Iran is totally confused on how to approach Biden - analysis

The Islamic Republic relies on a keen understanding of the West to make policy.

Flags from Iran and the United States  at the California Convention for a Free Iran, Los Angeles, US, January 11, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/PATRICK T. FALLON)
Flags from Iran and the United States at the California Convention for a Free Iran, Los Angeles, US, January 11, 2020
One word we haven’t heard about Iran lately is “hard-liners.” That may be due to the fact that the Iran lobby in the US has not received its talking points and marching orders.
In the old days of the lead-up to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Iran deal, we were presented with a narrative of “a deal or war.” This bizarre and false story claimed that those who opposed a “deal” want war. No other country in the world requires a “deal” to stop it from deploying nuclear threats.
Nevertheless the Iranian regime’s decision to hold back the story of “moderates” and “hard-liners” as a way to convince the West that there could be a war illustrates how confused the regime is by the iincoming Biden administration.
Iran relies on a keen understanding of the West to make policy. It knows that if it holds up a bogeyman of “nuclear weapons” while also claiming that it has issued a “fatwa” against nuclear weapons, it can create a strange contradictory narrative in which it is run by “moderates” but that “hard-liners” might come to power if the West doesn’t do everything Tehran wants.
And what does Tehran want? Even Tehran doesn’t know what its end goal is with the nuclear program. What it does want is an end to sanctions. The deal is just a talking point because Iran’s assessment is that Western countries like “deals” and “agreements” and zero-sum games of “we got this” and “we made peace,” so they can say they “accomplished” something.
Iran understands that Western leaders value photo-ops and lip service more than reality on the ground.
For the regime and its experts, some of whom were educated in the West, this carrot-and-stick approach of hard-liners and moderates has worked in the past. But what is Biden up to? the Iranians wonder today. Biden has talked with European officials, the regime in Tehran knows. The talks “were related to the Iran nuclear deal,” Tasnim News says in Tehran.
But Iran’s media rely on Arabic media for information on these talks, Tasnim notes. “Biden is trying to start direct talks with Tehran through European mediators and reestablish this communication channel.” This report is a major insight into Tehran’s thinking and confusion.  
Iran is also watching US Central Command. A new US carrier is coming on station. Rumors of threats by Iranian IRGC fast boats are held out as a possible way to threaten the US and allies.
“The US commander claimed that the new administration in Washington intends to review US policy,” Tasnim says.
“Statements by Western officials and the media about [the deal] seem positive these days,” it says. “As European officials have said for years, they have made relatively positive statements and positions on the nuclear deal, but in practice they have had no way out for Iran. The statements of the American officials have not had any practical support so far and have been just words and gestures.”
This is Iran’s way of saying that they are totally confused by Biden’s team.
In the old days of 2014, Iran understood that the Obama administration needed a deal to get a win. So Iran held out some complex regional desires to get there. Tehran would cement control of Iraq with Nouri al-Maliki. It would get the US to go soft on Hezbollah’s international networks. Washington should shift focus on Syria away from toppling Assad and toward a political solution. Russia could be brought into Syria in a more serious way, Qasem Soleimani told officials in Iran.
Iran judged this correctly. By 2015, the US was in eastern Syria with the SDF fighting ISIS, Russia was flying warplanes into Khmeimim – and soon Moscow would host the Astana talks and remove the US from the Syria equation. Iran would cement the PMU of Shia militias in Iraq in power. Saudi Arabia would intervene in Yemen in 2015 and Iran would send its technology to the Houthis. The JCPOA would be signed. Obama’s team would be hostile to Israeli and Saudi complaints. Mission accomplished.
TEAM BIDEN is more confusing because there are no Ben Rhodes or John Kerry statements for Iran to refer to. Kerry and Rhodes appeared to want a US policy shift deeply toward Iran, away from the “Sunnis” and Israel. But so far, Iran is reading tea leaves.
“These remarks have not been of much benefit to the country, except for the purpose of intensifying the internal divide in Iran,” Tasnim said. “As many of our country’s officials have emphasized, a nuclear deal requires action and will – more than words and paper.”
More concerns follow. “Recent developments in the United States and Europe seem to be pursuing a common goal, which is to create a platform in which other issues can be discussed,” it said. “The West is now looking at the issue one-sidedly, rather than reviving the interests of the parties – including Iran – in the Iran deal, and is simply seeking to impose more restrictions on our country.
“In such circumstances, it is expected that the Iranian authorities will not be deceived by the West. Any game on the opponent’s field, due to lack of accurate calculation, can cause some people inside to become the mediators of Western pressure on the Iranian people.”
So Iran has demands. “What our officials, including the supreme leader, have emphasized is that the return of the United States will be meaningful when the sanctions are lifted in practice.... It imposed sanctions on Iran... so the lifting of sanctions means all of this, not just the lifting of new Trump-era sanctions,” the report says.
IRAN IS cold to a new agreement. “It should be noted that changing the label and trying to change the nature of such sanctions is not a sound argument for not lifting them, so Europe and the United States should lift all sanctions if they return, and none of them should be subject to new provisions or conditions,” Tasnim said. “Any new terms and conditions, or the refusal to lift some of these sanctions, will essentially mean a new agreement or renegotiation of the [Iran deal], which our country’s policy has been to oppose.”
The article notes: “The West seeks to use some of the sanctions as leverage to pressure Tehran in order to gain huge concessions by depriving Iran of all elements of its power and making it surrender. Satisfying to lift some, not all, of the related sanctions is to help the Western campaign and ease its future pressures.
“If Europe and the United States want to return to the nuclear deal, none of the sanctions [can be reinstated] – and the Trump-era sanctions and the sanctions that have been added to the new label should not remain in place.”  
In short, Iran is driving a hard bargain. Note that in this discussion the supposed need for a nuclear program is not discussed. Iran’s nuclear program is largely a bogeyman designed to get the US to beg Iran to do things. It is a kind of blackmail. No other country does this, but Iran’s use of this blackmail is only because it was able to get its friends in the West to push a narrative of “we need a deal or there will be war.”
Iran can’t afford a war, so the story of a “war” was entirely a myth. The real story of Iran’s demands is wrapped up in sanctions relief and its demand for more of a role with militias and proxies throughout the region. It seeks regional dominance, while its own country has largely been bankrupted.