Shortly ahead of the expiry of the embargo imposed on arms trade with Iran (scheduled to end in October 2020), the issue of extending that embargo has become a major topic in the US rhetoric on the Iranian issue. This makes it likely to continue throughout the summer of 2020.

Signs of an Iranian split can be seen over the strategy that must be followed to counter the US attempts to extend the embargo, between the line pursued by the government on the one hand, and the line pursued by the deep state, represented by the Revolutionary Guards establishment and conservative institutions, on the other.

Iran's position on extending the embargo

The US has deliberately brought the Iranian issue back to the corridors of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), removing it from the framework of the nuclear deal. Most likely, the US administration did this to weaken the influence of both Germany and the diplomatic apparatus of the European Union (EU) (known for their sympathetic stance on Iran), which over the past two years have worked to obstruct the chances of a European-US consensus on the Iranian issue. However, the US move has led to the exclusion of Iran from the debate, despite the participation of its foreign minister in the meeting held by the UNSC to discuss the US proposal. This time, Iran remained outside the heart of the discussions, despite the fact that it is the subject of the international embargo imposed by UNSC Resolution 2231.

Within the political arena inside Iran, the Iranian Parliament held a session with the Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif during which a heated debate took place between Zarif and conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) who held him responsible for involving Iran in the nuclear deal which brought Iran nothing but loss. The disagreement was evident between government officials and institutions dominated by conservatives (including the conservative-dominated Iranian Parliament and the Revolutionary Guards establishment). While the Iranian Assistant Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi announced that the US is doing its best to return Iran's nuclear file to the corridors of the UNSC, stressing that the circumstances are very delicate and that the loss will be strategic for Iran if it takes wrong measures in this regard (those positions were published by the official Iranian news agency before they were subsequently deleted from its website), and underlining the need for self-restraint and not falling into the trap of escalation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) where the Americans have been managing this escalation for months, Iranian Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf threatened with such an escalation when he announced that Parliament would not allow the IAEA to complete the "espionage" episodes imposed by the enemies on Iran, indicating the necessity not to allow the IAEA inspectors to visit any facilities outside the centres that were previously agreed upon.

While the chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Iranian Parliament Mojtaba Zonnour, (MP for the Endurance Front known for its ties with the Guards and hard-line affiliations) said that Parliament is working on a resolution requiring the government to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Iran’s ambassador in Moscow Kazem Jalali affirmed that such steps by Parliament could undermine Iranian efforts that have so far been successful in preventing "a universal consensus against Iran" and throwing the ball into the US court.

Iranian strategic milestones

An observation of the developments on the Iranian front regarding US attempts to extend the embargo on arms trade with Iran reveals the division of the Iranian strategy regarding those attempts between the line pursued by the government on the one hand, and the line pursued by the Revolutionary Guards establishment and conservative institutions on the other.

At the governmental level, the government spokesman affirmed keenness to keep the nuclear deal to the maximum extent. Araghchi pointed out that "the attempt to prevent a universal consensus against Iran" and "economic resilience in the face of sanctions" constitute the backbone of the government's strategy in the face of US attempts.

1. Within the axis of "preventing a universal consensus against Iran", Iran has intensified its efforts on several axes, while the US has tried to rally the opinion of several countries behind its attempt to extend the embargo, to suggest that the attempt is not a US demand, but rather an international demand:

  • In this regard, Iran has tried to ensure that China and Russia stand by its side through several incentives, such as accelerating the pace of the finalization of the strategic agreement with China, after having kept silent about it for several months.
  • Iran is taking advantage of the strategic agreement with China to raise European concerns about the repercussions of any escalation in the nuclear file, by hinting at the possibility of jumping into the arms of the eastern adversary. Iran is also trying to raise European concerns by intimidating with the hard-line conservative alternative, in the form of taking severe escalatory steps, including the withdrawal from the NPT. This has been a largely successful strategy so far in neutralizing the European position.

2. Within the axis of economic resilience in the face of sanctions, the government's efforts are focused on finding alternative ways for the resilience of the public budget in the face of pressures and preventing the economy from collapsing pending October 2020, or pending the results of the presidential elections in November 2020.

At the level of the conservative institutions in general, and the Revolutionary Guards establishment in particular, there are two escalatory axes which can be considered as features of the conservatives’ strategy towards the US attempts to extend the embargo:

  • Pressuring international parties by threatening to vote in Parliament on requiring the government to withdraw from the NPT, calling on Parliament to review cooperation with the IAEA, and warning against the repercussions of any UN resolutions against Iran through the UNSC or the IAEA. Within the same framework, reference could be made to the statements made by several MPs that the extension of the embargo on arms trade with Iran should be considered an end point for Iran's commitment to the nuclear deal.
  • The Revolutionary Guards continue to practice the traditional strategy of "putting pressure on the US by putting pressure on its allies", of whose success it seems to be largely convinced, and through several steps, including the reference by the Revolutionary Guards Navy commander to the construction of a strategic military base in the Indian Ocean (Sea of ​​Oman).
    In general, it can be said that Iran's strategy in confronting the attempts to extend the embargo continues to follow the same old mechanisms, namely seeking to win over China and Russia, playing on European concerns, and applying the pressure strategy on the US by putting pressure on its Arab allies. However, the changing international circumstances and the US steps have made this strategy lose many of its advantages and strengths.

