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Does Iran’s leader leave room for Iran’s return to the negotiating table?

By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
web posted October 14, 2019
French President Emmanuel Macron meets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations
French President Emmanuel Macron meets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to take the hardline Iranian stance regarding anything related to the management of the nuclear crisis with the West. After the failure of attempts by French President Emmanuel Macron, which “nearly” led to a meeting between Presidents Trump and Rouhani, the Iranian Supreme Leader stated at a meeting of the leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that Iran would continue with its policy of reducing the level of its commitments to the nuclear deal: “The policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran as a way to force it to compromise has been a resounding failure.” According to Khamenei, “The policy of reducing the obligations in the nuclear field is within the field of responsibility of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), and it must implement it in all seriousness, in an exact, comprehensive manner in accordance with government regulations until an anticipated result is achieved. Without any doubt, the organization will stand up to this objective.”

Khamenei ridiculed the regional and international policy of the United States in the region, saying that it had “failed and was defeated” after it spent a large sum of money, and it appeared that this kind of action would continue to fail in the future. He added that the United States begged through “its European friends” for help to convince the Iranian president to negotiate with President Trump on the periphery of the UN General Assembly, but failed. In the same way, the Iranian leader continued, the American policy of “maximum pressure” was also expected to fail.

In this context, Khamenei defined the sanctions on the Iranian oil sector as a “temporary problem” and stated that the correct action would turn this short-term tactical problem into a “strategic advantage in the long term.” In other words, the national budget would no longer depend on oil income.

Khamenei praised the activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in dealing with Iran’s situation, especially its role in leading the struggle of the resistance front against what he termed “the cruel front that the arrogant and evil powers have openly led against the Revolutionary Guard.” With this in mind, Khamenei expressed his great satisfaction with the functioning of the Revolutionary Guard. However, he added that it needed to increase its efforts and develop its capabilities by 100 percent. In recent weeks, senior officials among Iran’s political and military leadership have stressed the importance of the resistance front and its integration within general Iranian strategy in the region.

Following the Supreme Leader’s statements, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran hurried to publish a notification in which it announced the continued reduction of Iran’s commitment to the nuclear deal as the other signatories of the agreement are not upholding their obligations in accordance with the wording of the agreement. The notification stated, “We are sure that the experts and officers in the international arena will be surprised by the achievements of the commission on the issue of uranium enrichment to 20 percent. They will also be surprised by the new achievements of Iranian experts in the field of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”

The Spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi, warned on October 6, 2019, in the opening address on nuclear rights that Iran’s decision to scale back its commitments was made after a year of “strategic patience” in the wake of the U.S. administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the accord. Kamalvandi added that Iran would be ready to resume honoring the nuclear deal in its entirety as soon as the other signatories do the same.

Until now, Iran has taken three steps with regard to its commitments to the nuclear agreement:

  • raising the level of enrichment from 3.67 percent to 4.5 percent,
  • acquiring reserves of enriched uranium above the limit of 300 kg permitted under the agreement, and
  • expanding research and development of various projects (mostly centrifuges) where the nuclear deal had imposed limitations.

For its next step, which is expected to occur on November 7, 2019, Iran my raise the level of enrichment to above 20 percent. This move will be sharply criticized by the other signatories of the agreement.

Diplomatic Room to Maneuver

Meanwhile, despite Khamenei’s aggressive tone, it would appear that he is still allowing room to maneuver within Iran’s diplomatic processes. Primarily, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Jafad Zarif have not completely blocked continued contacts with the West as a means to return the United States to the nuclear agreement. Iran can be very encouraged by the diplomatic reception it received during the UN General Assembly, especially by the “rush” of European leaders to meet with Rouhani on the fringes of the Assembly. The embrace came despite some of the signatories to the deal (Germany, France, and the United Kingdom) asserting that Iran was behind the September 14, 2019, attack on energy installations in Saudi Arabia. Iran feels popular and is continuing its efforts to deepen the gulf between the United States and Europe and to renew negotiations to annul the sanctions or any other objective close to this.

President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are continuing to leave the door to negotiations open. Zarif called to improve President Macron’s “four-point plan” and to add several changes so that in the end, it will reflect Iran’s policies and standpoints. According to him, Iran’s effort to advance this objective will continue through several channels. In the meantime, Rouhani praised the efforts of the French president and accused the United States of putting up obstacles and sending contradictory messages. “I think it’s hard to believe a country that claims that it is willing to negotiate, but in the same breath, it talks about increasing sanctions. Therefore, I have made ‘the right decision’ not to meet with Trump.” The Iranian president emphasized that the diplomatic channel would remain open if the rights of Iran are respected.

A Smokescreen?

At the same time, over the past few weeks, there have been increasing calls from senior religious figures in Iran and the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for the destruction of the State of Israel. This is similar to statements issued by the Supreme Leader in 2016 that Israel would cease to exist in another 25 years. It is possible that this round of criticism against Israel serves a smokescreen while negotiations are taking place between Iran and the United States to enable Iran’s return to the nuclear deal.

In any case, by November 7, 2019, a further reduction is expected in Iran’s commitment to the nuclear agreement (including the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent and even higher). There is a window of opportunity for diplomacy and European efforts to try what has failed until now – to promise economic compensation to Iran for the American sanctions or alternatively to bring Washington back to the negotiating table. Iran’s oppositional regional policy (against Israel and Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria) will apparently make it harder for Europe and the United States to advance the negotiations with Iran. However, in the past, Europe has shown that it is prepared to ignore repeated violations of human rights in Iran, such as its role in terror activities (including within European territory!), to fulfill the nuclear agreement, which eventually leads to investment and economic cooperation with Iran. Iran is well aware of Europe’s modus operandi and uses it and U.S. weakness to achieve maximum profit to renew negotiations regarding the nuclear agreement.

“Today, the Nuclear Deal Is in the Intensive Care Unit”

In this regard, Abbas Aragchi, deputy foreign minister and one of the patrons of the nuclear deal, stated at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the opening of the German embassy in Tehran that, “today the nuclear deal is in the intensive care unit.” He added that to save it, cooperation was necessary between the P5+1 states. This could “bring down the walls of American sanctions and one-sided policies, which have become its weapon against independent countries.” According to him, Iran, along with the European countries, China, and Russia, are attempting to reach a balanced agreement through negotiations, but because of America’s one-sided policies, this balance has been violated and lost. ESR

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Acumen Risk Advisors.

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