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New intrigue over nuclear deal

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The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) demonstrated unprecedented foreign policy activity in August as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Finland, Sweden, Norway, France, China, Japan, and Malaysia in the second half of the month, and Russia – in early September.

Tehran’s genuinely belligerent spirit is due to the situation in which it found itself in connection with the US sanctions. The United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA) in May 2018. On August 7, 2018, Washington slapped the first package of restrictive measures on Iran that hit the Iranian car-manufacturing industry, as well as its trade in gold and other precious metals. In November the same year, the United States imposed sanctions on the Iranian energy sector and disconnected Iran from the international interbank system SWIFT. True, from November to May 2019, the White House provided benefits for the purchase of Iranian oil to eight countries (China, India, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, Greece, Italy). But this period is over.

In April 2018, Iran exported about 2.5 million barrels per day (b/p/d). In July 2019 this figure dropped to 100 – 120 (taking into account condensate and light oil) thousand b / d, that is, decreasing by 25 times. Accordingly, oil revenues, which make up a significant part of the Iranian budget, have plummetted (according to various sources, from 25 to 40%). As a result, the socio-economic situation in Iran is deteriorating as prospects for settling the crisis appear dim and illusory as long as the problem of sanctions persists.

Undoubtedly, Tehran has consistently been trying to find a way out of the confrontation with the United States. The parties involved are playing it tough, with the game being fraught with unpredictable consequences. A lot is at stake, first of all, security in the Middle East and maybe, all over the world.

The current intrigue is about whether Iran and the US are ready to strike a compromise in their mutual claims. Where is the “red line” they are unable to go over? It has to be underscored that neither Tehran nor Washington plan to sort out the conflict by war.

Iran’s claims to the US are numerous. The main thing for now is that the United States ought to lift anti-Iranian sanctions and return to the JCPOA.

The United States too has a list of requirements for Iran, which boil down to five main ones:

1. Transformation, breaking the nuclear deal (JCPOA) in order to block the possibility of creating nuclear weapons by Iran, including by introducing an open-end validity period for the document.

2. A ban on the creation of ballistic missiles in Iran.

3. Setting a limit on Iran’s military policy in the Middle East, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

4. No more support for terrorist organizations, primarily Hezbollah and Hamas.

5. Human rights in Iran.

The latter requirement is clearly optional, is purely propagandistic, so, in all likelihood, it will not be on the agenda of a possible Iranian-American dialogue – be it in absentia, directly or with the help of intermediaries.

Now about the players, who run this complicated, at times confusing and even  contradictory game.

Naturally, the role of Russia and China, as the authors of the JCPOA, is decisive. But Russia, under the current conditions, is restricted in its capacioty to exert any practical influence on Iran and / or the United States apart from devising proposals, recommendations and evaluating the process of solving the JCPO problem.

For China, the “Iranian-American problem” is a tool in the fight against the United States on the globally extensive fronts of the US-Chinese trade war. Beijing’s policy towards Tehran will largely depend on the results of this war. Improvement of Sino-US relations would mean a cooling toward Iran and vice versa.

What is essential given the situation is the position of Scandinavian countries, which are home to a large number of Iranian emigrants. What is also important is that Scandinavia has traditionally good economic ties with Iran. A large role in the settlement of Iranian problem belongs to Japan. Perhaps, it is these considerations that determined the August visits of the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, which covered these countries. It was vitally important for the head of the Iranian diplomacy to win support or, in any case, explain to the leaders of these states the Iranian views on resolving the “Iranian-American problem”, particularly now that the political games are approaching their peak.

Considering all this, it should be recognized that at present, the future of the JCPOA and Iran is determined by three players – Iran proper, the United States and the European Union. Significantly, the European Union from the very beginning opposed the anti-Iranian policy of US President Trump, spoke against America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, and came up against the imposition of sanctions. At the same time, the EU, while insisting on maintaining the JCPOA and lifting (easing) sanctions, like the United States, will not accept Iran’s missile program, its Middle East policy, Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, or problems with human rights in Iran.

Tactically, however, there are tangible differences between the positions of Brussels and Washington. The EU is not ready to solve all Iranian problems at once and is trying to create conditions for the resumption of the negotiating process, primarily between Iran and the United States, without pressure on Iran, without sanctions.

The EU has launched INSTEX, a tool for supporting trade settlements with Iran. And even though it is ineffective, but the Europeans (unlike the Iranians) hope that everything will work out well.

At present, of the three EU countries participating in the 2015 nuclear deal (Germany, France, Great Britain) France is taking the lead to settle the Iranian issue. It is clear that Britain will leave the EU at the end of October 2019, although it will continue to cooperate with the European Union on all foreign policy issues, including Iran.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel – a symbol of Germany and an authoritative but unofficial EU leader – will soon resign. Given the conditions, French President Emmanuel Macron – young, active, persistent, with ambitions akin to General Charles de Gaulle, has a chance to become Europe’s political heavyweight No. 1.

In fact, President Macron has become a mediator between Iran and the United States. The agenda of the recent G7 summit in the French city of Biarritz (August 24 – 26) included relations with the IRI but no one had expected any surprises in this area. Suddenly, on August 25, at the initiative of President Macron, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Biarritz. The head of Iranian diplomacy held talks with several leaders, and even planned a meeting with the US president. However, Trump did not receive Zarif.

Nevertheless, at a press conference that took place on the last day of the summit, Trump answered a question on Iran in a much friendlier manner than one might expect. “If the circumstances are right, I would surely agree to this [a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. VS.] ”In addition, Trump described Rouhani as “an excellent negotiator,”and the Iranians as “nice people,” and expressed confidence that“Iran can become a great power, but they should not have nuclear weapons.”

