US-led sanctions against Iran to restrict its nuclear activities, and its missile program as well as its malign regional behavior have complicated diplomacy between Washington and Tehran in recent weeks. This has left Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrestling with words in order to resume talks with Washington, and to keep the hardliners in Iran opposed to such talks at arm’s length.
Back in May, Iran announced a 60-day moratorium to lower its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, a year after the United States pulled out of the agreement. Tehran has since partially withdrawn its commitment to the nuclear deal by resuming uranium enrichment in excess of the 3.67 percent limit set by the deal. It has also vowed to end all its commitments to the deal unless it can resume international trade, despite the US-led sanctions.
Tehran insists that the measures it has undertaken are reversible if the sanctions are lifted. But the jockeying required to justify Iran’s non-compliance with promises to return to the agreement has cost Zarif his diplomatic standing in Washington.
The task of breaking the impasse in US-Iran relations is not easy. On July 16, Zarif said Iran’s missile program could be up for negotiations with the United States, contradicting his country’s earlier position ruling out negotiations over Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Zarif reportedly conditioned any negotiations over Iran’s missile program to the US halting its arms sales to its allies in the Gulf region. These words by Zarif prompted Iran’s press office in New York to insist the following day that the country’s missile program was non-negotiable.
On July 19, Zarif gave an interview to US National Public Radio, sounding conciliatory and harsh at the same time by insisting that while Iran welcomed talks, it would also play hardball if its security was at risk.
Iran’s reformers have celebrated Zarif’s recent diplomacy if it gets the message across that both the United States and Iran need to talk. In Iran, it is assumed that President Donald Trump wants to start talks to boost his presidential re-election campaign in 2020.
But Iran’s hardliners question Zarif’s diplomacy. Zarif himself admits that the mindset of engaging with the United States is beginning to lose currency inside Iran, without offering a clear reason as to why this mindset is changing.
A proposal floated by Zarif in a recent interview did not alleviate international concerns over Iran’s long-term nuclear enrichment plans. According to Zarif, the provisions of the nuclear deal require Iran to ratify the additional protocol for safeguards by 2023, a move that would place the country’s nuclear facilities permanently under UN inspections. Zarif has proposed to take the additional protocol to Parliament for it to be ratified in exchange for the US-led sanctions to be lifted.
The United States has rejected this proposal by Zarif. It has also said that Zarif’s ability to play with words does not sit well with Washington. The United States has instead said that it will engage in talks only if authorized by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Washington has also sanctioned Zarif, which could further impede his ability to engage in diplomacy.
Iran’s hardliners meanwhile charge Zarif of cognitive bias in defending the deal. They believe Iran should adhere to the resistance doctrine of its supreme leader which calls for standing up to US pressures. The nuclear deal, according to these hardliners, is only a wayward agenda designed by President Hassan Rouhani to strengthen his hold on power.
Rouhani has dismissed these criticisms. On July 18, he said if the United States lifted sanctions Iran would return to the deal. Iran also held talks in Vienna with the remaining parties to the deal, and called them useful. Rouhani is optimistic about the deal, saying that it could be salvaged in the next few weeks. To appease hardliners, Iran’s president has also vowed that adhering to the nuclear agreement will allow Iran to buy weapons from international markets.
It remains to be seen if any of President Rouhani’s optimistic forecasts will transpire into reality. Re-negotiating the nuclear deal does not seem like a priority for Iran’s main decision-makers, i.e. the hardliners. The state-backed Mehr News Agency has reported that any US suggestion of lifting its sanctions in return for Iran compromising on the “sunset clause” in the agreement that would allow Tehran to resume full-scale nuclear activities after 10 to 15 years was a ploy and a media rumor.
Zarif’s hands are tied when he returns to the United States to take part in the annual UN General Assembly meetings in New York. The sanctions could restrict his movements, even after he was reportedly invited, before being sanctioned, to the White House, and met with the US Representative on Iran Senator Rand Paul to discuss a breakthrough in talks. This might seal the end of his diplomatic career for now, especially as calls also mount in Iran for Rouhani’s resignation, unless the duo can save the nuclear deal.