Focusing on previous principles; remarks on the Iranian regime’s strategy

Tracking the Iranian regime’s attempts to confront the US administration’s efforts to extend the embargo on arms trade with Iran reveals Iranian strategic features that can be illustrated in the following points:

  • The steps taken by the government and revolutionary institutions in the context of confronting the US attempts appear to be mutually complementary paths within an exhausted Iranian strategy (by dividing the functions between a hard-line current and a moderate current) that had previously proved successful in terms of isolating the positions of different countries towards the Iranian files (thus preventing any international consensus on the Iranian file). However, the details of recent developments indicate that the difference between the government’s point of view and the point of view of the conservative movement is real this time, both regarding dealing with the escalation at the level of the nuclear file and how to deal with the US attempts to extend the embargo. This makes the Iranian position remarkably inconsistent. In this context, the recent strikes from unknown sources (most likely Israel) against Iranian military and nuclear targets can be viewed as deliberate steps to make the position of the Revolutionary Guards more radical and raise the possibilities of its being dragged into a military escalation so that this would bring about a radical change in the terms of the game.
  • Upon tracing the positions expressed by the various decision-making centres in Iran, it becomes clear that Tehran does not have a new strategy to deal with the file of extending the embargo and the new accompanying circumstances. Most of Iran's steps come within the framework of outmoded strategies that have been employed previously, with the exception of threatening to speed up the finalization of the agreement with China to prevent Western consensus against Iran. While some of those mechanisms and strategies appear to be still effective, the Iranian traditional strategy in general had been prepared for different circumstances under which the European wing sympathetic to Iran and some of the US regional allies would play a fundamental role in adjusting the US policy. However, the US move of removing the embargo extension file from the 5+1 framework and raising it again in the UNSC reduced the effectiveness of this strategy and weakened the Iranian influence on the European position as the parties sympathetic to Iran (Germany and the EU apparatus) have become outside the equation. This required that Iran reconsider some of its mechanisms and strategies in this regard.

Scenarios

First scenario: Iran pursues its current strategy until October 2020. This scenario assumes that Iran will continue to implement its traditional strategies (namely seeking to win over China and Russia; playing on the fears of the Europeans; applying the strategy of pressure on the US by putting pressure on its Arab allies) to prevent a universal consensus against Iran through putting pressure on the US position and amending it, so that Iran would reach October 2020 when the embargo on arms trade ends. After October 2020, several sub-scenarios could be envisioned, including Iran's attempts to obtain modern weapons from Russia and China, or Iran's attempts to reach a settlement with the international community by signaling its readiness to freeze its endeavours to obtain weapons in exchange for concessions. However, it is clear that the outcome will be a significant change in the rules of the game, and the balance of power, after October 2020. This scenario, on which Iran relies greatly, faces serious obstacles, including the change of strategy by the US (by moving the file from the deal framework to the UNSC framework); the threat by the European Duo to approve the US vision (within the framework of the UNSC and the IAEA); and international steps that seek to obstruct Iran's efforts (including the report of the IAEA Director and the report of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General).

Second scenario: success of the US administration in extending the embargo. In contrast to the first scenario, this scenario assumes that Iran will not succeed in its attempts to counter the US efforts, and that the US side will be able to impose a long-term extension of this embargo. The change in the rules of the game by the US is supposed to advance this scenario by excluding some of the parties sympathetic to Iran from the game and returning the file to the UNSC whose previous experiences have proved its effectiveness in imposing sanctions on Iran, especially considering the great similarity between the current situation and the situation in which UN sanctions were imposed on Iran between 2006 and 2008. The chances of success of Iran's strategy are already weak due to the change in the favourable climate for it and the negative effects resulting from the reports issued by international bodies (such as the IAEA and the UN Secretary-General). This could multiply the pressure on Iran's allies in the UNSC in order to neutralize their position. However, the main obstacle to the materialization of this scenario is the position of China and Russia as they are likely to use their right of veto against any project aimed at extending the embargo on Iran.

Third scenario: a centrist scenario assumes first that Iran's attempts to prevent the return of the Iranian file to the UNSC would fail, and second that its attempts to prevent an extension of the embargo on arms trade would fail. However, it would be partially successful in adjusting the course so that the resolution issued by the UNSC would be for a short-term extension of the embargo. This scenario assumes that Iran's strategy would succeed in mobilizing China and Russia and adjusting the European position. However, other influences, including the absence of the European wing favouring Iran and the preparation of international reports condemning Iran, would contribute to curbing the Iranian strategy, so that the outcome would be a compromise within an initiative proposed by the European countries. However, this initiative would have to overcome several obstacles, including the conflicting positions expressed by the various parties, including China, Russia and the US.

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