In recent days, the Iranian issue has witnessed a congestion in the positions issued by the relevant parties, in addition to some mediation initiatives at the diplomatic level (the Qatari and European initiatives). This indicates an increase in efforts to find a solution to this issue and pave the way for the revival of the nuclear agreement. However, there are indications that the European efforts in particular have begun to deviate from their main goal, which is to solve the Iranian nuclear issue, towards the implementation of a political agenda, namely to support the moderate Iranian trend in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for 18 May 2021.
Increasing European interest in the Iranian issue
Nearly two weeks ago, international moves on the Iranian issue began to increase remarkably. The beginning was when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the Foreign Policy Coordinator of the European Union (EU) to use his position in order to develop interim solutions and create joint guarantees that would comfort the Iranian and US sides. This was followed by French moves, namely the suggestion by French President Macron to assume the role of neutral mediator between Washington and Tehran. These attempts coincided with clear Russian and Chinese silence about the developments, which should be explained elsewhere.
In spite of the increasing European criticism of Iran during the recent period due to Iran's escalation of its rhetoric and behaviour, the overall action on the European front was towards developing an interim and compromise solution that would enable the parties to return to the nuclear dialogue table, so that the result would be a set of compromises, including "Washington's unofficial participation in the 1+4 meetings (this was accepted by Tehran which has so far rejected Washington's return to the agreement without lifting the sanctions); "the Iranian government's approval of the continuation of inspection of the nuclear sites", despite the Iranian parliament’s decision to end the implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and the US administration’s decision to give up the use of the "snapback" dispute resolution mechanism included in the nuclear agreement and stop trying to restore international sanctions at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This means hinting at de-escalation in terms of sanctions without waiving them on the ground so far, in the context of what the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi described as giving the parties an opportunity to start "political negotiations" within three months.
Iranian escalatory positions
These attempts at reaching a solution were preceded by Iranian positions that helped push the Western side towards intensifying its efforts to find a compromise solution to the crisis with Iran. While Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the European side to work on developing solutions to open diplomatic channels, some positions from within the Iranian government, which presents itself as moderate, have tried to raise the tone. On the other hand, the positions of the conservative camp were more moderate. They criticised the escalating positions issued by the government, which indicates the existence of a confusion in the cards and positions in the Iranian arena.
At the level of the Iranian government, while its spokesperson Ali Rabei announced that the Rouhani government shall continue to implement the Iranian Parliament’s decision to disavow the obligations of the nuclear agreement, end the implementation of the NPT, and stop the work of the international inspectors, Ali Akbar Salehi, in his capacity as Assistant to the Iranian President and the Head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) clearly announced that Iran is at the threshold of becoming a nuclear power, and his assistant indicated that Iran could begin at any moment to enrich uranium to 90 percent. Concurrently, the government repeatedly confirmed that it would start producing uranium metal (which is used to make a nuclear bomb). In addition to these escalatory practical steps, and at the level of rhetoric, the last period witnessed a remarkable development, which was received with concern by the Western parties. The Iranian Minister of Intelligence announced that despite Iran's rhetoric rejecting the production of nuclear weapons, the pressures imposed on any party could push it to change its rhetoric and position in the event that the pressures exceed a certain threshold.
While the government rejected in its subsequent meeting the position of its intelligence minister, the position had the impact of frightening the Western side regarding the future of the nuclear issue, given that the pressures could push the moderate actors in Iran to give up their moderation regarding the nuclear issue and merge with the hard line bloc.
The developments that followed the position of the Minister of Intelligence show that the Iranian government used his position (and the whole of the escalatory positions and steps) in order to advance the European efforts towards finding a solution that would get the parties out of the crisis of extreme positions and dead ends. In the following days, Rafael Grossi requested to visit Iran to find a compromise solution to the crisis that Westerners fear could lead to Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. Thus, the Iranian government has succeeded in changing the original features of Western discourse, from demanding to open negotiations on other contentious issues, including the missile programme and regional expansion, to focusing only on controlling Iran's nuclear behaviour and stopping Iran's escalatory steps.
