Iran Bolstered by Allies: Drifting Leverage from the United States

The moment Mr. Donald J. Trump unilaterally exited the JCPOA accords, the United States was in for a rollercoaster ride full of peaks and troughs. While retaliatory sanctions crippled the Iranian economy, they also emboldened Iran on a path towards deterrents. Iran currently stands with 60% enriched Uranium – up from 3.67% maintained under the Nuclear Deal. And while the Republican premier expected Iran to throw a tantrum and eventually beg for relief, the opposite seems more of a reality at the current point in time. However, both Iran and the US are as stubborn as one could hope; neither allowing an upper hand to either. Yet lately, Iran seems to be dabbling in fortune while the prospects are murky for the supposed ‘World Superpower.’

In April, the delegations of either country separately met European counterparts in Vienna to return to the table. However, both the countries had ulterior demands up their sleeves. The Biden administration adopted a stern facade right from the beginning of the talks. Bearing pressure both from the congress and the echelons of the democrat party itself, the aim was to trip Iran into returning to the original deal while throwing in some additional conditions to test the waters. Apparently, the expectation was that the Rouhani-regime, the architect of the JCPOA accords, would be desperate enough to salvage the deal before leaving the office. The main appendage was a demand to end the proxy presence of Iran around the Middle East: particularly in Lebanon and Yemen. However, call it bad luck or simply poor coordination, Israel – one of the main allies of the United States – spoiled the plan before it even fully hatched.

The Israeli attack on Iran’s Natanz Nuclear facility embroiled the already incendiary situation in Iran. Arguably, the attack reaffirmed the conservative notion leading to their eventual electoral victory. The shift of power to hardliner current president, Mr. Ebrahim Raisi, was not planned for by the American counterpart. In fact, the deal was sure shot to be concluded in agreement by the sixth round of talks back in June. Yet, the presidential shift geared the Nuclear Deal into obscurity.

While President Raisi reiterated his commitment to negotiate to any possible extent to drive his nation away from the US sanctions, he never sketched a timeline after being sworn in. The delayed talks have kept the member countries (P5+1) – particularly the European parties – on their toes. Recently, Iran’s new Foreign Minister, Mr. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, stated: “The other side [Iran] understands that it will take two or three months for the new government in Iran to be established and be able to plan.” The statement further flared the unease of the United States since the objective was to win more leverage: not to be delayed or steered by a conservative regime that makes no qualms about its hatred for the western world.

The Iranian objective, on the other hand, was very simple: drop all unjustified sanctions imposed by Mr. Donald Trump before the parties returned to the table. Now with all honesty, the demand is relatively justified. Even China and Russia (both parties to the JCPOA accord) concurred to support this narrative. All Iran wants is the removal of all sanctions unilaterally undertaken by the former US president, along with a promise to never violate the agreement in the future. Understandably, it is a hard bargain – even for the moderate Biden administration – since it cannot guarantee another exit by a subsequent Trumpian – or even Trump himself. The dilemma stands, therefore, despite Iran reiterating its spirit to avoid delays yet discussing meaningful results. “We do not accept the approach of wasting time,” said Mr. Amir-Abdollahian, continuing: “Yet the results must have tangible results in the interest of the Iranian people.”

The tone seems liberal: as if the Raisi-regime is in no hassle, unlike its progressive predecessor. While the prospect of Iran’s full-fledged return to the oil market seems hazy under the pretext of heavy sanctions, the capability stands robust enough to keep OPEC at a sharp watch. Especially when the market has only begun stabilizing after the brutal price war last year. Mr. Trump’s exit from the Nuclear Deal wiped out almost 2 million bpd of Iran’s oil from the international market while simultaneously froze its payments around the world. The capability, however, has since climbed to an estimated 2.44 million bpd which would have very little trouble returning to the global oil market given china’s assistance coupled with offshore reserves allowing Iran to draw revenue regardless of the sanctions.

Furthermore, Mr. Raisi recently appointed a US-trained engineer, Mr. Mohammad Eslami, as the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation – replacing the long-term lead and key negotiator of the 2015 Nuclear Deal, Mr. Ali Akbar Salehi. The appointment came as a stark reminder that an experienced Raisi would not allow vulnerabilities to get ahold of such vital positions in Iran. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Global Nuclear Watchdog, would now have a very hard time squeezing leverage – especially when the loyalist lead in the form of Eslami shares the same hardline agenda bestowed by the conservative leaders of the country. Thus, IAEA’s burgeoning prospects, according to its Director, to gain expanded access to Iran’s nuclear facilities seem practically grim – at least before the Vienna Conference.

Moreover, it seems that even Europe is out of options to censure Iran over its lack of cooperation. “Europe has lost its credibility for Iran,” said Tarja Cronberg, a former EU parliamentarian, further stating: “It [Iran] is rather turning East towards China.” The claim has some semblance of truth given that Europe did little next to nothing to pressure Mr. Donald Trump to return to the Nuclear Deal or to revoke the additional sanctions. In fact, the EU feigned ignorance and played along with the egregious policies of the former president. Recently, Mr. Xi Jinping, President of China, while reassuring his commitment to bring Iran back to the deal, warned the IAEA against overstepping its monitoring role to nefariously support the United States or the EU’s objectives. As I observe the growing economic and political cooperation between China, Russia, and Iran, it is highly likely that both Russia and China would stand along with Iran if the talks end up going south.

The United States – and the EU by extension – is debilitated: deadpan in the present situation. While Iran seems cavalier in the resumption of the talks, it is making its point explicitly clear that the Vienna talks would be on their terms and not vice versa. Moreover, Iran’s growing cooperation with China along with the progressive economic endeavors are simply elevating Iran’s position – much to the chagrin of the United States. Whether it’s a plan towards a new Caspian Sea Natural gas Hub or the expanding ties between Iran and China’s National Petroleum Corporation: the steps are making US sanctions all but futile as an effective weapon.

In my opinion, if Iran resorts to tighten the screws on the talks – quite like the US did since April – the Biden-regime would be reduced down to two options: either accept the terms dictated by Iran’s hardliner frontier or impose more sanctions. The latter, however, seems unlikely since Mr. Biden won’t even consider following the footsteps of Mr. Trump. Even if he attempts to follow procedure through the UN Security Council, the bill would most certainly meet resistance from China and Russia. Thus, While Mr. Biden and his comrades claim to turn to ‘unspecified options’ if the program fails, I find it very hard to perceive that a badly battered US, along with a politically compromised Europe, has an assortment of tools to bend a rising Iran from its ascend. I have a simple question beleaguering my rationality: why would the US waste months trying to revive the deal if it had better options in the first place? All in all, I find it almost karmic that the new Iran stands rejuvenated with unconventional allies while the powerful bystanders are scrambling, mulling to make it right – just one last time.

Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
The author is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Syed has written extensively on fintech economy, foreign policy, and economic decision making of the Indo-Pacific and Asian region.