Exactly a month after Antony J Blinken was sworn in as the United States Secretary of State, the biggest challenge he faces is that Iran is in the driving seat where US policy affects Tehran and vice versa. The image of Iran, not just in popular minds, but even in circles which are knowledgeable on West Asia policies, is so negative that Iran’s diplomatic successes are seldom acknowledged by the mainstream in any public discourse.
Because it is firmly against the grain of the Islamic Republic’s policy to forget or forgive any slight to its self-esteem, it fell to the new Biden administration to make amends for previous US President Donald Trump’s irrational, counter-productive and illogical policies before rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, Trump pulled out of the deal and re-imposed tough sanctions on Tehran.
Last week, Blinken’s man at the United Nations, Acting Permanent Representative Richard Mills did just that. Extending an olive branch to Tehran, Mills informed the UN Security Council that the US was going back on Trump’s action last year in triggering a return to the UN’s pre-JCPOA sanctions against Iran. In any case, Blinken was acutely aware that the Trump administration was completely isolated in the UNSC on this with 13 out of 15 members declaring a return to such sanctions as illegal.
Also last week, the Biden administration removed draconian controls on Iranian officials accredited at the UN, which once ‘inhumanly’ prevented their Foreign Minister from visiting a sick colleague, a diplomat, in a New York in hospital. Some restrictions on Iranian diplomats will continue, similar to those that apply to North Korea, Cuba and other countries which are deemed unfriendly to Washington.
Iran’s self-esteem will be restored by these remedial steps, without which, the Islamic Republic would never have agreed to return to talks with the US on the nuclear deal.
A day before these actions by Washington, Blinken, along with the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement, which described “the JCPOA as a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy. The Ministers affirmed strong interest in continuing their consultations and coordination, including with China and Russia, on this key security issue, recognising the role of the High Representative of the European Union as Coordinator of the Joint Commission.”
The next big step in this context is likely to be a meeting — a la a chai pe charcha — of all concerned parties, hosted by the European Union High Representative.
Traditionally, chats over tea have very special characteristics in Iran. The brew is served in small ornamental, but transparent glass cups along with cubes of sugar on the side in an equally small saucer holding the cup. But before taking the first sip, Iranians put a sugar cube under their tongue and then start drinking the tea.
The point is, symbolically at least, sweeteners are a pre-condition, therefore, to any discussions over tea with the Iranians, now being envisaged on the JCPOA. When it comes to that, not only the US, but Iran too will have to offer incentives for the western countries to collectively go back to where they were on the nuclear deal before Trump disrupted the process.
These will definitely include a commitment by Tehran not to ban surprise, intrusive inspections of its nuclear sites by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, sticking with the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which administers such inspections, stop the use of advanced centrifuges in its nuclear programme and changes to the processes of uranium enrichment, which Iran has done by going beyond what had been agreed under the JCPOA.
In ‘The Room Where It Happened’, the White House memoirs of John Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Bolton writes in great detail how difficult it was even for a Republican President firmly opposed to the Iran nuclear deal to actually get out of it. US President Joe Biden and his chief adviser Blinken cannot, under such circumstances, simply restore the status quo ante prior to Trump’s decision to walk out of the JCPOA.
Adding to the challenges of finding a way out the maze created by Trump is Iran’s presidential election to be held in June.
Hardliners, who already dominate the Majlis (parliament) had hoped that a Trump re-election in November would propel one of their candidates to the presidency. A resurrection of the JCPOA and the happy prospect of relief from sanctions have strengthened moderates: even so, no reformist candidate can be seen as being soft on the US.
Opposition to the ‘Great Satan’ is a huge vote-bank in Iran, which candidates of every hue would want to woo during any election. Opposition to the IAEA and their inspections has extensive support among the hardliners in the Majlis, who have drafted legislation to hamstring IAEA activities inside Iran.
If the Iran nuclear deal is resurrected on the lines of the recent US-European joint statement, the credit will go to signatories of this statement or to the EU for hosting the initiative involving all parties to the JCPOA. In fact, the credit for this should go to Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who first mooted the proposal in an interview to CNN about a fortnight after Biden’s inauguration as US President.
Among other signals, it is clear confirmation that Tehran is in in the driving seat where US policy on Iran is concerned. But Zarif will not get any laurels for his diplomatic acumen because, former US President George W Bush’s clever description of the Islamic Republic as an “Axis of Evil” has somehow stuck to it.