As negotiations between Iran and the US enters its fourth round this week, it has become clear that there are multiple and serious discrepancies that will need time to be resolved. The Iranians want to keep the advanced nuclear-fuel production they started when the Trump administration walked out of the original deal. They also want all sanctions to be lifted – including those related to human rights violations and terrorism.
For the Biden administration, restoring the 2015 Obama deal is not a good resolution. The administration wants to use the leverage of the negotiations to limit Iran’s missiles and its support for terrorism in the region. The US team also wants to make sure Iran does not continue to produce fuel for a bomb anytime soon.
And here lies the dilemma. Iran and the US want different things, and none is ready to compromise at this point, especially that the promise of a different, stronger deal by the US has not been made too long time ago. It is also difficult for the US team to make compromises on the missile and regional terrorism issues – even if they want to – because regional allies, mainly Israel, is ready to deal with this challenge alone, with or without a deal. The US will have to consider this factor. As Israel upends the pressure on the Vienna talks, Iran is also keeping the pressure by adding its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, in violation of the deal.
Accordingly, there are more than one outcome of these talks, and either way, the implications on the region are going to be huge.
What Does Iran Want?
Iran simply wants financial stability to further control the region and impose itself as the most powerful actor in the Middle East. And even if not all sanctions were lifted, it is enough for those on oil, gas, banks and some other industries to be lifted, in order for Iran to regain access to a considerable amount of hard currency, which will enable the regime to maintain a much-needed financial stability, and to refund its terrorist militias in the region.
The US will also be able to say that they revived the deal – as promised – and that Iran’s nuclear threat is contained, and can then focus on other priorities, such as China and Russia, with needed international support.
Meanwhile, the US regional partners are worried, because if Iran gets what it really wants – that is regional hegemony, they will become the only losers in this deal. Iran will not adjust its malign behavior in the region, will continue to fund, arm, train and use its militias against its opponents, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps will be empowered – financially and politically – to do all that. That’s exactly what happened after the deal signed with the Obama administration in 2015 and there are no reasons for Iran to change its behavior this time around.
In his leaked interview earlier this month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif was clear: That the former leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, was the ultimate leader of Iran – meaning that he was the decision maker and the main beneficiary of any economic relief. That means, any economic relief that would result from the Biden administration deal, will also benefit the IRGC and their regional operations. Unless the US takes a different approach.
Despite the assassination of Soleimani, his project of forcing the region under the Persian Empire through military and sectarian means has not died with him. This is the main problem that the international community needs to realize: the deal with Iran today will not contain Iran; on the contrary, it will unleash Soleimani’s project in the region, where it will wreak havoc and disregards the much-needed democratic and reform initiatives, as is the case in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
US Options and Signs of a Different Strategy
If that is a concern for the Biden administration, then a policy – through or outside the deal – should be designed to deal with these threats, which will not only jeopardize regional security, but the US interests in the region as well. One example would be the return of extremist movements such as ISIS to the region, with direct threats to US security and interest.
In that case - and if the Iranians and Europeans insist of keeping the issues of missiles and regional activities off the table of negotiations - the Biden administration could deal with these issues separately. One way is to raise the cost for Iran’s terrorism in the region, through a strategy that focuses on the region, integrates coordination with regional allies, and incorporates a mix of diplomacy, sanctions, and military means.
But if that’s not a concern, as a US withdrawal from the region looks more possible, then regional states will have to fend off Iran’s terrorism themselves – with probably more coordination between Israel and other Arab states.
So are there any signs of the likely scenario?
So far, there have been some signs of a US regional policy, although still indecisive and unclear if they are part of a strategy or mere messages.
First was Biden’s message on Syria. In February, Biden ordered an airstrike in Syria against Iran’s infrastructure, in retaliation on Iran’s Erbil strike. Then more recently, State Department made clear that the Biden administration will never have diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, due to the latter’s crimes against humanity.
But more directly and recently, the US treasury announced on Tuesday sanctions on seven Lebanese nationals allegedly linked to Hezbollah. “The threat that Hezbollah poses to the United States, our allies, and interests in the Middle East and globally, calls for countries around the world to take steps to restrict its activities and disrupt its facilitation networks,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
Blinken added that the seven individuals have been sanctioned for “acting for or on behalf of Hezbollah or Al-Qard al-Hassan (AQAH), which provides cover for Hezbollah’s financial activity.” One of the seven individuals designated, Ibrahim Ali Daher, serves as “the director of Hezbollah’s Central Finance Unit, which oversees the group’s overall budget and spending,” Blinken added. “The remaining individuals designated used the cover of personal accounts to evade sanctions targeting AQAH and transferred approximately $500 million on behalf of AQAH,” he said.
Noting that these designations reinforce recent U.S. action against “Hezbollah financiers who have provided support or services to Hezbollah,” Blinken vowed that the United States will “continue to take action to disrupt Hezbollah’s operations.”
This action and statement were welcome by many who thought that this administration would follow the same Obama strategy of not disrupting the nuclear talks by hindering punitive measures against Iran and its proxies. Time will tell, and although these signs are promising, they do not constitute a strategy or a policy. Whatever happens in Vienna, the region should not pay the price.
Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant.