What is behind Iran’s foreign policy stalemate? - opinion

Iran considers its regional influence as its winning card. Weakening Iran’s influence in the region’s countries will directly impact the outcome of the JCPOA negotiations.

IRANIAN FOREIGN Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend a news conference in Moscow in 2019. (photo credit: EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/REUTERS)
IRANIAN FOREIGN Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend a news conference in Moscow in 2019.
 New forms of geopolitics are taking shape in the Middle East, starring Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Sergey Lavrov’s visit to the Persian Gulf sent similar messages to Iran. Russian officials have indicated they are looking for new partners in the region, as evidenced by developments in Syria. These events will put more pressure on Iran and block more international political avenues for the regime. 
Iran is losing some areas that previously provided security or political influence and advantage. The Syrian conference held with Turkey, Qatar and Russia in Iran’s absence demonstrates the regime is probably no longer an active recruiter in this field.
In Syria, where Iran has invested heavily financially and humanly, the result appears to be almost nil. The same scenario is happening in Iraq. Iraq is increasing its political distance from Iran and gravitating closer to the West. The pope’s visit to this country was another clear message in this regard. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi could not be considered a faithful ally of Iran. Iran’s investment in Iraq has reached a record low. The whole relationship is entirely different from six years ago.
Iran is banking on the return of the 2016 nuclear deal to continue to benefit from it. This belief is a hoax though. Every international agreement is the result of the balance of power at that time. The balance of power says March 2021 is not a continuation of February and January 2015. It is more apparent US President Joe Biden’s administration does not support the old JCPOA, acknowledging the changing international and regional situation for both Iran and the US. Even those who negotiated and defended the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action recognize the agreement needs to change, reflecting the new regional and international standings. Wendy Sherman, America’s chief negotiator for the deal, did not defend it at a recent Senate approval meeting.

Changing conditions in Iran


Iran has gone through two uprisings since the JCPOA. President Hassan Rouhani said it was after the 2017 uprising that president Donald Trump dared to abandon the deal. With the recent Balochistan uprising on the border area with Pakistan, the Iranian Foreign Ministry rejected non-aligned talks with the United States because it was not a good opportunity. For this reason, the role of Iran in this new balance of power is so minimal that the Iranian regime is currently attacking American bases in Iraq or Afghanistan in an attempt to force the US to negotiate on their terms.

Geopolitical changes in the region


At the regional level, both Israel and the Arab states have become closer. In response to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez, Sherman referred to the Abraham Accords, which has altered relationships and power within the region. This new partnership makes it harder to deal with Iran, as the regime feels backed into a corner. After all, we face a new wave in Congress, which only compounds Iran’s challenges to achieve its version of successful negotiations.

US domestic conditions


So far in Biden’s tenure, Republican lawmakers in Congress have put forward eight plans to prevent the US government from returning to the JCPOA. The plans are to tighten sanctions against Iran, declare non-support for the deal, and oppose the easing of sanctions; all to try to prevent the US from rejoining the agreement. Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty has introduced a bill that oversees any government action to lift sanctions, which garnered the support of 27 other senators. 
Another plan is a resolution introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton. The plan opposes any form of easing of sanctions unless all disputes with Iran, including its nuclear, missile and regional programs, are addressed. Thirty-one senators also supported the bill. Two parallel schemes have also been introduced in the House of Representatives, with the Hagerty parallel schemes having 24 supporters and schemes similar to Cotton having 30 supporters.

JCPOA did not achieve its goals


The main criticism of conservative US Republicans and prominent Democrats in Congress in 2015 was that the JCPOA temporarily blocked Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and that a series of deadlines were coming. These deadlines would lift all restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear and missile program within the agreement’s framework.
In 2030, Iran can enrich indefinitely and increase its centrifuges’ number and quality indefinitely, as it is already enriching. This level of capability to enrich uranium will put Europe at risk as well. At the Senate session to approve Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Mitt Romney criticized the JCPOA for temporarily blocking Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but what about in the long run? Sherman was expected to oppose this notion and understanding because she was one of the architects of the JCPOA. This time, she did not respond to Romney and only said, “Yes, the situation has changed.”

The Islamic Republic’s illusory notion


In 2015, it was unclear when Iran would acquire a nuclear weapon over the course of a few months. President Barack Obama was willing for this acquisition to happen. The idea of Obama and secretary of state John Kerry in 2015 was that if they come to terms with Iran, then the regime can be managed, change its foreign policy, and be moderate in the region.
Those beliefs proved to be illusions, and there are no moderates in Iran. Instead, there are executions, arrests and hostages in Iran. There is no moderation in foreign policy. In broad daylight, the regime wanted to blow up an Iranian opposition rally in France in 2018 using its sitting diplomat. That diplomat was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison. 
Over the years, Iran has backed down from its involvement in the region, but with the money released, it developed a ballistic missile program and fired a missile with the slogan “Death to Israel” written on it. The US and the world have seen the blood shed by Iranian-backed militias in the Middle East over the past five years.

End of the regime’s strategic capacity


The nuclear deal was the product of the balance of power in 2015. The strategic capacity of the regime has diminished since. A large part of its nuclear facilities has been lost or dismantled. It will not be able to acquire a nuclear weapon any time soon. 

Diplomatic imagination


Biden’s administration will give Iran incentives and is interested in diplomacy, but the primary basis of Biden’s work today is coercive diplomacy. The idea that Trump is gone so we can work better with the Americans is a childish perception and a kind of diplomatic imagination.
Biden will not quickly eliminate the levers created by Trump for US foreign policy. Biden indeed announced that he intends to return to the JCPOA, but not the one that Iran negotiated back in 2015. What was Biden’s most important criticism of Trump’s strategy of maximum pressure? We can get tough on Iran through smart diplomacy.
Biden never said Trump was tough. In 2019, Biden outlined his clever ways to crack down on Iran, including pressure plus diplomacy. Trump prepared the ground for pressure. Even now, Biden is increasing the dose of diplomacy. While consulting with his partners, he has never concealed that the JCPOA is the first step. For Biden, the agreement is a facilitator for the disarmament of the Islamic Republic. This aim means a deadlock of the Iranian regime.
Meanwhile, the regime wants to negotiate, but it does not want to abort its missile program and its meddling in the region’s countries. Though the Americans are primarily looking for nuclear consensus, they have repeatedly said they do not want Iran to have a nuclear bomb. Iran has lost its advantage in this area.
However, Iran does not like to link a possible 2021 JCPOA to its ballistic missile program and regional influence. It needs them as bargaining chips, hence its insistence on a return to the 2015 JCPOA. Given the positions that exist on both sides and the positions within Congress, it seems the Iranian regime will find it difficult to push ts agenda.
Sanctions are more than just an economic matter; they are a security issue for Iran’s Islamic Republic. One of the most important goals of Iran’s foreign policy is to try to lift the sanctions. The regime cannot maintain funding for its militias and all its forces inside and outside Iran, thus reducing its regional influence. Any compromise on behalf of the Iranian regime is considered a setback and a sign of giving in. 
Iran considers its regional influence as its winning card. Weakening Iran’s influence in the region’s countries will directly impact the outcome of the JCPOA negotiations because the regime has always said that diplomacy without the support of power and bargaining levers is not successful.
If it does not give up regional influence, it must live up to the global consensus against the Islamic Republic and possible UN resolutions against it. The other solution for the regime is to bow to the new 2021 agreement demands. Trying to lift sanctions, keeping a tight grasp on power, and preventing global consequences are pieces of a puzzle the Iranian regime is trying to solve. Is it possible for the regime to get out of these paradoxical situations?
The writer is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council on the Middle East and North Africa.