Intimidating the Europeans with the rhetoric of "bringing the nuclear threshold closer"
In the past few days, the conservative arena witnessed strong responses to the position of Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alawi (in which he hinted at the possibility of changing the official rhetoric in Iran, from one that emphasises the rejection of possessing nuclear weapons to another that does not necessarily reject that). Some conservative figures asserted that Mahmoud Alawi's position completely contradicts the position of the leader of the Iranian Revolution Ali Khamenei who decreed the prohibition of producing nuclear weapons. In addition, a member of the National Security Committee in the Iranian Parliament emphasised that the position of the Minister of Intelligence constitutes a departure from the Iranian sovereign positions, and that he must explain the reasons for this position. Meanwhile, Parliament summoned the minister to a hearing to explain his position.
While the position on the political arena in Iran appears to be inconsistent with the traditional framework that sets the escalatory positions of the hardliners against the positions of the moderates in favour of de-escalation, placing them in the context of the current moment can clearly indicate how the government can benefit from the "calculated escalation" to implement its agenda in the current circumstances, and how the "calculated de-escalation" works to support the hardliners' agenda.
The government's agenda is to find a loophole in the sanctions imposed on Tehran in order to improve the chances of success of the government trend in the next presidential elections, given that figures show a decline in the hope of its success in the light of the decline in its popularity as a result of the deterioration of the economic conditions. Therefore, any positive developments at the economic level, albeit partial, can contribute to improving the chances of winning by the government trend in the upcoming elections as long as they are able to improve the living conditions. This could be used by the government to signal that it is capable of continuing to improve the situation if it is given the chance for another four years.
On the other hand, the agenda of the conservatives is to prevent the creation of such a loophole, by preventing any agreement that would return the parties to the framework of the nuclear agreement, in the hope that this would favour the conservatives in the next presidential elections and increase their chances of winning therein, as a result of the street’s reluctance to support the government, similar to what happened in the last parliamentary elections (February 2020).
The calculated escalation based on "approaching the nuclear threshold" and "threatening to eliminate the moderate discourse" serves the government's agenda by intimidating the European side to push it to activate the mediation and encourage the US administration to make the first concession, even if it is a compromise and incomplete concession.
As for the conservatives, they seek to define and control the ceiling of this escalatory rhetoric, although they do not give it up, in a way that serves their political interests. Perhaps this explains some of the contradictory approaches of the conservative trend, such as continuing the escalation with the West through forcing the government to implement steps that reduce the likelihood of a solution in the current period, and trying to control government escalation by objecting to the statements of the Minister of Security. This means that the conservative trend seeks to keep the door open to the chances of opening up with the West and reaping its fruits, given that the conservatives do not rule out dialogue, but they want to postpone it until they reach the executive power.
Some conservative names hint that dialogue with the West would be more fruitful if it occurs with the conservatives who represent the centre of the political system in Iran. This is evidenced by the assertion of the Chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in Parliament Mojtaba Zonnour, who is close to the hard-line Resilience Movement, that an agreement between the West and the conservative government would carry with it greater guarantees than an agreement between the West and a reformist or moderate government that is out of favour with the institutions of the Revolution.
European mediation between implementing the agenda and trying to reach a solution
The positions expressed by the US, its regional allies, and the European trio itself, during February 2021, were directed towards the necessity of expanding the nuclear agreement within the framework of a comprehensive solution to the Iranian crisis. However, the European mediation initiative that is taking place these days, namely the "agreement between the government and the IAEA" and "Washington's participation in the 1+4 meeting", in addition to a package of other halfway solutions, shows a European desire to support the moderate government's agenda in Iran in the electoral race, and postpone the radical solution until after the government wins.
This European desire is attributable to two reasons:
Firstly, the Europeans are convinced that it is impossible to reach any radical solution to the Iranian issue in the political throes experienced by the Iranian arena ahead of the presidential elections. Secondly, the traditional preference for moderates over conservatives in the Western political imagination for fear that the loss of the moderates in Iran would support the Islamic ideological orientation and eliminate hopes for settlement and ultimately opening up to the world.
