As January draws to a close, the Iranian leadership has become increasingly preoccupied with internal power struggles and the stresses of coping with a tightening campaign of Western pressure. Iran’s effort to dislodge the U.S. from Iraq appears to have stalled and Washington, if anything, appears to be further entrenching its military presence on Iran’s doorstep.
ZARIF UNDER PRESSURE AT HOME AND ABROAD
On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemed to reject bilateral talks with the United States, declaring that Iran would only accept renewing negotiations within the multilateral 5+1 framework of the 2015 nuclear agreement signatories. On January 26, Zarif tweeted that President Trump “is still dreaming about a bilateral meeting—to satisfy HIS lust for a ‘Trump deal,’” and labeled Trump’s approach “wishful thinking.” Tehran’s chief diplomat also demanded that Trump “compensat[e] Iran for damages.”
If this caustic approach was meant to assuage hardline sentiment in the streets, it did not have the desired effect. Indeed, the next day hundreds of Iranians protested in front of Tehran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs over remarks he made about the possibility of talks with the United States in an interview last week with Der Spiegel. There, Zarif had said he would “never rule out the possibility” of negotiating with the United States and added that “for us, it doesn’t matter who is sitting in the White House. What matters is how they behave. The Trump administration can correct its past, lift the sanctions and come back to the negotiating table... We have a lot of patience.”
The demonstrators, apparently organized by Iranian hardliners, labeled Zarif an “opportunist” and demanded his resignation. One cleric who spoke at the rally called Zarif's remarks "humiliating" and declared they "undermined Iran's power.” Several protesters also expressed dismay that President Trump’s dismissal of Zarif’s demands — expressed in both English and Farsi — added to Iran’s humiliation.
IRAN FAILS TO DISLODGE U.S. MIDDLE EASTERN DEPLOYMENTS
After an initial period of confusion following the killing of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and a non-binding vote by the Iraqi parliament calling for the end of the U.S. troop presence, it appears that momentum for an American exit has broken. Last week, President Trump and Iraqi President Barham Salih met on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos. According to a White House statement, "The two leaders agreed on the importance of continuing the United States-Iraq economic and security partnership, including the fight against ISIS.” And indeed, according to Israeli reporting, the U.S. is building at least three “semi-permanent” new bases very close to the Iranian border in northern Iraq.
It was perhaps, then, in frustration that Tehran instructed its proxies in Iraq to stage another attack on America’s embassy in Baghdad. This incursion was considerably weaker than the attempted breach of the embassy’s perimeter by Kata’ib Hizballah militiamen on December 31, however. Five rockets were fired by pro-Iranian militias at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, wounding three people. The incident came amid anti-government protests primarily centered on popular dissatisfaction with government corruption and a lack of economic opportunity. As if to underscore the limits of Iran’s reach, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi swiftly condemned the attack in a statement re-affirming Iraq's commitment to “protecting all diplomatic missions.”