On February 29, the United States concluded a peace deal with the Taliban. The deal provides legitimacy to a movement known for its hostility towards the United States and suggests that Washington could be open to negotiating peace deals with other adversaries including Iran.
It is no secret that US President Donald J. Trump wants to negotiate a deal with Iran. In mid-2019, the US president said he could talk with Iran, and ease sanctions against the country. But he has sent out mixed signals. On the one hand, the Trump administration has reached out to exiled Iranian opposition groups while on the other hand, Trump has said that the objective of Washington’s maximum pressure strategy is not regime change in Iran.
President Trump has said that he is willing to negotiate with Iran without preconditions. But earlier, he had presented a long list of pre-negotiation conditions. When an exchange of prisoners between the United States and Iran was made, Trump expressed hope that Iran would be a fair negotiator. His statement came two weeks after deadly protests in Iran which led to the deaths of 1,260 people by the Iranian government’s security apparatuses.
Iran is unclear about how seriously it should take US offers to negotiate, and it fears that the United States seeks war. Tensions between Washington and Tehran have increased since the US killing of Iranian Commander Qassim Soleimani in Iraq on January 3, 2020. Since then, Iran’s “hardliners” such as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have dismissed negotiations with the United States.
This is despite efforts by President Hassan Rouhani to leave the door open with Washington for future negotiations by insisting that the Trump administration does not seek war with Iran. President Trump says he wanted peace with an Iran that seems to be “standing down” rather than escalating conflicts.
If Iran and the United States negotiate, it goes without saying that they must agree on a set of principles. The United States should decide if its maximum pressure strategy against Tehran will convince Iran’s leaders to end their expansionist regional agenda in the Middle East. To date, Iran has been putting up maximum resistance to the policy by insisting on its regional influence, despite assertions by State Department official Brian Hook that pressures work. But according to President Rouhani, Iran cannot negotiate with the United States under maximum pressure.
Without agreement on the aforementioned, it is hard to explain what a peace deal with Iran would look like. The United States and Iran seem stuck over the issue. Iran insists on the withdrawal of US forces in the region, according to Iranian Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi. Across the board, both democrats in Washington and the Republican President Trump say they want to either pull out US troops or avoid fighting battles, but also demand to see Iran roll back its regional influence. This presents a conundrum to both parties to decide how this goal is to be achieved without sufficient US presence in the region.
For now, what is amply clear is that a military conflict between Iran and the United States is unlikely to happen given President Trump’s preference not to engage in a war. But the United States might make the mistake of disregarding Iran’s interference in the region to broker a deal.
The US-Taliban deal will give the movement a bigger role in Afghanistan, provided that it fights terrorists that target US interests. In exchange, the United States will ask the United Nations (UN) to lift sanctions imposed on Taliban leaders. The United States could offer Iran’s sanctioned leaders the same relief, in exchange for their agreement not to attack US targets in the Middle East.
Iran is trying to asses if making a deal with the United States is worthwhile by looking at the US-Taliban peace deal for clues. So far, Iran-based analysts have dismissed the US-Taliban deal as a tactical instead of a strategic move that on the surface promises to serve President Trump’s election promise of pulling US forces out of the region. But Iran’s Foreign Ministry insists the deal helps the United States to “legitimize its troops’ presence in Afghanistan.” The United States will reduce its forces from 13,000 to 8,600 soldiers only.
Iran happens to think that there is no guarantee that the peace will even last, and its officials have been quick to dismiss it. Iran’s Foreign Ministry says the United States had “no legal standing to sign a peace agreement or to determine the future of Afghanistan.”
Tensions between the United States and the Taliban, rampant before the deal, have actually persisted even after the deal, one reason why Iran wants US forces out of Afghanistan according to Iran’s envoy to the UN Majid Takht Ravanchi. On March 4, US forces led a defensive strike against Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban could also decide at any time to work against US interests despite a peace deal. Making peace with the Taliban does not mean that the movement has America’s best interests at heart or that it will protect American interests on a permanent basis. The peace deal accepts Taliban control over Afghan territories that are contested simultaneously by the US-backed government in Kabul. Future territorial disagreements between Washington and multiple Afghan stakeholders, including the Taliban and the government in Kabul, could lead to the peace deal collapsing.
From Tehran’s standpoint, the peace deal has also led to disagreements and divisions between President Ashraf Ghani who is largely against it and his rival Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah who approves it. Importantly, divisions within Kabul could further destabilize Afghanistan.
Moving forward, Iran will continue to question the merits of holding peace talks of its own with the United States. Iran also wants US forces out of Afghanistan, especially after Soleimani’s killing. Its ambassador to Kabul, Bahador Aminian recently threatened that Tehran would decide if it needs to attack US bases in Afghanistan, although it will not carry attacks against the Afghan government.
Since then, Kabul and Tehran have been entangled in diplomatic rows over the issue, with reports emerging that both countries have
even expelled diplomats from their respective capitals. Iran also refused to
take part in the swearing-in ceremony of President Ghani on March 9. Iran is
eager to assert its own influence over Kabul and the Taliban post-deal, however, the
United States is fully aware of Iran’s intentions and is likely to resist
Tehran’s moves to sabotage the peace deal.