have improved after one-and-a-half-years of constant economic pressure." Consequently, conditions do not bode well for reinstating the JCPOA or negotiating a new nuclear deal soon.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is Distinguished Professor at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University.
Carol E. B. Choksy is Senior Lecturer at at Indiana University.
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