The very next day, on August 26, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “If  only I knew that visits by and meetings with a certain person could help my country and solve the problems of my people, I would go for it” – apparently, there is a hint at possible negotiations with President Trump.

Would they be possible – such negotiations? Observers and political analysts are at odds about it. Some argue that such an option is unlikely. Others say why not. After all, Trump met with Kim Jong-un – the dictator of North Korea. It was Trump’s press conference and the reaction to his speech by Rouhani that prompted rumors that the presidential summit could be held in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which goes into session on September 17.

Of course, it is difficult to make any predictions to this effect, since it is more than challenging, particularly for Iranians, to set the distance that they and the Americans must cover to meet each other halfway, forgetting about their mutual phobias.

Despite all his so-called unpredictability, which analysts endlessly talk about, Trump is constantly resorting to the professional tactics of a hardcore businessman by offering his counterparties excessive requirements or largely unrealistic or unacceptable conditions and thereby drags them into negotiations during which he makes some concessions.

The Iranians find it harder. While the need for compromise in a dialogue with the United States to lift or at least ease sanctions is beyond doubt, the Iranian authorities can not lose face. Any compromise should look like a victory. This is what causes difficulty. Both President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in their foreign policy efforts have to constantly look back on their domestic audience, first of all, on their political opponents from the radicals who abhor either the JCPOA or any negotiations with the West, more so with the United States.

It was no accident then that almost immediately after Foreign Minister Zarif’s talks at the G-7 summit, he reiterated that no meetings with US officials would  be possible unless Washington returned to the JCPOA, while President Rouhani confirmed that lifting the sanctions was the main condition for negotiations.

To harmonize all the requirements of Iran and the United States is practically impossible as Tehran (at least, officially) will never agree to curtail its missile program and drastically change its policy in the Middle East (although a gradual process of reducing military activity there is possible, given that the Middle East policy is not very popular inside the country either).

And President Trump is not ready for an instantaneous lifting of sanctions, especially now that the 2020 presidential race is right round the corner.

Given the situation, it is clear that the two parties are to work out something in-between, a kind of intermediate, temporary solution. At the same time, official Iranian-American negotiations, perhaps at the highest level, remain issue number one.

French President Emmanuel Macron is doing his best to assist with solving the Iranian problems. A settlement plan he has devised received the approval of European diplomats a few days ago. Although no details of the plan were released in the media, unconfirmed reports say it provides for the lifting of sanctions for some buyers of Iranian oil and gives Iran an opportunity to export about 700 thousand barrels of oil per day. This is more than two to three times its current volume. In addition, it is planned to provide Iran with a credit worth about $ 15 billion so that it could use hard currency to circumvent the US sanctions imposed on it.  In response, Tehran is expected to get ready for negotiations and return to the meticulous implementation of the JCPOA.

In accordance with the plan, Iran undertakes to find a way to reduce tensions in the Persian Gulf amid the recent spate of tanker seizures and to begin well-structured negotiations on missiles, regional issues and on what will happen after 2025, when the current agreement expires.  

In this regard, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that it is not yet clear whether the US will refrain from sanctions on additional exports of Iranian oil. However, there have been no signals from the White House that the American president could block this initiative. Referring to France’s plan to save the deal, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi made it clear that the US had shown flexibility.  Of course, the deputy foreign minister could not but add that this is the result of Iran’s maximum resistance in the face of maximum pressure from the US. For Iran this is all but a new victory.

Considering these far from clear circumstances, there is one factor that could ruin the positive tendency that manifested itself at the beginning of September. This factor has to do with Iran’s steps to cut its nuclear deal commitments.

The fact is that September 5 marks the end of the second sixty-day period of Tehran’s gradual withdrawal from implementing certain requirements under the nuclear agreement.

In this regard, the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif has presented an ultimatum to the European Union: “If Europe does not take the required steps till Thursday (September 5), then, according to the decision of May 7, Iran will notify them of the launch of the third stage of withdrawal from the JCPOA. As stated by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi, “the third step is fully developed and is ready for implementation. It is tougher than the first and second ones and was designed to achieve a balance between the rights and obligations of Iran under the JCPOA.”

On September 2, Iranian Foreign Minister representative Abbas Araghchi and a group of economists flew to Paris to discuss Emmanuel Macron’s plan and at the same time to clarify the details of the third step of the IRI towards an exit from the JCPOA.

Iranian diplomats say that if the diplomatic efforts of Iran and the EU achieve a result, Tehran will abandon the third step.

At present, the political and diplomatic situation around Iran is centered on the French plan. There are still many questions to answer but the main ones are two. First, will it be in the interests of Iran (that is, will Tehran accept it)? Second, will the US hinder the implementation of this plan? French diplomacy has worked with both sides. Moscow has expressed support for this initiative.

There is hope for the approval of the plan. For President Trump a further aggravation of the situation involving Iran in the run-up to the 2020 presidential race is undesirable, to say the least. After all, nobody knows what the ongoing escalation of the conflict will lead to. What is clear is that this escalation will become worse in case the French plan falls through.

For Iran, the export of oil and a 15-billion loan are more than important. All Tehran has to do in return is to abandon the process of reducing its obligations under the JCPOA. The other points of the plan can well be under long and tedious discussion with the European Union – up to the presidential election in the United States. And then, there is a chance that Trump will lose and the Democrats will win. 

From our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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