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Iran Delinks Regional and Nuclear Diplomacy

Dr Deepika Saraswat is an Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 29, 2022

    When European Union-mediated negotiations between Iran and the United States in Doha ended on 29 June 2022 without breaking the nearly four months’ long stalemate in nuclear talks, Iran and its Western interlocutors articulated very divergent views on the prospects of reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In a telephone call with his Qatari counterpart Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Abdollahian noted his positive assessment of talks and underlined that Iran was determined to continue the negotiations till a good, strong and lasting agreement is reached. He added that if the US is realistic, an agreement will be “achievable”.1

    Refuting claims by US Special representative for Iran, Robert Malley, that Iran has been making ‘new demands’, Abdollahian stated that one of the main issues was “effective guarantees” from the American side on “economic benefits” from the deal.2  When European Union foreign policy Chief Josep Borrell, in his capacity as the chairman of JCPOA joint-commission, proposed a new text that will ensure sustainability of the deal, Abdollahian once again stated that Iran welcomes continuation of diplomacy.3

    Prolonging the Nuclear Talks

    The Raisi administration delayed resumption of nuclear talks for four months after assuming office in August last year. By sticking to its key demands on guarantees and comprehensive sanctions relief, Iran aims to underline that Trump-era ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, which has continued under the Biden administration, will not lead Tehran to compromise. Since the new Iranian team led by Ali Bagheri Kani, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, entered nuclear negotiations in November last year, its negotiating approach has been marked by brinkmanship. Officials in the conservative Raisi administration contrast this approach with the ‘passive diplomacy’ attributed to moderates and reformists, who pursued policy of dialogue and compromise while engaging with the West on Iran’s nuclear file.

    After the IAEA Board of Governors passed the US and EU-3 drafted censure resolution against Iran in June 2022 for ‘insufficient cooperation’ with the agency, Iran responded by disconnecting JCPOA-related monitoring cameras.4 In a further escalatory move in July, Iran began enriching uranium to 20 per cent using advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its second nuclear facility in Fordow, which had been converted into a ‘nuclear, physics and technology center’ under the JCPOA.

    When President Joe Biden, while visiting Israel, reaffirmed that his administration is open to the ‘military option’ should the diplomatic efforts to bring Iran back into compliance fail, Kamal Kharrazi, a senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, noted that “Iran is technically capable of building a nuclear bomb but has not decided whether to build one”.5 He went on to argue that Biden administration’s refusal on guarantees on preserving the nuclear deal ruins the possibility of any agreement.

    In the face of the US intransigence on key Iranian demands that also include removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from US State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO), Iran has maintained a positive outlook towards continuing diplomacy. While rejecting deadlines for concluding the negotiations, it has steadily advanced its nuclear programme and limited its cooperation with the IAEA, thus playing on fears of its Western interlocutors about Iran reaching the nuclear threshold, and perhaps a breakout. Tehran seems to have calculated that given the US involvement in the Russia–Ukraine war and its strategic interests in containing China in the Indo-pacific, Washington will not seek a serious escalation with Iran by leaving the diplomatic path.

    Regional Diplomacy delinked from Nuclear Diplomacy

    Iran’s dialogue with Saudi Arabia, which was initiated in parallel with the nuclear talks under the Rouhani administration, has seen progress under Raisi, suggesting dynamics at play independent of the state of the nuclear talks. Iraq has mediated five rounds of Iran–Saudi dialogue at the level of security elites and focussing on ceasefire in Yemen, among other issues. In July, Iran confirmed that the dialogue will now move to the political level between foreign ministers of the two countries.6

    As Iran works with Riyadh towards de-escalation and potential restoration of diplomatic ties, the Raisi government sees Iran’s network of non-state actors and state allies as having a crucial role in strengthening the country’s hand in regional diplomacy. Tehran knows that it is indispensable to the resolution of multiple crises in the region.7

    Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, while hosting the Emir of Qatatr, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in May 2022, underlined his support for what he described as ‘active diplomacy’ for resolution of regional issues by regional countries. Khamenei noted

    The issues of Syria and Yemen too can be resolved through dialogue. Of course, dialogue should not take place from a position of weakness while the other side—primarily the U.S. and others—rely on their military and financial power.

    The Raisi administration has focussed on its neighbourhood policy to render ineffective US economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Iran. Tehran also wants to mitigate the development of a strategic coalition against it by its Gulf neighbours and Israel.8 President Biden’s July 2022 visits to Israel and then Saudi Arabia, where he attended a US–Arab summit, was aimed at stressing US leadership in the region, while also forging collective security efforts between Israel and US Arab allies.

    Iran’s Gulf neighbours, meanwhile, are using their ties with Israel to draw Iran into a serious dialogue on regional security issues. Saudi Arabia recently denied being party to any discussions on creating an integrated Middle East air defence network that included Israel. Abu Dhabi also revealed that it was in the process of sending an ambassador to Tehran and sought diplomatic solution to address its concerns about Iran’s regional activities.9

    Also, the targeting of Gulf shipping in the summer of 2019 and the incidents of drone attacks on energy facilities and critical infrastructure of the UAE and Saudi Arabia earlier this year have exposed the limitations of US security guarantees to these countries, leading them to seek dialogue with Iran.

    Further, by hosting the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin for the 7th trilateral summit in the Astana format on Syria soon after Biden’s Middle East tour in July 2022, Tehran demonstrated the centrality of Russia and Iran in the Syrian theatre and the wider region. The three leaders sought to avoid new conflict in Syria by addressing Turkey’s security concerns from Kurdish groups, particularly the People’s Defense Units (YPG), which has links with Turkey’s separatist Kurdish group, Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). By reaffirming their ongoing cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups and a joint stand against "separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and threatening the national security of neighboring countries”, they agreed to find a political solution to the crisis.10

    The Iranian and Russian Presidents also called for withdrawal of the ‘unjustifiable’ presence of US forces from east of the Euphrates river in northeast Syria. Both Russia and Iran support expanding sovereignty of Syrian government to north-eastern Syria where US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) operate and deny them access to oil and gas fields in the region. Since Israeli strikes at Damascus airport in June 2022, Russia has also become increasingly critical of Israel’s air-campaign targeting Iranian assets in Syria.11


    Iran’s influence in key conflict theatres in Yemen and Syria, its proven capabilities for raising collective insecurity for the region and deepening security ties with Russia, have given it the upper hand in diplomacy with its regional rivals.  Over more than a year of nuclear negotiations have shown that instead of banking on a successful outcome in Vienna, Iran, especially under Raisi, is focussing its diplomatic energies on advancing its ‘neighbourhood policy’ and long-term cooperation with China and Russia. These policies are not only in line with the Supreme Leader Khamenei’s vision of ‘resistance economy’ aimed at minimising the economic impact of US sanctions, but also aim to situate Iran favourably in the emerging alternative Eurasian order.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.