In the context of this naive perception of the political arena in Iran, which the Iranian lobbies seek to promote in Europe and the US, the developments show that the European trio has decided to postpone the final solution to the crisis with Iran until after the presidential elections. It has also decided to provide support to the government of moderates through compromise solutions that would spare the two sides having to compromise their positions and enter into an argument with their internal competitors, in exchange for giving the Iranian side an opportunity to revive the diplomatic track and allowing it to collect the fruits of this revival, given that the coming period is likely to witness a partial easing in the strict sanctions regime from which the Iranian government would benefit in improving the living conditions if it is able to abide by the compromise agreement with the IAEA within the framework of good intentions, and through placing the political regime in Iran in front of a fait accompli.
Obstacles to the European initiative
The Iranian conservative trend mobilised its supporters in Tehran on 21 February 2021 in a protest stand opposite the AEOI building in conjunction with Grossi's visit to Tehran, despite the health conditions and the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, to express objection to the visit. The protesters demanded the cessation of cooperation with the IAEA and the expulsion of the international inspectors, while 226 representatives in the Iranian Parliament declared in a statement that the government should stop implementing the NPT and prevent inspection in the event that sanctions are not lifted, which would make the new agreement between the government and the IAEA useless.
The European mediation initiative seems unlikely to produce the desired results because it did not take into account the impact of what could be described as the deep state in Iran. Nor did it try to address the institutions that belong to this deep state and the faces close to it, given that the control by those institutions over sensitive centres in the process of sovereign decision-making in Tehran would make any attempt for political openness towards Iran a futile and unsustainable attempt, unless the European step is considered as a step to open up a space that can be used to initiate dialogue between Iran and the US during the era of the next Iranian government, regardless of its orientations.
The scenarios regarding the future of the European initiative vary between scenarios that foresee the materialisation of the initiative, and others that suggest its failure, for both circumstantial and strategic reasons. Meanwhile, the fact that conservatives in Iran lack an alternative would put them in a weak position against the government's attempts to put the regime before a fait accompli.
The first scenario: success of the European initiative. This scenario assumes that the European mediation would achieve its goal, namely to bring Tehran and Washington back to the "nuclear negotiations" table by proposing compromise solutions and preliminary steps to be taken by the various actors, some of which were mentioned in the context of this paper. The scenario assumes that the European initiative would spare the Iranian government the attempts to drag it into comprehensive negotiations, which would spare it getting involved in a crisis with the sovereign institutions in Iran. The scenario also assumes that the mediation would give the Iranian government a strong boost in order to contest the presidential elections by seeking to improve the living conditions of the Iranians (the signs of this have started to emerge after the agreement between the IAEA and the Iranian government on compromise solutions), provided that this trend would continue into the coming period through other facilitative steps, such as aid and exceptions in the sanctions regime for humanitarian reasons that would not rise to the level of lifting the sanctions, but would contribute to improving the economic situation in Iran, unless it is assumed that the sovereign institutions led by the conservatives would counter the government's attempts, which would stymie the European initiative and render it futile.
The second scenario: the failure of the European initiative. This scenario starts from where the first scenario ends. It assumes that the conservative institutions in Iran would eliminate the government's attempts to circumvent the restrictions set by those conservative institutions. This would thwart any attempt at achieving a rapprochement between Iran and Washington and any hopes of returning to the nuclear agreement for the next three months. While the Iranian Parliament’s moves in the wake of the agreement between the government and the IAEA indicate the likelihood of such a scenario, the narrow time limits make the possibility of reaching an agreement remote in the remaining short period of time. However, the Rouhani government, which is trying to speed up sitting at the dialogue table with Washington and taking advantage of the effects of this step on improving the standards of living, wants to mobilise public opinion in order to neutralise the revolutionary institutions and reduce the possibility of the materialisation of this scenario. However, given the power imbalance between the government and the sovereign institutions, this scenario seems more likely than the first one.
The third scenario: partial success of the European initiative. This scenario assumes that the European initiative would fail to support the moderate trend in the upcoming elections, but would succeed in bringing the parties back to the "nuclear negotiations" table. This would open the way for the next Iranian government, regardless of its political affiliation, to sit at the table of those negotiations. Given the fact that the Europeans and Americans are aware that any consensus with a caretaker government would remain fragile and vulnerable to extinction, this scenario would be more consistent with the realistic facts. It would be intended to exploit the moderate government in order to return to negotiations, although that would not amount to reaching a consensus. While most Western positions confirm such a desire, this would serve the conservative trend in Iran by lifting the burden of returning to negotiations from its shoulders.
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