Back to the deal?
Yassamine Mather looks at the likely developments with Biden in the White House
Every few days over the last two weeks, the Trump administration has taken an ‘initiative’ designed to increase pressure on Iran’s Islamic Republic and its allies. The goal is to undermine any future negotiations between Joe Biden’s new administration and Iran.
According to news reports, around November 12 Donald Trump consulted senior aides about a possible military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. There was speculation that he was seriously considering a limited war in the last days of his presidency. Advisors managed to talk him out of it, reminding him that any air strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities might ignite a full-fledged war in the region. Presumably, Trump does not want that as his legacy.
After all, the US is still trying to find a way out of Iraq and Afghanistan and, ironically, the Trump administration has been highlighting his commitment to the 2016 election promise of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan by withdrawing yet more troops.
This week we also heard about a semi-secret Netanyahu visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. This was a first. According to Likud member and Israel’s education minister, Yoav Galant, the meeting was an “incredible achievement” … “the very existence of the meeting, the fact that it was put out publicly, even if it is only half-official at the moment, [is] a matter of great importance.”
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo was also in Saudi Arabia at the time, raising speculation that all this was part of a US-backed Israeli-Saudi alliance for a possible attack on Iran. Strangely though, the official Saudi version was very different from the Israeli one. Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister tweeted on November 23:
I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by @SecPompeo. No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi.
Bin Farhan is doing his best to pave the way for new Saudi-US relations next year, when Biden takes office, trying to put the notorious Kushner-bin Salman-Netanyahu bond into the background.
On November 21 we also heard reports of US B-52H bombers flying to the Middle East to conduct what was termed a “short-notice, long-range deterrence mission”. According to a press release from the US Central Command, the mission was launched “to deter aggression and reassure US partners and allies”.
Then there are the imposition of new sanctions. The state department added Islamic Revolutionary Guards officials Heidar Abbaszadeh and Reza Papi to the list of sanctioned Iranians for their supposed involvement in the suppression of anti-government protestors in November 2019.
While such measures might have a symbolic value and please Iranian supporters of ‘regime change from above’ (royalists, as well as ex-leftists), they make absolutely no difference to the leaders of the regime, who have long since learnt to protect their personal wealth. And ironically, the removal of fuel subsidies - the cause of last year’s nationwide protests - was done following the instructions of international capital, in particular the International Monetary Fund. Many of the protestors were from the most deprived sections of society, at least 300 were killed and many more were injured, while others are currently languishing in prison. Obviously those who issued orders for the military and the Revolutionary Guards to open fire should be held to account, but Donald Trump and his despicable administration, which has been the cause of so much misery for the peoples of the Middle East, have no rights here.
According to Pompeo, the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign of sanctions had been “extraordinarily effective.” He promised that over the coming weeks and months the US “will impose new sanctions on Iran, including using nuclear, counter-terrorism, and human rights authorities, each reflecting the wide range of malign behaviour that continues to emanate from the Iranian regime”. The claim that sanctions have ‘worked’ is debatable, to say the least. As far as repression inside the country is concerned, Iran’s rulers have, if anything, increased their oppression of political opponents. Anyone expressing the mildest form of dissent is accused of spying for foreign powers, arrested and often tortured - until they confess to anything their jailers demand. Meanwhile, Iran’s activities in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon continue as before.
Inside Iran the fight between ‘reformists’ and conservatives has also heated up again. On November 18 foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told an Iranian newspaper: “With Joe Biden in the Oval office, a removal of sanctions against Tehran is possible” … it would take the new US president “only three executive orders”. There is no need for “preconditions or negotiations” for the two sides to take those steps. “America’s option is a return to the accord and honouring its obligations under [UN] Resolution 2231. We will carry out our JCPOA obligations, too.” President Hassan Rouhani was also quoted as saying: “No-one has the right to waste opportunities.” This was taken as a clear signal that his government is ready for potential talks with a Biden administration.
However Zarif and Rouhani face an uphill struggle inside Iran to win support for fresh talks with the US. In a recently released video, the head of the Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards, Esmail Ghaani (the replacement for general Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated by the US in January), criticised the idea of new negotiations. He stated:
Ignorance is part of their nature and cowardice of their existence; every day you witness how the heads of states sign a paper and in utter rudeness and shamelessness before the world, they undermine their own signature. They have no ability to negotiate.
According to officials in the Iraqi government, Iran has told allies across the Middle East to remain on high alert and “avoid provoking tensions with the US that could give an outgoing Trump administration cause to launch attacks in the US president’s final weeks in office”.
It is clear that Iran and its regional allies have welcomed the election of Joe Biden, because he has said he will consider a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal) - but only if Iran is in “strict compliance” with the JCPOA terms. Biden is also keen to mend relations with the European Union and, according to news reports, foreign ministers from Germany, France and the UK met this week to discuss a joint approach with the Biden administration on the issue of a US return to the nuclear deal.
Of course, one major stumbling block remains: Iran is no longer in compliance with the deal signed in 2015 and before the US elections the country’s leaders said they would not comply unless the United States “offered an apology and compensation for losses incurred under sanctions since 2018”. However, that message has softened since Biden’s victory. Rouhani said last week that “no-one has the right to waste opportunities”, while Zarif has commented that he has known Biden for 30 years and referred to him as a “veteran politician”.
Of course, as always, it will all depend on the supreme leader and on November 24 he said that the main issue was the defusing and lifting of sanctions. He added that there will be “challenges and difficulties”, but was confident there would be “a good outcome”.
The losers in all this are the pro-regime change Iranian exiles - not only the royalists but the ex-leftist Mujahedin-e-Khalq. Over the last four years such groups have had unprecedented access to both the White House and the US state department. Every other day one of them has been photographed standing next to Pompeo or one of his officials - and, of course, they have received unlimited funds. The US has also financed or encouraged Israel and Saudi Arabia to finance Persian-language TV stations broadcasting the most vile rightwing propaganda. No wonder these stations were still predicting a Trump victory long after Fox News had declared Biden the winner.